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Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter V. Origin of the Community of S. John Baptist

"But, ah! the Master is so fair,
His smile so sweet to banished men,
That one who meets it unaware,
Can never rest on earth again."

"Ezekiel and other Poems," by B. M.

AS the work described in the last chapter went on, it soon became evident that it could not grow into a permanent institution, at least not on the same principles on which it had been commenced, if it were to remain dependent upon a succession of individuals, however capable. It was felt that it could be maintained and developed only by a Religious Community. Was this to be hoped for?

Shortly before the time spoken of Miss Sellon had begun her work at Plymouth,--a noble effort to meet one of the crying needs of the day,--the first Sisters' Mission work among the masses. Was it possible to form a similar body of devoted women to carry on the Penitentiary work at Clewer, which Mrs. Tennant had begun?

A Sisterhood was at the time a new idea among us, or rather one that had been lost for three centuries and had to be revived. [The Sisterhoods of All Saints', and of Wantage, were about the same time beginning to be formed,--parts of a common movement in the Church of England, but in their commencements separate from, and unknown to, each other.] The hope was that as GOD had furnished at need the wonderful individual agency already recorded, He might be pleased also to raise up those who would be capable of forming a Community, and we can hardly fail to see the Hand of GOD in what took place.

It became known afterwards that at the very time when the difficulty of providing for the care of the penitents was being felt, two or three ladies at a distance were preparing to offer themselves, and the day when Mrs. Tennant gave up her work was not far apart from the hour when Harriet Monsell was consecrating herself beside her husband's grave to serve GOD in any work to which He might call her.

Mrs. Tennant's place had been temporarily supplied by a Miss Cozens, a most kind, elderly lady, devoted to good works, who together with a few of her own friends in the emergency undertook the charge of the penitents. At the same time, as their numbers had increased, and a priest was needed who could give his undivided attention and time to the work, Mr. Charles Harris offered himself, and for several years gave most valuable assistance, serving gratuitously. [Rev. the Hon. Charles Amyand Harris, brother of Lord Malmesbury. He had been Rector of Wilton, near Salisbury, had resigned the cure in consequence of failing health, and was now sufficiently restored to undertake light duty. He left Clewer to take charge of the newly formed district of Rownhams, near Southampton; afterwards he became Vicar of Bremhill, near Chippenham, and Archdeacon of Wilts, and, finally, Bishop of Gibraltar. He died, greatly lamented, at Torquay, in 1874. Mr. Harris's coming to Clewer was due to the intercession of his friend, the Rev. Edward Coleridge, of Eton College.]

Charles Harris' coming was the immediate cause of Harriet Monsell's steps being directed to Clewer. It will be remembered that he had married one of her sisters, and when offering himself he spoke of his sister-in-law as also willing to give herself to the same work. He and his wife came and settled at Clewer in the spring of 1851, and somewhat later on, rather more than three months after her husband's death, Harriet Monsell joined them, living with them for a while, and going to and fro to help at the House of Mercy, Miss Cozens being in charge of the House. Harriet Monsell was thus able to carry out both objects that she had at heart. She had found work to do for GOD'S glory, and she was also able to be of use to her sister, then invalided, having met with an accident which confined her to the sofa for the rest of her life. Early in the following spring she moved into the House of Mercy, still keeping up constant intercourse with her sister, but preparing to devote herself entirely to the Religious Life. In the autumn of that same year she went to Dromoland, on a visit to her mother, other members of the family staying there together. Of the common feeling entertained by them as to her intentions for the future, she speaks in the following letter to a friend,

"Dromoland, Sept. 18, 1852.

"We have had a large gathering, the four sisters together. It is seven years since we have all met, and it has been great happiness to us. I cannot oftentimes suppress the feelings of loneliness which will come and which, when I do not think they are mixed with want of resignation, I would not wish to be without. And this time of the year has many recollections! thirteen years ago, on the 21st of this month, was my wedding day,--we never spent it here since.

"It is a great comfort to me that all the family are happy about my fixing myself at Clewer,--they are so fully convinced that it is most for my happiness. At first there were regrets expressed, but nothing like opposition. Mamma has not, I think, taken in fully the idea of what that life means, but is satisfied to leave me to act for myself; and when all the brothers and sisters agree not to object, I shall have them on my side."

In the February of this same year another lady came to devote herself in a similar spirit, and in August came a third, both seeking to enter the Religious Life; and thus the nucleus of the Sisterhood was formed. Miss Cozens upon this withdrew with her friends to make way for what thus promised to become a permanent Religious Community, The change took place in the course of the summer of 1852.

