Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter XII. Mother Harriet's Resignation of Her Office

''Lord, I planned to doThee service true,
To be more humbly watchful unto prayer
More faithful in obedience to.
Thy word, More bent to put away all earthly care.

"I thought of sad hearts comforted and healed,
Of wanderers turned into the pleasant way,
Of little ones preserved from sinful snare,
Of dark homes brightened with a heavenly ray;

"Of time all consecrated to Thy will,
Of strength spent gladly for Thee day by day;
What suddenly the heavenly mandate came,
That I should give it all, at once, away"

CAROLINE NOEL'S "Name of Jesus"

FOR two or three years before there came the necessity for the resignation of her office, Mother Harriet's strength had very visibly declined. She had become less and less able to bear the constant calls of the daily routine of work. When visiting Branch Houses, the effort was such that she was unable to enter into business matters if they involved the least anxiety, and the Sisters felt obliged to spare her as far as possible, ceasing to bring before her anything except what required immediate settlement.

It was not however until the summer of 1875 that the possibility of the entire failing of her health became matter of real alarm. In the August of that year she went to Whitby in hopes that the bracing air might invigorate her weakened frame. The author of this memoir was also staying there at the time, and her rapid decline caused him the greatest anxiety. He left to make a fortnight's tour in Yorkshire before returning to Clewer, while Mother Harriet remained, enjoying the rest, and able to take short drives. She wrote to him cheerfully of having had "a delightful drive to the Light-houses;" of having "seen a lovely subject for a sketch, with a windmill;" and again, of "going to the Mulgrave Woods." And then came a letter marked "private," which seemed to extinguish at once the lingering hope of her rallying.

"I fortunately sent for the Doctor before taking the warm baths. [Dr. Meade, of Whitby.] He says he thinks they would be very dangerous for me. He examined my heart very carefully, and said it was a grave case. He seems clever, and is pleasant and straightforward. He at once felt the swelling in the legs must come from a decided cause.

"I thought I had better see him to-day, and know the exact truth. It is degeneracy of the heart,--just what I nursed William in at Bangor, so I know it all. I asked about going home, as I did not wish to be caught as we were in lodgings. But he thinks that I may with care have a continued life, and this air is very good for my general health, but the medicine that will relieve the symptoms ought to be watched. He says that I cannot really recover; it will go on and on, and I must be relieved from work and anxiety.

"So I shall just stay on here. Tell.some few. Let the Sisters say to all that I am not really better, but there is no use speculating about what is in GOD'S Hands. This will enable you to see your path more clearly. I am so thankful to have seen you here, and trust GOD will work out all the future to His glory. I am thankful for what He has given me to do; thankful now to lay down my staff."

She had often said that her family was not usually long-lived; that she had reached the age at which other members of it had been taken.

Very shortly after the last letter there came another yet more decisive.

"Whitby, Sept. 18, 1875.

"You will have got my letter on reaching home, and I have got your interesting account of your travels from York. I am so glad you made the tour.

"And now about myself, I must tell you exactly the doctor's opinion; and he is a man in all ways to inspire confidence. He has now seen me very carefully every day for a week, while I have taken the medicines he and Mr. Turner at Cliffe both prescribed for me, but which needed to be taken under medical care."

Then after speaking of the special symptoms on which the doctor's opinion was founded, the letter goes on to say:

"This morning I spoke to him again, and it is his decided opinion that I ought to resign the Superior's office. He says I can take an interest in all, for he is most anxious not to make me into an invalid, but all pressure should be taken off. I think if you talked with him five minutes you would see he is right. He has no doubt it is better for me to say a full and decided say about it, and it would give the best hope of a prolonged life of enjoyment and usefulness.

"I know you have felt both for myself and the work, that it is better so, when nothing is to be gained by lingering on an inefficient Superior.

"I know the Sisters will feel it deeply, and for their sakes it costs me a great deal to write this letter. But I have full confidence in them that they will accept my resignation, as GOD'S will for me and for them, and only seek to be guided to know what is His will for the future. I shall most thankfully exchange my cross for that of whichever of my precious children is chosen to bear the burden. [The cross which Mother Harriet wore, was made specially for her from a gold nugget which her brother, William .Smith O'Brien, brought from Australia, and gave to her. She gave it on her resignation to the Community to be worn by her successors in the Superior's office.] I promise that she shall find no difficulty in her work from having me at her side.

