Project Canterbury

Twenty-one Years in S. George's Mission

By Charles Fuge Lowder

London: Rivingtons, 1877.

Chapter VI. The Sisterhood of the Holy Cross.

THE account of the life and work of the Sisters naturally follows that of the Clergy. Thirty years ago there was but one Sisterhood--that founded by the late Miss Sellon, in Plymouth--within the bosom of the Church of England. But now on every side, wherever the Catholic Faith is being freely and fully taught, Religious Communities of women are witnessing to the life and vigour which have been rekindled amongst us. In Oxford, where the "Church movement" began, and where the zeal of the Parochial Clergy has borne ample testimony to the reality of the teaching revived in the University, we find many Communities of Sisters engaged in works of charity, daily witnesses to our candidates for Holy Orders of the blessing which they might derive from such help in their future ministry. In London, where the power of the same [90/91] teaching was soon set to confront boldly the power of the world in its strongholds, there are now at least ten or eleven Sisterhoods engaged in Parochial, Missionary, or other charitable works; while even those who do not profess the Catholic Faith have learnt the value of religions association among women, and are already trying whether it can be carried out apart from the stricter discipline which has hitherto been its stay and support The future, then, of Sisterhoods is no longer a matter of doubt so far as their existence in the Church of England is concerned, and every year is adding to the experience of their Superiors in respect of their internal organization and adaptation to the wants of the present day.

It was an early-cherished hope that if God blessed S. George's Mission, He would be pleased to send Sisters to help in the work. That this hope should have been so soon realized, was a matter of deep and earnest gratitude. Let us first speak of the constitution and objects of the Sisterhood, and then of the works of mercy in which the Sisters are engaged.

The Sisters, then, are ladies who desire to devote their whole lives to God's service. In our case their work was Missionary; i.e. in the presence of the great spiritual destitution of huge and populous parishes, [91/92] they desired to aid the Parochial and Missionary Clergy in all works of mercy and charity to the bodies and souls of God's people which might fitly be entrusted to women. The Society consists of the Warden, the Chaplain, the Mother Superior, the Professed Sisters, Novices, and Lay Sisters. The Novices are those who, after a visit of some months' duration in the Sisterhood, during which time they live and work with the Sisters, and under the same rules of discipline, desire to be admitted on probation. After they have completed two years of probation, and desire, to devote themselves altogether to a Sister's life, they are professed. The Lay or Serving Sisters are those of a lower rank of life, who fulfil the household duties, or attend to assigned departments of work. These have a longer probation than the other Sisters. One of the Professed Sisters is appointed Superior, having the government of the Community under the Warden committed to her charge, and the assignment of the several duties of the Sisters in the various Houses and works of charity which are attached to the Community. The Mother House, or head-quarters of the Sisterhood, was originally the Mission Home in Calvert Street, whence the Sisters went forth to their several works, such as the House of Mercy at Hendon, the Convalescent Home at Seaford, [92/93] or the duties in adjoining parishes to which they had been invited by the Parish Clergy. Besides these there are Associate Sisters--i.e. ladies living in the world, who have domestic or other ties which prevent their entire devotion to a Sister's life, and yet are able to spend some time every year in the Sisterhood; and outside these again there are the Associates of the House, or those who undertake to collect money, or interest their friends for the works of the Sisterhood or of the Mission generally, and daily pray for God's blessing upon them. The whole Society is governed by its own statutes regulating the admission and profession of Sisters, the appointment of Warden, Mother Superior, the meetings of the Chapter, &c.; and there are Rules of life laid down for the observance of all members of the Community.

The Sisters, while living in the parish, attended the daily celebration of the Holy Eucharist in S. Peter's. They said the Day Hours of the Church in their own Oratory, where they also spent some time daily in meditation. At home one had special charge of the Girls' School, and another of the Infants'; others taught in the school and visited in the district, having special portions assigned to them. In these they gave all help in their power, both to the souls and bodies of the poor, [93/94] by inducing them to attend the services of the Church or the classes for instruction, to bring their children to be baptized, and send them to school They gave them medicine and orders for food; advised them in times of difficulty or distress; tried to find places for them or their children, and admission into the hospitals, or found them nurses in sickness; in fact, did any act of Christian kindness in their power. They also visited in the workhouse, and frequently in the London Hospital, the sick from the parish. The Mission Home is a house of resort for all in any trouble or distress; and relief in food, &c., is given daily at a fixed hour.

