Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter IX. The Progress of the Sisterhood under Mother Harriet

IT was out of the needs of the Penitentiary work, as shown in a previous chapter, that the Sisterhood of S. John Baptist arose. But as soon as the Sisterhood was formed, it was resolved that it should not be confined to the care of Penitents. It was thought that a variety of objects would prevent the strain that might be felt from the exclusive devotion to Penitentiary work, that the fitness for carrying out such work was a special gift, the property of the few, that different minds, differently constituted, would necessarily require different spheres of labour, and perhaps the same persons require relief by change of employment.

Mother Harriet's mind and experience very specially disposed her to cherish this wider view of Sisterly work, and prepared her for throwing herself energetically into whatever offered itself, so far as circumstances, and the available number of Sisters, permitted.

It would be out of place here to enter into the history of the several Foundations which grew up under her control. It is proposed only to give some idea of the extent of work entered upon during this period, the accomplishment of which was due in large measure to her energy, while at the same time the account will serve to illustrate her characteristic method and principles of working.

The expansion of the work was quite unexpected both by herself and by those who had been engaged in furthering the original design, before she came to take her part in it. One day speaking to a friend who visited her at the House of Mercy in its then enlarged condition, and who had remarked on the extent of the Sisters' work, she said: "Yes, when I first was asked to take charge of the little old house and the twenty Penitents, I cried,--the responsibility seemed so great, and it has been growing ever since. But it has been a development quite unlocked for by me." And then she told, "how at her husband's deathbed she had wholly dedicated her life to GOD'S service, without any conception of how it would be in the future, but that out of hearts and lives so given to GOD He takes the material, as it were stone or clay, and works it all and fashions it as an architect might build up some fabric."

The first opening for work beyond the House of Mercy presented itself as early as 1855. It arose from the close connexion that existed between the rising Community at Clewer, and a lady then distinguished for good works, and whose memory now lives enshrined in the grateful love and reverence of another Religious Community, which under GOD owes its existence to her and her husband,--Rosa Lancaster.

This lady had under her care in London an Orphanage and Industrial School, which she desired to remove to the country. Mother Harriet undertook the charge of these orphans. It was the more acceptable to her because her husband and herself had contemplated establishing such an institution, had his life been spared. It was felt to be as a special Providence that this offer should have come to her as her first undertaking.

S. John's Home at Clewer was the outgrowth of this venture. With this was associated a Ward for Convalescents, which being afterwards separated from S. John's Home, and removed to two small cottages in the village, grew finally into the present S. Andrew's Convalescent Hospital. Thus the two first designs beyond the Penitentiary work were set in motion. The building of S. Andrew's Hospital, of which the first stone was laid in 1865, was a striking instance of the power which was being brought to bear on the Sisters' work.

It has been the custom of the Community, a custom of which Mother Harriet felt the value, to associate with its works a lay body, sometimes simply lay, sometimes composed of clergymen and laymen,--if it were a large work, a regular council; if small, two or more friends--to act as coadjutors and helpers in the building and maintenance of the work.

S. Andrew's Hospital was the most extensive and costly work which the Community had undertaken. Mother Harriet trusted that the Council, or one of its members, would sign the contract, when no less a sum than £7,000, beyond what had been already collected, was needed to meet the estimate. No one of the Council would venture to do this, or could think it prudent; nor can any one wonder at this reluctance. But Mother Harriet was greatly roused, and, finding no other means available, herself signed the contract, and then set herself with the most indefatigable industry to get together securities in case of her death, at the same time urging forward all possible efforts to collect the sum required. It cost her a tremendous effort, but the result was successful, and the existence of S. Andrew's Hospital is due, under GOD, to the unsparing and untiring energy which she then put forth.

Both these Foundations, S. John's Home, and S. Andrew's Convalescent Hospital, are within the same parish in which the House of Mercy is situated, indeed within the grounds attached to the House of Mercy.

A third Foundation within the same parish, yet somewhat farther from the House of Mercy, grew up under her fostering care, ^ommencing with a little day school in a poor cottage contiguous to the wretched hovels from which the first Penitents of the House of Mercy were drawn, it gradually has developed into S. Stephen's Mission House (built in 1867), the High School and College, with the stately Church, and the Day Schools for the poor, forming the ecclesiastical centre of a new and large district, now separated from the Parish of Clewer, and containing about 2,000 of a purely labouring class.

These were comparatively home works.

