1939 - Mucknell Abbey
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A Third Order community is formed at Buxted

From the end of 1938 to the end of 1940 twenty two women made their Profession as Tertiaries. Among them were a small number who, in spite of the impediments they faced, still held out hope of realizing a cloistered life of prayer. To this end, in the late summer of 1939, a few were able to take part in a short-lived experiment in communal living at St Mary’s Home in Buxted, Sussex.

St Mary’s had originally been founded as a girl’s home in the 1880s, and in the 1930s had become an Approved School under the auspices of CSMV. The decision had only recently been taken to close it because of the problems arising from its isolated position. We know that by early September 1939 Sr Juste and the Tertiaries Cecily Maude (1887-1958) and Dulce Jowitt (1903-) were resident in an adjacent lodge house, and they were joined in November by Irene Christison (1897-1983). More had been hoping to join but the outbreak of war in September saw a number of Tertiaries take up active military service.

The first “Cloistered Tertiaries”

Cecily Maude came from a well-known clerical family. Her father was a clergyman and Oxford don who had been a member of the so-called “Holy Party”, a group of liberal-minded High Church clergymen willing to engage with the discoveries and challenges put to faith by the modern world. Following in the footsteps of her maternal grandfather Cecily trained in medicine. Like most women doctors at that time she specialised in obstretics and paediatrics, but was also involved in pioneering the use of heliotherapy – that is to say, the therapeutic use of sun-beds. In 1928 she became a medical missionary with SPG in Tsolo, South Africa, at a mission run by the Society of St John the Evangelist.

Not to mention her gifts and qualifications, she soon made a name for herself by walking from Ncembu to S Cuthbert’s all by herself, and later on, in consequence of a motor mishap, we heard of her calling at night at a wayside store, barefoot, and carrying nothing but a Bible, an alarm-clock and a pair of dental forceps.

– from South African Report (1929), Our African Missions, SSJE

It was to their great regret that in 1930 she left to test her vocation to the Religious life. If she did so immediately then it must have been unsuccessful, because in 1932 she became an Associate of Wantage, and very shortly afterwards entered the novitiate of the Community of St John the Evangelist in Dublin, where she had once worked as a clinical clerk. But the qualities and eccentricities that could be used and absorbed on the mission field were not necessarily those welcome in a Religious community. In 1935 she was asked to leave, apparently unaware of the fact that she did not have ‘a vocation adaptable’ to their life. In the years that followed she lived – probably in retirement from medicine – at a family home in Gwenydd. This would later serve as her hermitage. She joined the Third Order CSMV on 5 March 1939.

Irene Christison
Irene Christison on her graduation from Edinburgh University

Irene Christison was the daughter of Sir Alexander Christison, 2nd Bt., and came from a distinguished family of doctors, academics and men-of-letters. Her paternal grandfather was physician to Queen Victoria. Her mother, the formidable Lady Christison, had been raised in the High Church tradition and was a prominent figure in Edinburgh’s Episcopalian community. She had raised the funds that paid for the landmark spires of St Mary’s Cathedral, and was sometime President of the Scottish Mothers Union.

Like Cecily, Irene too trained in medicine. At university she became a leading light in the Women’s Medical Society. After qualifying in 1922 she served as a medical missionary in India (Delhi), London and South Africa (Pandoland), as well as undertaking a brief internship in the USA in 1927-8 (Pennsylvania). In 1932 she went into private practice at Tatsfield in rural Sussex. Here she took an active role in parish life: a member of the PCC, Hon. Secretary to the Bible Reading Fellowship and Captain of the local Girl Guides. Her first visit to Wantage was in 1933 as the guest of a friend from South Africa who was being clothed as a novice. Irene became an Associate in 1935 and joined the newly formed Exterior Sisterhood in 1937. Deciding not to make Profession as a Tertiary in October 1938, she was herself clothed as a CSMV Novice (Novice Irene Kristin) in June 1939. But for reasons unknown – very possibly ill-health – she was asked to leave as early as November, on the understanding that she would join the new ‘Cloistered Tertiaries’ at Buxted. Allowing her to keep the CSMV habit until they should adopt their own, she was left in something of an anomalous position (also see footnote).

Christison article
Article from Chronicle and Courier, 13 January 1939

Dulce Jowitt (1903-) was born Dulce Mary Helen St Aubyn Wignall, and named after the eponymous character of one her mother’s first popular novels. Also from a devout Anglo-Catholic family – both grandfathers and three of her six brothers were ordained – Dulce was married at the age of twenty one to Lionel Jowitt, whose own family had been converted from Quakerism by the Tractarian Dr Hook. Lionel was an archaeologist and architectural historian, and author of a series of town and county guidebooks. The couple lived at Gerrard’s Cross in Buckinghamshire.

