Project Canterbury

George Rundle Prynne
An Early Chapter in the History of the Catholic Revival
by A. Clifton Kelway

London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1905. 248 pp.


Development of parochial work--The Society of the Holy Trinity-- The revival of the religious life--Bishop Philpotts and the Sisterhood--Extension of the Society's work--Prynne and Miss Sellon--Estrangement from Dr. Pusey--Dr. Neale and the East Grinstead Sisters--Mother Kate's reminiscences of St. Peter's--The Wantage Community--Prynne on the growth of Sisterhoods (1887)--Rescue work at Plymouth.

DURING this stirring time, the incidents of which have necessarily been treated at considerable length, the work of building up a parochial organization in the new parish of St. Peter's went on and prospered. Prynne's capacity for attracting adherents and gathering a congregation early manifested itself, and the advertisement which his misguided opponents so liberally provided him, brought the financial assistance which is so vitally necessary for mission work amongst the very poor. The endowment of the living since the consecration of the church had been raised to £150, in addition to which the Vicar obtained a grant from one of the societies towards the stipend of an assistant priest, and £50 which the Bishop gave him out of his private means for a similar purpose, and continued to grant annually till his death. This, and other private assistance, enabled him to keep always two, and usually three, curates--not at all too large a staff considering the character of the district and the rapid increase in its population.

With the addition of the sanctuary and the general improvements in the arrangement of the church, he now possessed a sufficiently suitable building for Divine worship till means and opportunity should be found for the erection of a larger and more dignified edifice. Of ceremonial such as now adorns the services of St. Peter's and so many other churches in Plymouth and elsewhere, there was little or none at that time. The choristers' surplices--regarded as a dreadful development--were, as Mr. Prynne used to relate, merely pinafores made of rough towelling, while the Eucharistic Vestments were not used at St. Peter's until they had first been adopted at St. Stephen's, Devonport, another of the newer churches of the Three Towns. But the teaching was thoroughly Catholic and sound, as may be gathered from the bitter controversy that had raged round so vital a doctrine as the Sacrament of Penance.

In the work of the mission Miss Sellon and her Sisters gave valuable help, and considerably lightened the labours of the small staff of clergy. Something has already been said concerning the Devonport Society--or the Society of the Holy Trinity--which very early in its history became so intimately associated with Prynne and his work in St. Peter's parish. Miss Sellon's original intention, as has been stated, was to engage specially in educational work among the poor of the Three Towns; but this purpose was soon extended, and after its transference to St. Peter's parish the young community was engaged about many good works, including the care of the sick, an orphanage for girls, homes for sailor boys and aged sailors, industrial and ragged schools, model lodging-houses, homes for destitute children, etc. The organization of the Society on the basis of a religious community was undoubtedly carried out under the direction of Dr. Pusey, but in all matters concerning the Sisterhood and its work Miss Sellon exercised the privileges and prerogatives belonging to the office of Superior to the very fullest extent. The enthusiasm which led her to take up the work, suddenly, in 1848 (she had previously visited the community at Park Village and gained some knowledge of Sisterhood life), never seems to have flagged; her mind and will dominated everything, even down to the smallest detail. As the work extended and its organization grew larger, this state of things threw an immense burden upon Miss Sellon, whose mental activity was ever greatly in excess of her physical strength. To this the limitations of her work may in part be attributed. Naturally, too, the revival of Sisterhood life was attended by circumstances of special difficulty. As Pusey's biographers have told us, probably not even the great leader himself quite realized the gravity and intricacy of those circumstances--often involving delicate family relations--which he would be called upon to settle, nor the force of prejudice that the religious life would naturally excite, nor the difficulty of restraining and guiding the emotional and sensitive characters with whom he would be brought in contact. And what is here said of Pusey applies with equal force, though in more limited degree, to Prynne, whose relations with the community and its Superior were necessarily of the closest character from the moment that the society was transferred to his parish. It could hardly be otherwise, St. Peter's and the Sisterhood--and those who stood at the head of both--being the common aim of the bitter persecution which took place. In moments of more than usual distress, Miss Sellon proved herself a real friend to the young priest, his wife, and child, for whom she provided a roof and the necessary furniture when the young married couple had been deprived of absolutely everything they possessed, as the result of the early effort on Prynne's part to clear his character from vile insinuations levelled against him, already described. The publication of Mr. Spurrell's pamphlet, and others already alluded to, caused Bishop Philpotts to inquire closely into the working of the community, and ultimately to withdraw his official association from it as visitor, which had been, as he remarked, "little more than a mere title." The Bishop in taking this step gave his reasons "to the world" in the form of a "Letter to Miss Sellon" (John Murray, London), dated March 20, 1852. The admirable tone of his lordship's words is further emphasized in a subsequent letter, written nine days later:--

