A sermon preached in Pusey House

in celebration of the 150th anniversary

of the revival of the Religious Life in the Church of England

 

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in world to shame the strong.                                                                                                                  I Corinthians 1: 27

 

On 26 March, 1845 [it was the Wednesday in Easter Week that year], the curiosity of the well-to-do middle-class families, living in the demure little villas  .  .  .  facing Regent’s Park, must have been aroused.  Two young ladies arrived at No.17 Park Village West with a small amount of luggage.  For several weeks, clergymen and laymen, had been seen coming and going  .  .  .  Furniture – but not much of it – had been left there.  Discreet inquiries were made, and it was ascertained that there could be no doubt about the respectability of the new occupants of No.17.  One was the daughter of country parson.  Some days later a third lady arrived, rather younger than the other two, and it was discovered that her father was the Bishop of Edinburgh.  By the time the trees were beginning to turn green,  .  .  . a middle-aged lady, obviously refined and well-bred, joined the household.  Not long after this four more young women took up their abode in this exclusively feminine establishment.

Why had these ladies come to live in Park Village?  Would it be “etiquette” to “leave cards” on them?  Awakened before five o’clock one morning, possibly by the rumble of a train  .  .  .  , one of the occupants of the other villas noticed that the blinds were already drawn up in every bedroom at No.17 – these newcomers were early risers!  By the middle of the summer people had grown accustomed to the sight of them – all uniformly dressed in black – shutting the garden gate behind them a few minutes before half-past seven, and returning home about an hour later.  It seemed that they attended Divine Service before breakfast at Christ Church, Albany Street  .  .  .  Soon after nine, two or three of the ladies were out again, and seldom back before half-past twelve.  The same thing happened every afternoon.  Very often their neighbours,  .  .  .  would notice how tired these ladies looked when they approached their villa, always coming from the direction of Albany Street, where they took part in Evening Prayer, even on weekdays.  This almost unbroken round of coming and going went on through the summer, except on certain days when a rather shabbily dressed middle-aged clergyman arrived at No.17 soon after breakfast and did not depart until the late afternoon.  What was his business with these women, most of whom were quite young?  Then he was recognised – it was none other than the notorious Dr Pusey!  There was more gossip, until somebody found out that the innocent-looking villa was nothing else but a “Puseyite Nunnery”  .  .  .  ! 1  Thus, in such a quiet and un-ostentatious way began the restoration of the Religious Life in the Church of England. 

For at least six years Dr Pusey had cherished the view that the social conditions of the industrial towns of England needed the services of dedicated women.  His profound study of the history of the Early Church had convinced him that there must be something very wrong with Anglicanism if it could not produce religious communities, such as had existed in all ages of the Catholic Church and in all parts of the world.  In 1839 he had written to John Keble:

Newman and I have separately come to think it necessary to have some Sœurs de Charité in the Anglo-Catholic Church.2

And at the same time he had written Dr Hook who was then presiding over the re-organization and revival of Leeds Parish Church:

I want very much to have one or more societies of Sœurs de Charité formed: I think them desirable (1) in themselves as belonging to and fostering a high tone in the Church, (2) as giving a holy employment to many who yearn for something, (3) as directing zeal, which will otherwise go off in some irregular way, or go over to Rome.  The Romanists are making great use of them to entice over our own people; and I fear we may lose those whom one can least spare  .  .  . 3

Four years before the beginning of that little Park Village Sisterhood, in 1841, on Trinity Sunday, Marian Rebecca Hughes had taken solemn vows in the presence of Dr Pusey that she would lead a celibate life offered to the service of God.4  Pusey had written to John Henry Newman, Vicar of the University Church in Oxford,

My dear Friend,

A young lady, who is very grateful for your teaching, is purposing today to take a vow of holy celibacy.  She has difficulties and anxieties in her position.  She has attended St Mary’s ever since she has been in Oxford, and hopes to receive the Holy Communion there today, as also being part of her self-devotion.  It was wished that you should know it and remember her.  You will know her by her being dressed in white and with an ivory cross  .  .  .

                 Yours ever gratefully and affectionately,

                                         E. B. Pusey. 5

That same morning Miss Hughes took her vows, then she made her way to St Mary’s where she knelt beside Dr Pusey’s daughter, Lucy, who was making her first Communion.  We have that ivory cross in the archive of here.  But, for family reasons, her profession had to be solitary and little known.  Although she had made a tour of convents and religious houses in Normandy, she had remained at home with her parents until 1848, when she was able to establish her own community, the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, in Oxford.  Now closed, its buildings are St Anthony’s College just up the road and you can see photographs of it as a Convent in the exhibition in the chapel cloister.

But the first real beginning of the corporate religious life in the Church of England was this little community of two at No.17 Park Village, Miss Jane Ellacombe, who became known as Sister Anne, and Miss Mary Bruce, who became Sister Mary.  Neither was very strong in health, but

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.6

After a few weeks these two were joined by Miss Terrot, a daughter of the Bishop of Edinburgh.  Her father told Pusey he was “very far from those tendencies which go by the name of Tractarian”, but that his daughters had “a desire for greater usefulness and for more intimate communion with persons whom they could look to as real followers of Christ” than was afforded by their northern home.7  So the Bishop gave “not a reluctant consent” to their wish to enter a Sisterhood.8

A few weeks later the young community had its first Superior.  The lady who was chosen to preside over it was Miss Langston.  She was ten years older than any of her companions, and seems to have been a person of “strong understanding, fervent piety, and extreme simplicity of manners.”9    Miss Langston’s arrival soon brought four others, which brought their number up to eight. 