We have now therefore to view Harriet Monsell under a new aspect. She came to Clewer to be among strangers, and to undertake work of which she had no experience. The Penitents were to be cared for on a system, of which there had been as yet no precedent within the Church of England. The House of Mercy had to make its own traditions. The Sisterhood was to be begun entirely de now, and of this too the principles had to be thought out, and tested by personal experience.

When Harriet Monsell took up the charge of the work there were in the House thirty penitents. Within three years from this time, the old house having been removed, the enlarged plan for the maintenance of about eighty penitents was in the course of construction. Some who happen to read these pages may possibly remember the Vigil of S. Andrew, 1855, when the long procession of surpliced clergy passed along the new cloisters to the temporary chapel in the roof of the Penitents' wing of the House of Mercy, when the number of communicants in the crowded "upper chamber" was so great that the Bishop and his assistant ministrants had to leave the altar to communicate them in their places. From that time a new departure, involving increased and unknown responsibilities, opened on the Mother and her small band of Sisters.

It would be misleading to expect to find in Harriet Monsell one trained according to ordinary rule, and confined to the special obligations of the Religious Life. She was of a nature which could not have borne to be cast in a strictly conventual mould. She was many-sided, embracing different spheres of life in her elastic, buoyant strength, ever entering with keenest sympathies into whatever came before her, of work to be done, or of difficulty requiring help, or of sorrow to be comforted. And indeed she had had her training before she became a Sister. It was the training of deep, ardent affections, disciplined and matured within a very loving circle of home affection; of high principles nurtured at home and afterwards for many years wisely directed by a superior mind; of practical ability developed and chastened by the facts of a very active life under various relations; of a very simple faith, and warmhearted impulses, exercised in the constant thought of being useful to others; of a cheerful, sanguine temperament that made light of difficulties; and above all of a heart and mind that had tasted of the bitterest sorrow, and in its surging depths had found the secret of an undoubting trust in GOD, as one able to support and comfort in loneliness and trial. She had known a crushing of earthly hopes sufficient to wean her from this world's attachments, that she might seek a truer rest, which indeed she found, in communion with the world above.

It is not meant that her spiritual life did not grow and develope after she came under the influences brought to bear upon her in the Religious Life, but only that there had been preparations of heart and a process of spiritual discipline acting on her during many years, which supplied what was wanting to fit her for the work upon which she so suddenly entered. Her character and dispositions in fact were already formed, so that she was enabled to throw herself into the new sphere of life with all her native enthusiasm, to be from henceforward her one great object. The outward circumstances of her life coincided with her natural tendencies to lead her at the same time to preserve her links with the past; and to retain all her former interests in the affairs of the outer world, especially those of her own friends and kindred. Without being at all worldly, she had seen and experienced so much that was holy and beautiful in natural relationships, that she could not but feel herself still in entire sympathy with these same interests as of old, and this without any disturbance or breach of union with her consecrated Religious state. During such brief visits as she was wont to make among the members of her own family, she would not suffer any loss of pleasure to be felt by any one so as to mar the old loving domestic intercourse because of her change of state; especially among the younger ones she would still be the "Aunt Harriet" of olden times. So well did she succeed in this purpose that when a favourite nephew came to attend her funeral he was amazed at the band of Sisters that gathered around her grave, and at the account he then received for the first time of the various works which had grown up under his aunt's government; it opened wholly new ideas to him of the real facts of the last thirty years of her life. In visits beyond her home circle,--as e.g. at Addington, (Mrs. Tail was her first cousin,) she was ever the same welcome guest, bright as of old; alive to all the stirring questions of the day, while yet never losing an opportunity of defending or propagating the cause which lay deepest at her heart. There never was any question to what she had devoted herself, or where her heart was abidingly fixed, while yet the spring and buoyancy and much of the joyousness of other days still lived on, though under circumstances of a very different kind.

She formally devoted herself to the life of a Sister on Ascension Day, May 29, 1851, and was Professed and became Superior on S. Andrew's Day, 1852. From the time of her dedication her history becomes one with that of the Community. To enter into the history of the Community would be beyond the scope of this Memoir. The object of the remaining chapters will be to illustrate Harriet Monsell's character, and her various active powers, as they were developed and exercised in this higher sphere in which her whole after-life was spent, and of its closing scenes, after her work had passed into other hands.

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