"And now I shall say no more, but send the tenderest love to you, and all my dear, dear children. GOD bless and guide you all.

"HARRIET, Super. C. S. J. B."

About the same time she wrote to a dear friend already referred to, with whom a constant correspondence had been kept up.

"MY DEAREST----, I only write you a short note, but you must not hear from others that this body you have so often and so tenderly cared for is striking work, and though it may travel on in cotton for some time longer it will not rise up into health. As yet, I go about freely, and sketch with as much vigour as ever, but I walk very little, am very breathless, and my feet, if not kept up, swell much.

"The last fortnight I seem to have gone down rapidly."

Then after speaking of the grave symptoms the letter adds:

"He (the doctor) said he saw I wished to know all. It was that I could never get better; with great care I might enjoy a prolonged life, but it might be cut short by anything.

"You know, dear, you have but one thing to do, to give thanks, and pray that I may glorify GOD; please, dear, for the moment, say to all I am no better for the rest, but as yet only to------and------; but I felt you have done too much for me to keep it from you, though I know the pang it will give you. If you tell------, you must first bind her not to speak of it to any in the family or out of it. I will myself tell those I wish to know. GOD bless you, my dearest friend.

"Ever your loving


"Sept. 12, 1875."

There was much anxious deliberation whether it were possible to obviate the necessity of a resignation, by some fresh arrangement which might relieve her of all pressure, while yet not losing the weight of her influence as still being the Superior. But it was felt that there would be the greatest difficulty in carrying out any such plan, while she would be unavoidably left to bear the ultimate responsibility, though without any sufficient power of interference, and thus, in fact, keep up only under another form the burden of anxiety, which was the very thing to be deprecated.

It was during this interval, in reference to these deliberations, that she thus wrote to the author:

"Sept. 24, 1875.

"I feel with you all the difficulties of the case because it comes on all rather suddenly, unprepared for a change. I would put myself entirely in yours and the doctor's hands, and do as you think right for the next year, when naturally there must come an election, and we should all see where we were then. [According to the constitution of the Community the Office of Superior is held only for three years, with power of re-election. An election would naturally fall in the November of this same year.]

"If it were quite understood that my own mind was to resign, and put another in full possession of the office, then, whatever you and the Bishop decide to be right for the present growth of the Sisterhood, I would do, for I should feel I was making no precedent of a Superior clinging on, unwilling to resign office, and take the appointed place; all of which I am most perfectly willing to do.

"As far as I can judge of myself, I shall for a time at least continue to have a good deal of half-life, but not be equal to any constant, steady pressure.

"I feel it to be of the greatest importance that the perfect vigour of the government should be sustained; no room given for the feeling on the part of any Sister, 'I do not like to ask this or that,' for fear of her Superior being over-pressed, and one ought to be able in a moment at any point to support, and cheer, and set to rights with one's presence anything that needs adjusting. GOD has given us all quite too great and important a work for personal considerations on my side to weigh for a moment. But it is a young work; it has stretched wide, and it needs strengthening and working into its central life, and if you think it well, because of experience and testing, to keep me as the pivot round which the machine turns, though you recognise that it is worn into a very fragile state, while you are preparing a new pivot, I am content, but do let it be quite known that I believe our constitution to be perfect, only that it needs a good, firm, enlarged, gentle, yet vigorous prime minister to administer it; and though I fully trust and believe in the life in GOD of each, and the entire submission under His Hand, yet for the day by day administration of the work the machine is too large not to fly asunder, unless it is compacted round a good central life that holds the whole together and keeps each wheel working in its own groove, but well dependent on the central wheel.

"I feel this is a moment of great anxiety for you all; my heart and prayers are constantly with you, that GOD may guide all to His glory.

"Ever yours,

"HARRIET, Sup' C. S. J. B."

After much consideration of the many grave interests involved, the decision at last seemed inevitable that Mother Harriet's resignation should be accepted. It was on the author's communicating to her this decision that she then again wrote to him.