But, of course, no one in the Church of England had, at that time, any experience of the requirements of such a life.  Pusey wrote about the early days of the Park Village Community,

We naturally went by experience.  Lord John Manners procured us the rules of the Sisters of Charity at Birmingham.  I had some rules by me, used by different bodies in England and on the continent.10

There is, in the library of Pusey House, a touching example of early œcumenical co-operation in the correspondence between Dr Pusey and Cardinal Wiseman about the organization and rules of Sisterhoods.

But, of course, in the spring of 1845 Pusey had other grave matters on his mind, concerning Mr Newman and Littlemore, and it is touching encouragement to the forgetfulness that we all sometimes suffer that we find Pusey forgetting to tell his great collaborator, John Keble, about the opening of the little convent.  He writes to Keble two days after that Easter Wednesday,

I am vexed that I forgot that you did not know upon what day the little Sisterhood was to commence.  Two sisters entered their home on Easter Wednesday.  They are very promising; a third we expect on Friday week.  We had a little service with them on Wednesday: they were in floods of tears, but of joy, in the prayers for them.  On Sunday at a quarter to 8 is to be their first Communion subsequent to their solemn entrance.  Will you remember them?11

Now, of course, many people imagine that that powerful woman Priscilla Lydia Sellon (whose initials, PLS along with those of Dr Pusey, EBP, are engraved in the high altar reredos at Ascot Priory) was the first woman to begin a sisterhood in the Church of England, but from what I have said you will see that this is not so.  Indeed one of those early sisters at Park Village remembered Miss Sellon coming to visit them to see what a sisterhood was like. 

Miss Sellon’s Community began in 1848 in Devonport at the urgent request of the Bishop of Exeter, Dr Philpotts, who had appealed for help from gentlewomen to stem the tide of ignorance, drunkenness and vice which prevailed in Plymouth.  Some of the Park Village Sisters subsequently went down to Devon to help her during the cholera epidemic in Plymouth, and it was during this period of ceaseless work for the sick and dying that the Sisters asked for the privilege of daily Mass and Communion which, until then, had not been practised in the English Church since the Reformation.

When Miss Florence Nightingale appealed for nurses to go with her to the Crimea, sisters from these two communities, the Park Village sisters of the Holy Cross and the Devonport sisters of the Most Holy Trinity volunteered and left England with the Park Village Superior.

It was in 1856 that the two communities amalgamated under Mother Lydia, and in 1860 (while still retaining St Dunstan’s Abbey in Plymouth) their new property at Ascot was acquired (mostly at Dr Pusey’s expense) for the erection of the first purpose-built convent in the Church of England and the convalescent home.  So by that coming together of two communities founded under the influence and encouragement of Dr Pusey, the religious life began a hundred year and fifty-four years ago.

Wonderful work followed: the nursing of the sick, the care of orphans at St Christopher’s, St Dunstan’s School in Devonport, the request from Queen Emma in 1864 for sisters to go to Honolulu to set up the school system and St Augustine’s School at Ascot.  It was a pioneering and honourable history and there was always the proper tension between the active religious life and the contemplative.  Miss Nightingale could not understand why the “religious” sisters needed to go off and say their prayers and offices so regularly when her own “secular” nurses did not; large and secluded forty acres were provided at Ascot for the sisters to enjoy their contemplation and their recreation without leaving the grounds. 

Dr Pusey loved to spend time there.  He wrote some of his best theology there.  And there it was on 16th September 1882 that he died.  How appropriate, some would say, for perhaps among his many diverse and enormous achievements for English Church few can compare with the revival of the Religious Life of the communities of monks and nuns which have always been a characteristic of the catholic way of life in the Church of God. 

            Peter Anson writes in The Call of the Cloister,

The Priory of Jesus Christ, Ascot – now the only house of the venerable Society of the Most Holy Trinity – possesses an indefinable atmosphere which makes it different from any other Anglican convent.  Perhaps this is due to the sense one gets of being in actual contact with a now very remote past  .  .  .  .  One would not be surprised to meet Dr Pusey walking beside Mother Lydia’s wheel-chair along the paths between the rhododendron bushes beneath the pine trees. 12


1     Peter Anson, The Call of the Cloister (SPCK London, 1964), pp 220, 221.

2     ibid. pp 221, 222

3     H. P. Liddon, Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey (1894), vol. III, p.5.

4    Marian Rebecca Hughes was a cousin of Fr Chamberlain, the Vicar of St Thomas’s, Oxford. In 1851 she and her mother gave up Rewley House and went to live in 24 St John Street where later some other like-minded ladies joined her.

5     Liddon, op. cit., vol. III, p.10

6    I Corinthians 1:27

7    Liddon op. cit, vol III,  p.17.

8    ibid, p.17

9    ibid, p.22

10    ibid, p.22

11    ibid.,  p. 18

12    Anson, op. cit., p. 276