"Bishopstowe, March 29, 1852.

"Not only your own letter of Saturday last, but intelligence which has reached me from another quarter, makes me apprehend that the intention with which I wrote my published letter to you has been greatly misunderstood.

"In announcing to you my withdrawing from the office of visitor of your community, I stated my reasons to be--first, that the course of your operations had carried you beyond the limits within which I deemed it prudent to confine my own official connection with you; and secondly, that I could hardly continue that connection without incurring the responsibility of seeming to sanction practices which, without having a right to condemn, I nevertheless might not approve. At any rate, the inquiries and explanations, which were likely to become necessary, must interfere with the discharge of my own special duties of this extensive diocese.

"But although I cease to be your visitor, I should be more grieved than I need express, if on this account you should cease to carry on your blessed work at Plymouth. No; let me again thank you, as your Bishop, for having proved by that work that the Church of England is not so cramped and stinted in its Christian action as not to admit Sisters of Mercy within its border.

"Let me, moreover, say, that if, in the exercise of that liberty which our Church allows alike to you and to those who may differ most widely from you, some things may have been done to which I decline to give my sanction, yet I am fully confident in your entire faithfulness to that Church. Would that all they who are among the loudest in condemning you were as really animated by its spirit as you have proved yourself to be--as earnestly practised its precepts--aye, and as truly understood its doctrines.

"Go on, then, I beseech you, in your labour of love amongst us; and may He who hath given to you and to those who labour with you the desire and will thus to devote your time, your substance, your faculties of body and mind, your whole selves, to His service, accept and bless the offering! May He continue to cheer you with the sight of His work prospering in your hands, and, in His own good time, crown you with everlasting Glory in that kingdom where all is peace, and joy, and love.

"Farewell, and believe me,
"Always affectionately yours,

The work of the community not only went on in the Three Towns, but was extended to other places, including Bristol, where the Sisters inhabited a house near the cathedral; and Falmouth, where one or two of the Sisters worked under Mr. Coope, then the Rector of that seaport. Miss Sellon, when at Bristol, often lived in a tiny cottage, 14, Lower College Green, in that city. Ascot Priory, Berks, Dr. Pusey's favourite retreat in later years and the scene of his death, was another extension of the society's work, the hospital for convalescent and incurable women and children being established there by Miss Sellon in 1861. Miss Sellon travelled from one to the other of these houses, and in the later sixties got as far as Honolulu, in the Hawaiian Islands, where she established St. Andrew's Priory, a school for natives, half-castes, and foreigners. The visit of the Mother Superior to this distant spot, and the service with which the Priory grounds were set apart, are commemorated by a large coral cross, which stands beneath cocoa-nut trees, Royal palms, and other beautiful foliage, not far from St. Andrew's Cathedral. Here Miss Sellon placed several of her community, Mother Bertha, who had gone with Florence Nightingale in 1854 to nurse the wounded soldiers in the Crimea, being given charge of this missionary development. Mother Bertha eventually became the second Superior of the Society. Of the other devoted women who went out to the Hawaiian Islands so long ago, two, Sisters Beatrice and Albertina, still survive, and have remained there ever since, doing splendid work until compelled by old age to seek the ease and rest they have so justly earned. There, in the midst of that paradise of the Pacific, the writer visited them in August, 1904, and found them full of happy memories of the past, calmly enjoying their present repose, and peacefully awaiting the call that shall once more reunite them to their friends and co-workers who have already passed within the veil.