"It was a rest to me to get your letter and to feel all is settled. Day by day GOD will unfold His will. And it is a joy to me to feel how truly the Community responds to GOD'S will, for one knows their love, and what it costs them and you too. I know you will help me by your prayers on entering on a new stage of my own life. It is to him that overcometh, the blessings of the intimate life of union are granted, and I feel all the need of watchfulness in a life that must have greater relaxation in it. It may open greater demands on holiness, for between this and the hour of death you know how long I have felt that the testings may be severe. And I think that as far as I can judge there still may be many travelling days, and these will I hope be a strength and blessing to the Sisters.

"Ever earnestly commending myself to your prayers,

"Yours, &c., "HARRIET, Supr C. S. J. B."

A short extract from a letter written to one of the elder Sisters may be added, as to her state of feeling at this momentous crisis:

"Our times are in GOD'S hands. I only ask you to pray that GOD may be glorified in me and in you, and give thanks for the years we have all loved each other so tenderly,--thanks, too, for me, for you know how much of me has lived within the veil; if I am found ready, the opening of the door will be joy.

"And now, dear, I have told you this, I must tell you one side of me is full of life and enjoyment. This pretty country is a delight to me, I draw with real interest; the Sisters with me are most dear,--so quiet, wise, and careful. I shall, I trust, ere long be among you, though not for work. I am not up to it."

After this it became a question where within the circle of the Community Mother Harriet might find the rest she so much needed, whether at the House of Mercy, or at S. Andrew's Hospital at Clewer. It was to this she alludes in a letter to the author with a loving greeting for All Saints' Day:

"I must send you a line on this Eve of All Saints, a day which has long drawn us very close to each other, and now more so when we each are drawing nearer to that blessed company, and only desiring to be made meet to be folded in among them. For you, as I feel the rest of having laid down my staff, I feel the tenderest sympathy, for I feel as if I had laid an additional burden upon you, but I trust all will soon get settled, and that things will go on in their quiet course. My one exhortation to the Sisters is not to let the sparkle out of the Community. I love that in a life of sacrifice they should give GOD a joyous service. If GOD spare me to do anything more for Him, I hope to be allowed to live in those two rooms upstairs in the Hospital, and to work a little among the sick children. Sometimes, as yesterday morning, I feel very springy, towards evening I was good for nothing. I feel to live day by day, and say prayers for you all, is all I can do.

"With truest love,


"Eve of All Saints."

It will afterwards be seen that the remainder of her life was not destined to be without fruit, but it was to be of a different kind of usefulness from what she had herself sometimes imagined possible. On her return to Clewer it became at once quite clear that she was unable to take any part in the work carried on in any of the Houses, and although rooms had carefully been prepared both at the House of Mercy and at the Hospital, as one or other might seem best, it proved to be impossible for her to remain in either; the stir and movement of the active life round her was too much for her shattered nerves, notwithstanding all that could be devised to shield her from disturbance.

Of her own state of mind at this time on the question of her future, she herself thus writes to one of the Sisters:

"Of myself I have various feelings. This time with the Sisters has shown me that I must not draw too near Clewer till I am stronger, and my own being more still. It is comparatively easy to be quite set aside by illness. But to feel vigorous power at times and yet no definite object, is a trial on one side, and yet on the other my powers are too uncertain, and my sensations too sensitive to see quite my way, so J keep perpetually trying to learn to take no thought for the morrow. I am glad to have tested the effect of coming as it were near Clewer. ------quite sees the difference it makes in me. Time will and must do its work, and we shall see what is GOD'S will. It may be that there is really no real reviving life in me, it may be as with------, a prolonged rest may set me up, but then there is the definite heart weakness. So you see, dear, there is room for conflicting thoughts and feelings, if one moves out of 'Hold thee still in the LORD, and abide patiently in Him;' and here I do rest and feel how much GOD has to teach one, and means to teach one. How difficult it is to let JESUS really live in one,--really glorify the FATHER as and how He wills in one; and yet, dear, this is the aim of our lives. This is what we have both pledged ourselves to learn at any cost. A mighty aim must have a mighty learning.

"Now, dear, this is all for yourself alone. You will know how to pray for me as I will for you, and the least said the best. Each day will say its own say, and manifest GOD'S will. Let us rest in His love, and learn at Christmas what it is for the GoD-Man to be the Babe of Bethlehem.

"Ever your most loving

This was written towards the close of the year 1875, when she was passing the winter in a country house with her surviving brother. It was a time of entire restfulness.

