Lights of the World

By Ian McCormack

Queen Victoria called Harriet Monsell, the first mother superior of the Community of St. John Baptist, “an excellent person.”

They met when the queen made the short journey from Windsor to Clewer for a visit. As she was shown round, the monarch noticed the sisters curtseying as they passed. She remonstrated with Mother Harriet, for this was meant to be a private visit.

“But, Your Majesty,” Mother Harriet replied, “they are not curtseying to you, but to me.”

Behind this story is a serious point: though they undoubtedly offered women opportunities that had rarely been open to them, the early sisterhoods were not feminist collectives. They were strictly hierarchical, combining an emphasis on obedience, which has always been a part of religious orders, with an expectation of Victorian deference to those in authority.

Mother Harriet Monsell helped found the Community of St. John Baptist in 1852. The Rev. Thomas T. Carter — rector of Clewer, Windsor — was the driving force of the founding. Credit for the community’s success belongs largely to Mother Harriet. CSJB was among the earliest of Anglican religious orders, and became one of the largest, stablest, and best-known.

Mother Harriet dedicated her life to the work at Clewer in 1851, at age 40. She was nobody’s idea of a typical nun. She was the seventh child of an Irish Baronet, the widow of an Irish priest, the cousin (by marriage) of A.C. Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury (1868-82), and a friend of Prime Minister Edward and Catherine Gladstone. She was intimidated by nobody, as her correspondence — not least with bishops — makes clear.

In Mother Harriet, the sisters found a superior with a genuine love and concern for their welfare. A practical understanding of what could be achieved and a proper Christian emphasis on both hope and joy shines in her her extant writings and in contemporary reminiscences of her.

It was these qualities that made CSJB successful. Clewer avoided the extremes of asceticism and liturgical observance that were a feature of other early orders. The community’s founding charism was the restoration of prostitutes. Prostitution was a substantial problem in Clewer, a deprived urban area close to army barracks. But the work’s scope grew quickly, as did the community. By the 1880s there were more than 20 branch houses, plus the beginnings of work in the United States and India.

Perhaps the depth of Mother Harriet’s discipleship is best reflected in how she turned over the office of superior, amid ill health, in 1875. She retired to a cottage in Folkestone, where she successfully managed to balance interest in the life of the community — and its individual members — with maintaining a discrete and wise distance, enabling her successors to continue the work without undue interference.

“Easter is such a lovely time to go home,” she said shortly before her death on Easter Day in 1883.

Upon her retirement, Mother Harriet offered her “Ideal of a Religious”:

The one great Aim of her life is the Glory of God.
The one great Example of her life is the Incarnate God.
The one great Devotion of her life is the Will of God.
The one great Longing of her life is union with God.
The one great Reward of her life is the Vision of God.

Gracious God, who led your servant Harriet Monsell through grief to a new vocation; grant that we, inspired by her example, may grow in the life of prayer and the work of service so that in sorrow or joy, your presence may increase among us and our lives reveal the mind of Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

The Rev. Ian McCormack is priest in charge of St. George’s in the Meadows, Nottingham, England.

Lights of the World is TLC‘s occasional series of vignettes about people newly added to Lesser Feasts and Fasts in 2018.