In 1860 the Community planted its first Mission in London, at S. Barnabas', Pimlico, then under the charge of the Rev. G. Cosby White. It was the first entrance into London of a Sisterhood having its head quarters out of London, an experiment as to the possibility of the harmonious working of Sisters, not indigenous, with the Parish Priest. There can be no question as to the difficulty of such a co-operation, involving, as it does, the mutual action of two distinct authorities. That it was successful was largely due to Mother Harriet's wisdom and breadth of sympathy, and her ability to look at questions as they arose from both points of view. The S. Barnabas' Mission rapidly grew; a girls' school, an orphanage, and a small almshouse, clustered round it, and the ReTuge close by formed by the Rev. the Hon. Robert Liddell (the first Refuge that arose in London as the fruit of the new Penitentiary movement), came also under the Sisters' care.

Other Missions soon followed in other parts of London;--the Rose Street Mission House with Mission work in S. Mary's, Soho, in 1862; the S. Alban's Mission in 1868, and later on, towards the close of Mother Harriet's Superior-ship, the Mission of All Hallows, close by Blackfriars Road, in the Borough. The Rose Street Mission House became also a Home for children, a Home of a preventive kind. The well known House of Charity in Greek Street, Soho, was undertaken to be worked by the Sisters in 1861; and somewhat later the Church workrooms were established at 36, Soho Square,--the whole together forming a cluster of works at an important centre.

A Sister, who had much opportunity of observing Mother Harriet's mode of proceeding in laying these Foundations of the Community's work in London, says, "I do not think that any of our dear Mother's 'Foundations' have ever failed, and for this reason, that she prepared so carefully beforehand, and afterwards infused into them so much of her own energy. One of her first anxieties was lest she should interfere with what she called the 'lines' of another Community. She looked carefully all round, and if she thought that cither from the nature of the work itself, or from the close proximity of another Sisterhood, the work she was invited to accept would be more fitly done by others, no attractions however great, no pressure of entreaty would induce her to take it up. She would, in such a case, herself urge strongly that it should be offered to the other Community. But if such hindrance did not exist, she would personally examine on the spot into all the circumstances of the case, controlling her own sympathies and love of expansion, till fully satisfied that the proposed work was fitted to the Community's objects and rule, and within its power. If her own mind was satisfied on these essential points, and if the Chapter accepted the proposal, then her promptness and decision came into full play. She would go into all details, choose her instruments, press outsiders into co-operation, form links far and wide, and map out the lines and the future of the work with a quickness and breadth that almost bewildered those who did not know her well, or who were of a less venturesome or less sanguine disposition. But after experience generally showed how keen her foresight was, and how accurate her estimate of persons and things.

"The Sister chosen to bear rule in any new work would then be drawn into her close confidence, and be told all her mind. After this the trust reposed in her was so complete as almost to be wondered at, mostly by the individual herself; but it had the effect of calling out the Sister's utmost powers and energies, while at the same time uniting her in loving loyalty to the Superior whose trust was so unbounded. No one was less tenacious of holding power in her own hands. Occasions would sometimes arise when she would widely differ from the Sister whom she herself had placed in authority, who might conscientiously object to what she wished to have done. She would in such a case allow the point to be argued fairly in her presence, never resent an appeal to a higher authority, and if the case was decided against her, she would yield her own wishes or judgment with a frankness and generosity that entailed no after allusion to the matter, no shadow of coldness between herself and the subordinate who had so far opposed her in the matter in question.

"Every fresh House or work would be watched over like a new-born child. She would like to know every detail, keep up personal knowledge of individuals connected with the work, and never pass over any opportunity of obtaining help for it. Her large-hearted love and sympathy could embrace each separate sphere of work without neglecting other interests or claims. Its growth and expan-siveness never seemed to impair its strength, or lessen its warmth for those close at hand.

"From these same causes her visits to Houses at a distance were always a delight, till her health began to fail, and she became unequal to bearing any pressure of details, or entering into local difficulties. The young Superior never felt constrained, and though possibly in some cases little might be said, there was a consciousness that things were understood, and there was a love and brightness that in itself was a help.

"If on such a visit pressing calls came accidentally, she would make allowance for the interruptions and demands of others, and would be content to find herself as nobody among strangers, amused at the mistakes sometimes made between herself and the Sister Superior of the House. While inquiring into the state of all that was going on, she would do so with a patience and courtesy remarkable in one to whom authority and organisation were so familiar; and when she found reason to alter or adjust matters, she would be extremely careful to uphold the young Sister's authority, and the respect due to her position."

