1937 - Mucknell Abbey
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The Community of St Mary the Virgin create a new Exterior Sisterhood

The Proposal

In August 1937 Annie Louisa, the Mother General of CSMV Wantage, wrote to seventeen of the Community’s Exterior Sisters and Associates:

'I remember that you had the desire to dedicate your life in some special service of God, but you were precluded from Conventual Life for various reasons without much hope that these obstacles could be removed before you were too old to enter a Community'.

Her proposal was to refashion the now almost redundant Exterior Sisterhood. Its members would be drawn closer into the life of the Community. They would be given a distinctive Rule, a draft of which she included, and they would wear a habit when in residence or on retreat. She hoped that it would ‘supply that which you desire but have no been able to realise in Conventual Life’. But she assured those who were still young enough that membership wouldn’t stop them being able to join the Noviciate if and when they were free to do so.

She received a positive response and a group retreat was organised at the end of October at St Michael’s House, Wantage. The first day was given over to conferences led by the Mother General and her Assistant, at the end of which a few of the interested parties appear to have dropped out. Fourteen then went forward into a retreat led by the Sub-Warden, Fr Leonard Allen.

‘A very beautiful service’

At 4pm on the following day, 24 October and the Feast of Christ the King, each of the retreatants made a year’s promise as an “Exterior Novice” in the Convent chapel of St Mary. Invoking the traditional three-fold vows made by the Conventual Sisters, they were enjoined to be lovers of Holy Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Although there was no mention at this stage of a habit, they each received a blessed medal as a token of their commitment.

Exterior Sisters medal
Obverse and Reverse of the original Exterior Sisters' medal (1850). The same design was probably used for the new Exterior Novices.

With a dwindling and aged membership, by 1937 the Exterior Sisterhood as it was must have been viewed as largely obsolete. The decision to revive it was probably made unilaterally by Mother Annie Louisa, with the counsel of her Assitant General, Maribel. A formal announcement of the admission of fourteen new Exterior Novices was made at a special Council meeting some days afterwards.

The New Exterior Novices

Bel Lithiby
B.E Lithiby [CSMV Archives]
Angela Shearme
Angela Shearme as a young woman [Illustrated London News, 29 Feb 1908]

Beatrice Clara Annette (1888-1951) Admitted [Adm] as Associate, 1926; Exterior Sister, 1936

Mary Blanche Brodie (1892-1977)

Agnes Campbell (1878-1965) Adm. Associate, 1921

Sybil Isolda Charlesworth (1894-1980)

Irene Victoria Christison (1897-1983) Adm. Associate, 1935

Martha Gladys Cottle (1889-1959) Adm. Associate, 1928

Mary Bell Davey (1865-1954) Adm. Associate, 1936

Margery Laura Fitzwilliams-Hyde (1887-1947) Adm. Associate, 1935

Beatrice Ethel Lithiby (1889-1966) Adm. Associate 1936

Mary Rolls (1895-1967) Adm. Novitiate CSMV, 1932-1934; Adm. Exterior Sister, 1936

Angela Annie Shearme (1870-1963)

Barbara Mary Smyth (1894-1974) Adm. Associate, 1934

Hilda Mary Townsend (1884-1949) Adm. Novitiate CSMV, 1912-?

Janet Mary Truman (1884-1944) Adm. Exterior Sister, 1932

Unrealised Vocations

Although later developments would suggest otherwise, Annie Louisa’s letter gives the impression that becoming an Exterior Sister under the new Rule was a consolation for not being able to pursue the life of a Conventual Sister. But what ‘obstacles’ stood in their way? One still common restraint, despite the increased opportunities for women to live independent and fulfilling lives, was the claims made by their family. Even when it was possible to afford professional care or live-in service, there was still an expectation among the middle classes that unmarried women would remain at home with their aging parents. May Brodie had won a scholarship to study history at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford and later trained as a teacher, but may have felt obliged to ‘keep house’ for her parents until shortly before her mother’s death in 1938.

Like a number of women who later joined the Third Order and SSMV, Hilda Townsend and Mary Rolls had already tested their vocation in Community. Mary joined Wantage as a postulant in 1932 and was later clothed as Novice Barbara Mary. But the novitiate demanded a high degree of physical and mental resilience, and she left two years later after it was decided she had ‘too nervous a temperament’. Irene Christison also suffered from chronic ill-health, while another Novice – who for reasons of privacy can’t be named – is said to have had some form of mental impairment.

When the divorcee Sybil Charlesworth approached the Community as an aspirant it faced a novel dilemma, and at a time when divorce had become a deeply charged issue for Church and State. Before a Council meeting was convened to discuss her case she decided, perhaps in a pre-emption of their ruling, to ‘throw her lot in’ with the new Exterior Sisterhood. Later however she became one of the founding members of SSMV.

Finally there was the question of age. There was not at this time an upper age limit, and in the nineteenth century we know of women being professed at Wantage in their fifties. But the widows Angela Shearme and Mary Davey were 67 and 72 respectively, and would have been regarded as too old for any novitiate.