In 1901, after the Oxford Mission had been given by Bishop Johnson the spiritual charge of the Anglican Christians in the Bakarganj district, the Fathers working there felt they needed the help of women in dealing with the mothers and children; so a little paper was put out (signed by Charles Gore, then Canon of Westminster, and Father Brown, the Superior of the Mission, who was then in England) explaining the need and asking for help; and when Father Brown went back he left a little group of those who hoped to come out learning Bengali from an Indian student in London.
The paper proposing this Women's Branch of the Oxford Mission had said: "We think that they should be a self-governing society, as far as their internal organization is concerned, but that in their external work they should put themselves at the disposal of the priests of the Oxford Mission. They would have a rule, in which, as in our own community, the principles of poverty, obedience and celibacy would be recognized, not necessarily for life, but for as long as they might be working in this Mission-field."
Then the Fathers at Barisal began writing to us long and most interesting letters about the state of things there, and their hopes for the future. They explained that it was help in things spiritual that they specially hoped for from us, and above all in making Barisal a home of prayer, a place where prayer and direct communion with God was really given the first place, and never allowed to be crowded out by other kinds of work; so they begged us to set this ideal before us from the very first.
They also laid stress on the fact that in a heathen land the effect of teaching given in words is almost nothing as compared with the impression made by the sight of the Christian life actually lived; so they asked us to make it possible for Indian women to come and visit us, partly by not having the men-servants that are usual in India; but as soon as possible to have Christian women and children living in our compound in really close contact with us. They hoped God would call us eventually to be wholly consecrated to His service under life-vows, both for our own sakes and because a life wholly given to God makes a deeper appeal to Indians than any other.
So in the autumn of 1902 four of us came out, with this hope of a further call before us, to work in what Bishop Copleston called "an ancillary relation" to a body of priests, and to work in a way about which they warned us that we might have very little result to show for it after twenty years, just trying to build up those who already called themselves Christians. We knew also that they did not want us to be scattered in twos and threes to run institutions, but to live as a family, that would show on a tiny scale Christ's ideal for His Church, by being knit together as "one body in love."
In Calcutta Bishop Copleston admitted us as probationers of the Oxford Mission under a short, simple rule adapted from that of the Fathers, and soon our life at Barisal began on the lines the Fathers had traced, with the addition of visits paid to poor women who were ill in their own homes, a most effective way of opening up friendships. In three months a little boarding school for girls from the district was started, which has gone on ever since. The children do all their own housework and cooking, and there are no matrons between us and them, but older girls learn to look after little ones, always under the "mothering" of a Sister, and in order to be able to arrange all as seems best for making them good mothers of the next generation, we have never taken a Government grant for the school. But the Government Inspectress, who always stays with us on her rounds, keeps a kind and interested eye on all we do, especially on the adaptation of the Montessori method to Indian conditions, and on the little class we have for training some of our own girls to be teachers. We try to get children sent in to school at five years old, and keep them till they are fifteen or sixteen, and are getting established in their life as communicants; and so, although they go to their own homes among the heathen for three months of each year, they do get a real experience of what life in a Christian atmosphere is.
After a year or two, when some progress had been made with Bengali, and our numbers were growing, touring work began in the district, which is about the size of Yorkshire; and a pair of Sisters went out to teach in their own homes the women who were nominally Christians, but had hardly had any religious teaching, and were mostly not confirmed, and many not baptized, and who were none of them able to read. This work, too, has gone on regularly ever since, till all who call themselves members of our Church have been reached and taught. The Sisters who do this work live on a houseboat, and have also little rest-houses at half a dozen of the larger centres; and in course of time a small permanent settlement of Sisters was made at Jobarpar, a central place, where there is now another girls' school, and a village Christian community is being built up under the care of one of the Oxford Mission Fathers.
In 1907, with the full approval of our visitor, Bishop Copleston, and with much help about our rule from Father Page, S.S.J.E., and from the Mothers of several English communities, we began to live as a regular novitiate, and two years later, in 1909, the first Sisters were professed under renewable vows, and four years later they took life-vows, with the hope of spending the rest of their lives in God's service in India, as the home of the community is--and is always to be--in India, not in England. This makes it necessary to have a long probation-time, as fitness for life in India as well as in the Sisterhood has to be tested. There is a five years' novitiate, with a visit to England near its end--it is a great help to see things from a distance--and then four years under renewable vows before life-vows are taken. By the great kindness of a friend in the Indian Civil Service, a delightful holiday cottage and chapel 5,000 feet up among the pines at Shillong, in Assam, were provided quite soon after we arrived; so that any Sister, unable later on to spend the summer in the plains, can be there.