At Plymouth in the early years Prynne, as we have said, was Miss Sellon's helper and adviser, so far as this was possible under the circumstances. His friendship with Pusey simplified his position in regard to such matters as spiritual direction of the Sisters. Miss Sellon, whether at home or travelling, was ever keenly anxious about the work at Plymouth, and especially about her "dear little sailors," as she called the boys of her home in Wyndham Square. Prynne himself was much with the boys, accompanying them on voyages round the coast, and enjoying their young companionship with that pleasure he ever evinced in the society of little ones. On one of these voyages the captain and mate of the vessel were taken seriously ill, and Prynne, who was a thoroughly good sailor, took command, and brought the ship safely into port. Miss Sellon was godmother to Prynne's eldest son, and Miss Catherine Sellon, sister of the Mother Superior, stood as godmother to Prynne's little daughter Lucy. As Miss Sellon's periods of ill-health increased she was much at Asherne, where the long attacks of prostration and severe pain from which she suffered caused extreme anxiety to Dr. Pusey and her other friends. At this time she had for several years the care and companionship of Prynne's little daughter Lucy, in whom both the Mother Superior and the famous divine took the warmest interest. When eventually, in response to the parental desire, the little one returned to her home, a certain estrangement occurred between Prynne and the Mother Superior, and the old relations were never re-established. The circumstances also affected the friendly association of Prynne and Pusey, the latter, then as ever, regarding with the utmost seriousness anything which seemed likely to trouble or distress one to whom, in his belief, God had given so great a work for good to do.

The revival of the religious life in a communion which had been a stranger to it for several centuries was of necessity attended with considerable difficulty, both from within and without. Pusey, Neale, Butler, and the other leaders more particularly associated with this revival had their share of these difficulties, and were often called upon to deal with grave and intricate questions, involving sometimes delicate family relations. Prynne, with his well-balanced temperament, brought much practical common sense to bear upon matters of this sort, and, though his line of action regarding them might not always commend itself to the emotional and sensitive persons with whom he sometimes had to deal, there is no doubt that his judgment was highly esteemed by those leaders who knew him best. More than once, for example, we find Dr. Neale consulting him and seeking his assistance in circumstances of peculiar difficulty concerning the East Grinstead community. Six months before his death, in 1866, writing to Prynne regarding one branch of the work at East Grinstead, Dr. Neale goes on to say:--

"Next time you celebrate, would you remember us in our great sorrow about Soho? We have, however, a most interesting district in Shoreditch and Haggerstone. Concerning this the Mother made one of the happiest quotations I ever heard. Referring to the doubling of our population (St. Mary's, Soho, being 7,000, and Haggerstone 14,000) she said, 'So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning, for he had fourteen thousand sheep.'"

The sorrow alluded to by Dr. Neale was, of course, the cessation of the St. Margaret's Sisters' work at St. Mary's, Soho, where from 1858 to 1865 the earliest slum work of the community had been carried on under priests like Dr. Littledale and the Rev. J. C. Chambers.

At St. Peter's, Plymouth, the Sisters of St. Thomas', Oxford, had succeeded those of the Devonport Society, but in October, 1867, Prynne applied for two of the East Grinstead Sisters to carry on the work in his parish. His request was granted, and Mother Kate, of St. Saviour's Priory--one of the two Sisters sent,-- thus describes their arrival in St. Peter's:--

"We received a most kind and hearty welcome from Mr. Prynne and those devoted workers, the Misses Middleton, and we found in Plymouth a most congenial field of labour--parish work during the day, and night schools, for both boys and girls, in the evening, besides the Sunday schools. St. Peter's--it was old St. Peter's, remember, before the present handsome church was built--charmed us immensely; it was such a home-like church, and the home provided for us in Wyndham Place was opposite the east end. As for the people, our hearts opened to them at once, and to this day the sound of a Devonshire voice always kindles in me a friendly interest in the speaker for the sake of old Plymouth times. As to the boys, they seemed appalling at -first, after the Londoners, they looked so strong and big, andtheir outer shell was so rough and uncouth. . . . However they soon became most friendly, and I valued the affection of the warm-hearted Devonshire lads more than I can say."