Openings for work gradually began to offer themselves from greater distances. In 1860 the Community undertook 'the Oxford Penitentiary, Manor House, Holywcll. Three years later Penitentiary work was begun at Bovey Tracey, Devon, under the Rev. the Hon. C. L. Courtenay, which quickly developed from a very small beginning in an old farmhouse into the present Devon House of Mercy, a House not belonging to the Sisters, though worked by them, the number of penitents under their care nearly equalling that of the inmates of the Mother House at Clewer.

Again, three years after the work was commenced at Bovey, arose S. Raphael's Convalescent Home, Torquay, for female patients,--one of the Community's own Foundations,--to which lately a men's ward has been added, through the generous beneficence of an Associate.

Some years later on, in 1872, came a call to work in Gloucestershire. The Community undertook the charge of S. Lucy's Hospital for Children, and an industrial school, situated just out of Gloucester,--a Foundation of Gambier Parry, Esq., of Highnam Court,--the Industrial Home and Orphanage afterwards being transferred by Mr. Parry, in a greatly enlarged state, to College Gardens, in Gloucester itself, with the hope, since realised, of Mission work in the cathedral city. This latter House was opened shortly after Mother Harriet's retirement.

It was after this that a yet greater venture was made, and one the importance of which warrants a more detailed notice. Several American ladies had from time to time been drawn to join the Community. They gave themselves freely, without reserve as to their place of work, as other Sisters had done, but with the hope and desire that the Community might extend itself to the United States, and thus that they might some day be able to work in their own land for the good of their own people. At the time they came one Sisterhood only had just begun to be formed in America, which, since that time, has been much blessed in its development. Among the American Sisters of the Clevver Community there was one,--lately taken to her rest, and of whom, therefore, it may be said, how earnest, and devout, and how deeply loved, she was,--known in the Community as Sister Helen Margaret, known to the world as Helen Folsom. To her, aided by her family,--one well known and honoured in New York,--it was given to enable the Community to found a House in New York, the S. John Baptist House, which has gradually become a centre from which other works have grown, especially school work and mission work among the Germans in New York. Since Mother Harriet's time it has become a Community in itself, having its own dependencies, still linked, as of old, with the Mother Community of Clewer and keeping its Rule, but self-governed, holding its own Chapters, managing its own funds, receiving Novices, and professing Sisters, with its own Warden, under the visitorship of the Bishop of the Diocese,--in fact, a real American Foundation.

Rapid as the progress of the Community had been, it must not be thought that there was undue haste in making doubtful attempts. Mother Harriet could wait when she saw that circumstances Were not yet ripe for a commencement, however attractive the work, and however earnestly she desired it. One would not ordinarily expect that so sanguine and ardent a nature could calmly brook delay; yet there was a real self-restraint, one instance of which appears in the following account given by one to whom the Community is mainly indebted for the Convalescent Hospital at Folkestone, a work which was commenced in the course of the year in which Mother Harriet retired, and which is already being enlarged to an extent that could not at the time have been anticipated.

"It was twelve years ago," writes the lady alluded to, "when, through the pressure of a great sorrow, I was led under GOD to seek and find help and comfort in association with the Community of S. John Baptist, that I became first acquainted with the dear Mother whose loving heart seemed to open to me at once. I confided to her then my wish to become instrumental in founding a Convalescent Home, but her wise forethought and good judgment bilde me wait till a fitting time might come, and it was not till four years later when, after the death of my mother, I came to reside at Folkestone, that the work was begun. The dear Mother was then in feeble health, and had been much affected by the death of her brother-in-law, Dr. Monsell. A change and rest being needful for her, she came to Folkestone, and stayed some time in my house. It was then that our close intimacy began, and I had the great privilege of holding from thenceforth constant intercourse with her, and listening to her wise counsels. I can never forget the wonderful power with which she grasped and suggested and gave form to an idea. There was a searching look in her bright eyes, so full of love and truth, that seemed to clear away all doubts and difficulties, and she made me feel that true joy and peace can be found in GOD only, and in working for His glory. One could see in her the faith that can 'remove mountains.'

"Her key-note was always Prayer, and her watchword 'Go forward.' This was, I think, the great spring of her influence in gaining such unbounded confidence from those with whom she had intercourse. I can truly say that this has been my own experience, and I thank GOD for it."