Although we do not go out calling, we have always been able to see a good deal of the wives of Englishmen working in Barisal in the Government service or the steamer service by having an afternoon "at home" once a week, to which generally from eight to twenty people come; and they borrow books from our library, and sometimes stay here a few days when they have been ill, which makes an opportunity for getting to know them well; and when there is an opening for it we have Sunday classes for their children, or a study-circle for themselves.
From the first we have been able to give effect to the Fathers' wish that Barisal should be a home of prayer for others besides ourselves, by having at first one spare-room and now three to which we can welcome Indians, Anglo-Indians, or English women who want quiet and rest and time for prayer. One of the Fathers has devoted a large part of his time to giving these visitors spiritual help, and many stay with us every year, so that we now have prayer-friends all over India; and it was chiefly from this that the Fellowship of the Epiphany grew, linking friends of the Oxford Mission Communities both in England and India, in a bond of prayer for India and for the Mission's work there.
Quite early in our time here a childless young village widow, who had never been to school and could not read, asked us to let her come here to help us without wages, as she wanted to give her life to helping others as we did. After long years of education, training, and faithful work, this Sister Mukta is now the original member of the little Bengali Sisterhood of St. Mary, that works with the Brotherhood of St. Andrew in their entirely Indian Mission in Garoland.
Some years after Sister Mukta and several companions had entered on a definite novitiate here, the Syrian Metropolitan in Travancore asked us to receive and train a small party of girls in his Church who had a strong desire for the religious life. In his part of the Church there were no Sisterhoods as yet, and the monks were all solitaries of the Order of St. Anthony, so that there was no one with experience in community life to guide them. They spent five years with us here, and then for five years more we lent the Sister who had trained them and learnt their language to live with a companion-Sister in a little cottage close to their convent in Travancore, to go on giving them instruction, and be at hand to advise, while their senior Sister was preparing to become their Mother. Knowing these Sisters has filled us with hope for the future of India when her women "find the Christ."
In the last few years we have had quite a number of letters from educated Indian girls in different parts of the land, asking whether they could come here as students of the religious life, not necessarily to stay on here, but with the hope of some day living as Sisters in their own parts of India, and wanting in the meantime to learn to live under a religious rule. So we have made arrangements for this, and two have come already, and are now in the novitiate with our Oxford Mission novices. This gives us visions of a day when there will be Sisterhoods of the Epiphany in different parts of India, none except our own joined to the Oxford Mission and England, but all living by one rule and able to meet at times for counsel, with the strong link of all having had their first training together here.
The first Sisters of the "Heavenly Way" spent several months here before going to Pak Bara, and the pioneer Sister of the Christa Seva Sangha has just been living with us for her first six months in India; so to help other communities seems a definite piece of work we are given to do, by sharing our life with them in this way, as well as by publishing the instructions given to us by our Chaplain, about which we receive grateful letters from Sisters from all parts of the world.
Our Sisters' compound at Barisal is now a home for nearly two hundred people; the boarding-school children, orphan babies, children in a special school for those rescued from bad homes, widows (many of them ex-heathen), village girls who come for training and for safety till they are married, and generally a few of our own people (or their delicate babies) from the district, who come to regain health and strength under the Nurse-Sister's care. Outside the compound we have a day-school for ninety non-Christian girls, and visiting is done both among the parents of these children and among the families of Christians who have of late years moved in to live at Barisal. We visit also the town hospital and the gaol; and are a centre for a local branch of the Bengal women's educational conference, which brings together here about forty women teachers from all the different schools, Christian and non-Christian, every term.
But it is the Nurse-Sisters whom the Barisal people count specially "their own," and who have established a wonderfully close link between the Sisterhood and the Indian women here. This is not the place to tell the story of how bubonic plague--the most dreaded and fatal disease in India--was brought to a village, and how two Sisters, two schoolboys, and a sweeper went out and stayed there, not only to nurse, but to get infected huts burnt and precautions taken, till it was stopped from spreading further (it was war-time, and there was no Father to go); but ever since then people quite unknown tons, passing a Nurse-Sister in the road, often turn and make the same salute to her that they do to their temples when they pass them.
Those who want to know more of the wonderful general awakening taking place among the women of India, and the new hope it is kindling for the future, should read Dr. Nicol McNicol's India in the Dark Wood (2s. 6d.), especially Chapter III.