The St. Margaret's Sisters continued to work very happily at St. Peter's until August, 1868, when the Plymouth Mission had to be given up in consequence of the reduction of the little community by the secession of so many of its members, including the Mother Superior of St. Mary's Priory. In those days of bewilderment and distress, Prynne at Plymouth, like Mackonochie, J. D. Sedding, Robert Brett and other brave souls in London, did much to comfort and hearten the Sisters who remained faithful at a time jof almost overwhelming anxiety. Shortly after the enforced withdrawal of the St. Margaret's Sisters, the community of St. Mary the Virgin, Wantage, responding to Prynne's invitation, planted its first mission in St. Peter's, Plymouth. This community, the formation of which was almost coincident with that of the Devonport Society, has been represented at St. Peter's ever since that time, the good work done; by the succession of Sisters who have passed through the Plymouth house during the intervening years having proved of the utmost value in the parish and district.

In an address to the Exeter Diocesan Conference in 1887, Prynne made interesting reference to the growth of Sisterhood life which he had been permitted to witness during his ministry:--

"I remember well, though it is now more than forty years ago, that the idea of having such bands of devoted women among ourselves, as I had heard and read of in other ages and in other climes, did seem to me like a dream; and little i did I then hope to see that glorious revival of religious fervour, which has kindled so many hearts to give up all for Jesus' sake, and in doing so, to realize deeper, purer, and more I enduring joys than this world has to bestow. Yet to-day, as we cast our eyes around upon the work of the Church in our own and in foreign lands, we are met by the blessed and encouraging sight of communities of devoted women of such a character as I have spoken of, engaged in helping on the great Mission Work of the Church--in instructing the ignorant, visiting and relieving the poor, comforting the sorrowful, nursing the sick, raising the fallen, and thus bringing home to all who come within the range of their influence the great truth, that the Church, like her Divine Head, sympathizes with all human woe, and longs with exceeding desire for the salvation, not only of all her members, but for the salvation of all those for whom Christ died."

Remembering the obloquy and suspicion with which his own efforts towards this revival of the religious life had been greeted in the 'fifties, it was indeed significant that forty years later the Exeter Diocesan Conference should adopt unanimously Prynne's resolution, urging the necessity that existed for the formation of Anglican Sisterhoods if the Church's work was to be faithfully performed. Truly these noble women have, as he maintained, "justified, and more than justified, their existence, by the noble work which they have done for God and His Church." For many years an Associate of the Wantage Community, Mr. Prynne was to the end of his life deeply interested in other communities at work in the neighbourhood of Plymouth, notably in the Sisters of the Holy Nativity, Knowle, at whose House of Rest in Plympton he was ever a welcome visitor.

The subject of rescue work, which during the whole of his long ministry at Plymouth occupied a large place in his attentions, may fittingly be mentioned here. His first efforts in this direction date as far back as November, 1857, when some very distressing cases of the abduction of young girls from their parents' houses, and their concealment in a house of ill fame, deeply impressed him with the importance of making some special effort for rescuing a few out of the crowds of fallen women who thronged certain streets of the Three Towns. Prynne communicated to Bishop Philpotts a project for establishing a House of Refuge for the reception of these unfortunate women in Plymouth, and a Penitentiary in the neighbourhood, to which those might be sent, who, after trial, should give evidence of a sincere desire to reform their lives. The Bishop's answer to Mr. Prynne was expressive of his Lordship's hearty sympathy in the work, and sincere pleasure at its being begun, coupled with the promise of support in enabling it to be carried out. Prynne's illness, however, and his inability to secure efficient workers, or raise the necessary means, delayed the work for some time. In 1859 his attention was again directed to its pressing urgency by a case which he himself records in his published pamphlet:--