Some winters ago, when the frost caused such grievous distress in this part of London, especially about the River and Docks, families, in ordinary times existing on the barest necessaries, were reduced to absolute starvation. The Sisters were indefatigable in their exertions in examining into and supplying the wants of those starving around them. Special funds were kindly entrusted to the Mission for this purpose, in answer to a letter in some of the papers, and carefully dispensed by those who knew well the district among a large proportion of the applicants; and how much more fitly than by a police magistrate, overwhelmed by such a hungry and clamorous mob as beset the neighbouring court, [94/95] whose real wants it was impossible that he should investigate, while he must give to the most noisy and persevering. At this crisis bread, soup, tea, coals, flannel, &c. were largely dispensed by the Sisters, and in such a pressure the advantage of an agency on the spot, living and continually working amongst the poor, was very evident. The great value of the Sisters' services in the visitation of cholera will be more fully described hereafter.

The Sisterhood thus organized worked for twelve years in connection with the Mission; and as its numbers grew attempts were made to raise funds for the building of a Convent, so as to secure its permanent assistance in the parish. These however were not forthcoming, and as the numbers of the community outgrew the accommodation of their houses in Calvert Street, the Mother House was removed to more suitable buildings in Walworth, a few Sisters being left to carry on the work in S. Peter's. These still visit and dispense temporal help, manage the girls' Sunday-school, the Guild of S. Katharine, the Mothers' Meetings, superintend the Parochial Nurse, the Workwomen's Society, the Clothing Clubs, the Hostel, and the washing and repair of the surplices, linen, &c. of the Church, and undertake other kindred works.

[96] Of these the Workwomen's Relief Society was kindly founded by, and is still carried on at the expense of, a general officer, who first became acquainted with the wants of the parish as a visitor of the Metropolitan Belief Association, and has since continued his liberality in this valuable form. The cutting out and arrangement of the work is entrusted to a widow, under the superintendence of the Sisters, and by her given out to poor needlewomen. Their work is sold, or used for charitable purposes.

The Hostel is a home for a few aged Communicants, who, having some small means of their own, are by this and other help afforded them rescued from the confinement of the workhouse, and left to enjoy the blessings of religion, and the comforts of a home in their old age. An Associate Sister lives in the Hostel, and superintends its good order and discipline. A room in the house is used as a depĂ´t for religious books and pictures for sale.

The Parochial Nurse is supplied to the parish by the Metropolitan Nursing Association, through the kind instrumentality of B. Wigram, Esq., the principal founder of the East London Nursing Institution. This latter Society is now merged in the former; but a Committee of East-end Clergy has been formed, under [96/97] whose direction, and with the liberal help secured to it by Mr. Wigram from the Parent Society, the valuable assistance of the nurses is continued in our parishes. In this parish the work of the nurse is much appreciated. She is ready to attend any case in her district, is always at the disposal of the Clergy and Sisters, and having been trained for her duties, is not only efficient herself, but capable of instructing the attendants of the sick, and of remedying unskilful treatment, want of cleanliness, and other sanitary faults. She can also be trusted to inform the Clergy and Sisters of sick cases in the parish. A separate nurse is provided by the Committee for infectious cases.

The work of the Sisters, even with the reduced number of the present staff remaining in the Home of the Good Shepherd, has been most valuable. It is of great importance to have such a devoted band of assistants ready at all times to assist the Clergy, and to relieve them of much of their temporal work. The parish itself, or even the neighbourhood, could never have supplied such help; and visitors from a distance, even could they have been secured, would never have been so reliable, either in the time at their disposal, or the experience they brought to the work. The Sisters are on the spot, always accessible, setting an example [97/98] of devotion themselves, and known, loved, and respected by the poor around them.

Should it please God to bless the Mother House of the Holy Cross by an increase in their numbers, and friends should be forthcoming to build a suitable Convent for the Sisters working in S. Peter's, it is to be hoped that the community may be able to spare a larger number of Sisters for the work of this parish.

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