In the following chapter it will be shown what help many beyond the bounds of the Community received from Mother Harriet, and how those who chanced at any time to be brought near to her, needing help, received an impulse which affected the current of their life. A few brief words were sometimes enough to tell upon a whole future. An instance of this remarkable power occurred in the case of one of the Community's works,--S. Anne's School, Baltonsborough, near Glastonbury,--when yet the incident which gave it birth had faded from her own memory.

"In 1854," writes one of the foundresses of that institution, then just parting from their old home, "when we came to pack up, we spent our Sunday at the House of Mercy, and Mother Harriet said to dear------and me, 'And what are you going to do?' We said, 'We cannot tell, our home is quite unsettled.' 'When you are settled, do something to prevent these poor creatures coming here,---I mean those of the poor dependent lady class,--they are so unprotected.' In 1857 we settled in a new house, Orchard Neville. In 1859 S. Anne's had been begun as a middle class school for farmers' children, but this original idea was changed in 1868, and a higher class taken. We then placed it in dependence on Clewer, and the Mother came to see the work, at the time carried on in an old farmhouse with a thatched roof. After looking over it all, and suggesting improvements, she said, 'What made you think of this?' 'You, Mother,' we answered. 'Thank GOD for it,' she said, in her own peculiar, earnest way, and" then walking up the orchard, added, 'I am glad your work is at home.' I hope," the writer adds, "this short reminiscence, which touches a key-note of her grand, simple dcvotedness, for such it was, and which never failed in her intercourse with others, always encouraging them in any good work, may be of some use in making known what we owe to her."

During the last few months of Mother Harriet's life a lady who was permitted to have much intercourse with her kept a record of some of her last sayings. Reference will again be made to what she then lovingly recorded, but some few of these sayings, which expressly relate to her ideas of work, and of what she had learned by experience during her working days, so well accord with the object of this chapter, that they may fitly form its close; giving, as they do, a somewhat closer insight into the springs of power which animated her during the period of her activity. She was giving to her young friend lessons for her guidance.

"Do not plan out your life. Plans are GOD'S, not yours. Leave them to Him, and let Him gradually unfold what He would have you do. Look at my life, I made no plans; I never settled what I was going to do; but all was gradually unfolded to me step by step. When I sailed out of the Bay of Naples, after my husband's death, I felt there was some work I must do for GOD, that I had health and strength to give to Him, and that I must dedicate my life and all my powers to His service. Then He showed me step by step what to do; and gradually my work commenced at Clcwer, and my life-work grew there as Superior for twenty-five years.

"We must just keep ourselves ready to answer GOD'S call, that is all we have to do, for we cannot tell what He may do with us. As for the organisation of work, of which we hear so much just now, I am inclined to think less of it than most people do. Certainly for the person who organises it is often dangerous, so much time and power is lost in arranging the details, in correspondence, &c., that there is but little time left for the spiritual life, which is the most important of all.

"All work must be done very simply and quietly, because GOD put it into our hands to do, and then lie will undoubtedly bless it. Do not allow yourself to feel overwhelmed with work. You may be fully aware of your un-fitness, and long for another to do it better, but if GOD has told you to do certain work for Him, you must do it. Another might certainly do it better, but you have nothing whatever to do with that. GOD has sent you to do it, and no one else. He will give you all the strength you need to enable you to do it rightly. 'My GOD shall supply all your need.'

"Do not let self creep in. It is only self that makes you think about it at all, and say you cannot do it. You can do it perfectly well, if He tells you to do it, and it is not self-sought. Even if it be spiritual work, and you fear the souls of others may suffer through you, you need not fear. He has called you, and He will help you. Only trust to Him, and remember that it is not you who do it, but He Who does the work through you.

"Keep very quiet and calm, and rest in GOD, then He will not let you feel overwhelmed. Be as simple and natural as possible about everything. Try always to see clearly that right is right, and wrong is wrong.

"Remember in speaking to any one you wish to help that the'more earnest and unconscious of self you are, the better you will help them. Probably the words you think most telling will affect them least, while those you think nothing of GOD will use for their good. Leave all results with GOD. You are not always digging up the seeds in your garden to see how they are growing. Trust all to GOD, and He will bless your work."

It was but a short time before she was called to "rest from her labours, where all her works do follow her," that these touching lessons, drawn from a very extensive experience, were poured into willing ears.

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