The following extract from a letter to a Sister at a distance describes in her own words how this, the first winter after her resignation, was passed:

"While the mighty wave was passing over one's life I did not write; now it has closed over, and the waters are calm, and everybody enters Advent earnestly seeking to put on the garment of light in the circumstances into which GOD has called them. Of myself what shall I say, but that I strive to live day by day waiting on the Will of GOD. I keep entirely in the house, which is very warm and comfortable, and here, I suppose, I shall stay now for a time. I am certainly better, and feel the great point is to avoid cold, and go quietly on, and see how I am about Easter. Sometimes I think my day's work is not done yet, but we shall see, and, as I say, I live day by day.

"------celebrates for us at a quarter to nine on Sunday mornings, and I get up first. Other days I breakfast in bed, and get up at ten. I draw a good deal, which you know is always a resource to me; read a little, write a little, work ditto; rest a bit before dinner at half-past seven, and get through the evening till ten or half-past ten, and then Sister------ puts her baby to bed. I keep my fire in all night, and so far am doing well. I am writing very lazily on my knee, lying in an armchair, so do not judge of my health by my writing. Luncheon has intervened; it is strange having to fit oneself into a listless life. Write to me, dear one, one of your own cosy letters, then I shall know what to pray for for you. You are always in my heart and in my prayers.

"Your ever loving

"HARRIET, S. C. S. J. B. "Advent Sunday, 1875."

On the 9th of February of the following year she writes again as to her own state, and of what after many searchings of heart and much conflict of feeling she had learnt to accept as GOD'S will for her.

"It has been a great rest to me since I made up my mind I should just be such a good quiet little Sister among you all, and not take more than a Sister's interest in all that goes on. It was very difficult to open my hand and let drop all the threads of Superiorship, but I feel much happier since I have done so. And now I hear with interest all that comes to me, but seek to know nothing. I shall be very glad when I can come into Community again, at the same time I feel I must get a quiet rest somewhere..... This changeable weather tries me a good deal, and I feel the thaw to-day.

"Ever your very loving

"HARRIET, C. S. J. B."

Some while later on she wrote again to the same effect, and the bright, humorous tone of the letter shows yet more significantly that much of the conflict of feeling which she had undergone, had passed.

"For myself I have found the rudder of my boat, and committed it into the Hands of One Who will bring me to the haven where I would be. The bark's name is Silence, its pennant the Name of JESUS, in it sits the old Mother studying the life of S. John Baptist: and her rule is the grand S. John Baptist Collect: she takes in pilgrims, who can truly and faithfully embrace the pilgrim's motto, which is, 'To be nothing, to have nothing, to desire nothing but JESUS, and be with Him in the Heavenly Jerusalem.' "

In the summer of 1876, it became necessary to consider where Mother Harriet could best find the quiet rest of which this letter speaks, without separating herself from the Community, while yet unable to reside in any of its Houses. An old friend with whom the Mother had often stayed in past times of rest, and with whom she passed a short time at this crisis, furnishes the following particulars of her then state of health, and of her thoughts as to her future home.

"It was during the early summer of 1876 that we noticed a great change, stealing, as it were, over the dear Mother. It is difficult to express in words the exact nature of this change; because though always present, it was not always visible. It was as if her strong mental powers were suffering a temporary eclipse. The eclipse past, her powers were as keen as ever, perhaps even more keen because of the irritability of brain which accompanied the eclipse, and which added vividness to all impressions.

"This strange shadow would fall in a moment. In the midst of the most interesting talks, the genial smile would fade, the light appear to dim, and she would say, not once, but again and again; 'Now, dear, you must leave me quite alone for a time.' A change of thought and occupation, ending, it might be, in a little nap, gave back what for the time seemed to be lost; the light and smile returned; the dear Mother was herself again. But we also noticed with deep sorrow that although her mind regained its brightness her body grew more feeble, with a feebleness to which seemed to come no renewal of strength. I had many talks with the Mother about this unsatisfactory state of her health; and as to what course she ought to take to gain the perfect repose of body and mind which was needful, and was indeed her only chance of future usefulness.