"I was sent," he says, "one day to visit a poor girl, aged nineteen years, in a bad locality, who was reported to be dying. I found her lying on a very thin mattress on the floor, with but scanty bedclothes. She was trying to dress a wound which a blister had made on her chest, with candle-grease in default of proper ointment. My first conversation with her, and prayers, were much broken by her cough, which was most distressing. I at once proceeded to get her better attendance and some needful things. A few days after my first visit I had her removed, with the doctor's consent, to a little room close to my own house. This was her House of Refuge, and there for a fortnight she was watched over and nursed with tender care night and day. She had received Christian instruction when a child, and was in a remarkable degree humble and teachable. God's grace seemed to work mightily in her heart, and her affectionate and gentle bearing to those about her, even in her severe suffering, will not soon be forgotten by those who witnessed it. We saw that her time would not be long. A few days before she died, I administered to her the Holy Communion. She herself knew that her time was short, but was perfectly resigned, gentle, and cheerful. She had a wish that I should be near her when she died. She thought she was dying one night, and sent for me at midnight. When I arrived at her door, she had rallied, and then, in touching simplicity, as if apologizing for having sent for me, she said, "Oh, sir! I can't die yet." A day or two after this she died, and I was only just in time for the closing scene. The tender care which we had given her during her last illness was continued after death. Reverently was she laid within her coffin, and at last followed to the grave by the ladies who had nursed her. I said over her body the beautiful service of the Church, as hopefully as over any I have ever buried; and often now as I walk in the cemetery, accompanied by one who knew her, we stop to look with interest on the grave of 'Mary the Penitent.'

"Some time after the death of this poor penitent girl, two other cases were specially brought to my notice. The first was that of a young girl, about seventeen years of age, who came to me in deep distress of mind. She had been led astray by a silly and vicious young man, and had then been induced to take lodgings in one of the numerous houses of ill-fame which exist in Plymouth. The poor girl was kept in this house for about a month, when remorse seized her, and she sought my aid to rescue her from her life of shame. I had no House of Refuge in which to place her, but I succeeded in getting lodgings for her, and procuring her some employment, until I was enabled to place her in a Penitentiary.

"The second case, one of most painful interest, was brought to my notice about the same time. A young girl, only two months above fourteen years of age, came to see me, accompanied by her mother. The poor child had been induced by a young woman to leave her mother's roof and take lodgings in what proved to be a house of ill-fame. After about a week the mother discovered where her daughter was, and by the aid of a policeman succeeded in getting her away. The young girl seemed sensible of her sin, but unwilling to return to her mother's house. I was enabled to get her into a Penitentiary. Another case soon came before me. A young woman came and entreated my help, saying she was most truly anxious to give up her bad courses and lead a steady and respectable life. I had no House of Refuge, and could not get her at once into a Penitentiary. I lost sight of her, but felt that if I had had a House of Refuge to have placed her in she might have been rescued."

The delay in carrying out the designs he had laid before the Bishop tended in the end to the furtherance of the work. In the autumn of 1859 the Rev. George Mason, at that time assistant curate of St. Stephen's, Devonport, set on foot a home for fallen women in Devonport. In this he was aided by his wife, a lady eminently gifted for this work. A house was taken and furnished, and in a few weeks was full of those poor women for whom it had been established. The over-crowding of this house, and the heavy expenses necessarily incurred in its establishment and maintenance, led Mr. Mason to consider the necessity of combining with Prynne to establish a House of Mercy for the Three Towns.

Whilst they were making needful enquiries for a suitable house, it happened that the Hon. and Rev. C. L. Courtenay, afterwards Canon Courtenay, came to Devonport He at once became deeply interested in the work, and shortly afterwards wrote to Prynne to suggest that the work should be altogether moved away from the Three Towns. After consultation with some of the clergy in his own immediate locality, he determined to make the effort of establishing a House of Mercy at Bovey Tracey for the whole of South Devon. The effort was, by God's blessing, eminently successful, and resulted in the establishment of one of the very best conducted Houses of Mercy in the whole of England. It proved of unspeakable value to the clergy working in the Three Towns, and never, if there was room, have pressing cases been refused. The work, however, at Devonport still went on, and when Mr. Mason left, it was taken up by Miss Sellon's Sisters, and is still carried on by their representatives, working in connection with the Church Penitentiary Association. The Threefold Cord Society, which has done such admirable work in a similar direction in the Three Towns, was due largely to Prynne's initiative, and he was keenly interested in its operations up to the time of his death.

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