"Many a time we had spoken together of what would be after she had ceased to be the Superior of the Community; with what joy she would lay down the weight of the responsibility of direction which was outgrowing her enfeebled strength, and take the lower place of obedience; still living amidst her dear children as one that served where she had only been used to command. But now all these beautiful hopes seemed to fade, and the Mother would say sadly, 'I must not stay at Clewer; my mind would give way under the constant pressure of work in which I could take no part.' And again, 'I must go away for a time, and have entire rest from all great calls.' Day by day, week by week, this claim of mind and body for perfect rest grew stronger, and the mental irritability increased, and we who looked on and listened felt at last that nothing could save the Mother but the obtaining of the repose which her 'earthly tabernacle' so loudly called for, and it was then that the idea of 'the Hermitage' first began to take shape in the Mother's mind."

The same writer speaks of the extent of bodily weakness which she witnessed during one of her visits at this time:

"Our old servants all loved her, one of them helped to nurse her in a painful illness, and she tells me of the sweet playfulness with which she greeted her in the morning in spite of her painful, restless night. This playfulness was one of her great attractions; the last time she was here, when she was very feeble, not able to hold anything firmly, she used to call her pocket-handkerchief her 'grasshopper,' because it had become a burden."

"The Hermitage" above spoken of is a house on the Bail at Folkestone, so called when it was decided to take it as Mother Harriet's place of Retreat. It was admirably situated for the purpose, being scarce two minutes' walk from the old parish church, and midway between S. Eanswyth's Mission House and S. Andrew's Convalescent Hospital, both settlements of the Community. [The past tense is used, because immediately after Mother Harriet's death the house was taken down for the enlargement of the Priory, immediately contiguous.] It thus secured to her the quiet she needed, while yet remaining, as she so much desired, in the midst of the Sisters, and able to take advantage of any means open to her of assisting them.

It was a small house, almost a cottage, and at the back, towards the sea, there was a very pleasant garden, with a narrow bit of lawn and a summer-house, running down to and along the edge of the low cliff which overlooks the shore, commanding a view of the Channel, the harbour and shipping being full in sight. It was very simply furnished. One who was concerned in her settling in at the Hermitage, says:

"In giving her orders to the upholsterer for the fitting up of the Hermitage, they were of so rough and plain a kind that he came to me asking me to beg the Mother to allow him to put a bit of carpet and curtains in her own room."

She herself writing to this friend on the projected move, says:

"We have gathered sundry odds and ends here; so I hope we shall assume a cosy yet a pilgrim aspect at the Hermitage. Your dear letter was a great comfort to me. I must say I rise to the claim of perfect rest with no demands on me, and I believe it will be the most renovating process."

This was written on August 2, 1876.

A few days before, July 28, in expectation of the move, the Mother wrote to the same friend:

"I love to go there with a feeling of dependence, and think how love human and Divine has provided for me a place of rest in the wilderness. And now in quiet I may draw nearer to GOD, and gain some glimpses here of the vision of the glory the soul yearns to attain to."

To a Sister at a distance she wrote in the same strain of enjoyment at the prospect of her being thus settled:

"The Hermitage is lovely, and so peaceful. I sat out in the garden yesterday under the shade of a high wall. I am longing for the Warden to come and celebrate in the Oratory. It is a quiet abode for me in bracing air, and one I shall delight to see you in when you want a few days' refreshment. The house just holds us two"--(a Sister was appointed to be with her as her companion, and this arrangement continued to the end)--"and there is a guest-chamber. In the garden there is a summer-house where the outer Sisters may come when they like. ... Be the medium of much love to the Sisters. Tell them how much I like the Hermitage."

While speaking of this settlement at Folkestone, one cannot but briefly allude to other helps there provided for her, beside the bracing air, the bright sea view, and the proximity of the Sisters working around her. There was an active Church life in the parish with which she was in closest sympathy, and toward which she could often give seasonable assistance. She had a small altar in her home, and could have celebrations of the Blessed Sacrament whenever she desired it. There were many friends and acquaintances residing there, with whom was kept up an intercourse full of mutual interest and delight. She was unable to walk, but whenever she could manage to drive out, there was the carriage of a devoted friend ever ready to take her. Folkestone being so favourite a point for passing to and from the Continent, she was able to catch a sight often of relatives and friends from a distance, which it would have been difficult otherwise to see. It seemed indeed providentially chosen, to be the resting-place for the last few years of one thus helpless and suffering.

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