Sometime after 1929 and the breakdown of their relationship, which had come under the strain of several personal tragedies, they were divorced. There were no children. Although there is some evidence that she later studied at the University of London (c.1938) we know almost nothing about her in the years leading up to her admittance as a Novice Tertiary at Wantage in July 1939, although during the winter of 1938 she looked after a CSMV property adjacent to the Convent.

The ceremony was performed by the Rev Marmaduke Warner, uncle of the bride, and the Dean of Winchester gave the address. The service was fully choral. Seven little bridesmaids were in attendance. The bride wore a dress of white brocaded crepe-de-Chine, with pearl girdle and old lace train, with white net veil and wreath of orange blossom. The Cathedral bells rang joyously after the ceremony, and a reception was held by courtesy of Colonel Slessor, at 9 Kingsgate Street. A private dinner and dance, at which some 30 guests were present, was given at the “George” Hotel on Wednesday evening. Two hundred friends attended the reception, and the presents numbered over 300. The honeymoon is to take the form of a motor tour to Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

 – Newspaper report of Dulce’s wedding

(Portsmouth Evening News, 26 September 1924)

Failure and Persistence

The Tertiaries’ aspiration was for a life of prayer. Although there is no extant account of their day-to-day life, we can imagine that they took this opportunity to go above and beyond what was laid out for them in their Rule; to structure their day around a fuller regimen of study and prayer.

The very isolation which had led to the closure of the Home now, with the outbreak of war, made it ideal for evacuees from other at-risk branch houses. It is not clear who arrived first, or whether or not it had been anticipated, but the Tertiaries shared the site with the staff and twenty-four girls from a penitentiary near Dartford. From the log book they kept we get occasional glimpses of the Tertiaries as they got caught up in the lives of their young neighbours. Christmas Day 1939 saw Cecily in the role of Santa Claus, and on 27th December the Tertiaries threw a party for the girls. Cecily was again in costume, this time as a chestnut woman, and they organised ‘progressive games’ with prizes and a ‘grand supper’. They were also called upon for their medical expertise. But these references are few and far between, and for the most part they must have led separate lives.

1939 register entry
Entry from the 1939 Register showing Sr Juste and Dulce as resident at St Mary's Home

Writing to Associates in his Annual Letter, dated Candlemas 1940, the Warden of CSMV explained that Buxted was to be:

the nucleus of a centre for our Tertiaries, as they develop. Two are living there with Sister Juste; and those who are undertaking responsible service during the War hope to visit Buxted from time to time. At the end of the War they hope to take over the larger House...

But as the numbers in this letter already suggest, the experiment – unlike the war – was fated to be short-lived. In the months that followed the community graduated disbanded. From January 1940 Irene appears to have been living with a daughter community of CSMV at Findon, near Worthing. They ran a hospice for women, and it’s possible that she was testing a vocation. But in March she had a fall, presumably the result of her pre-existing ‘bad leg’, and later developed pleurisy. In May the Findon log book records that she was admitted as a ‘postulant Tertiary’*, presumably having removed the CSMV habit and having had Findon ruled out. In June she left to stay with relatives in Somerset. A few days beforehand Sr Juste had paid a visit in order to ‘make arrangements about her’, but the nature of these arrangements is unknown. It is possible that she was anticipating a second attempt at bringing a community together (see below).

Cecily had been taken into hospital for an operation in January, and by March 1940 no longer appears to have been resident at Buxted. Subsequent visits in April and May were only to pack-up and superintend the removal of her furniture. There is an intriguing entry in the minutes of a CSMV Council meeting held in June 1941, in which Sr Juste reflected on a Tertiary she had ‘turned out’ for wishing to pursue a solitary life. She explained that the Third Order wasn’t for solitaries and the Advisory Council had definitively refused to recognise them. Although she is unnamed circumstantial evidence points to it being Cecily. After leaving Findon she probably returned to her home in Merionethshire, where she lived with an elderly aunt. However, throughout the remainder of 1940 she made regular, almost monthly retreats either at Wantage or St Thomas’ Convent in Oxford.

Like Cecily, Sr Juste had also suffered from a bout of ill-health at the beginning of the year and which took her away from Buxted. The exact whereabouts of Dulce during this time are unknown. She appears on a list of retreatants at St Thomas’ in Oxford in July, and in November she returns to Buxted to ‘collect some of her belongings’. As a British Red Cross nurse we can assume that at some point she was called-up to serve.

St Mary's Home Buxted
St Mary's Home, Buxted

Yet whatever set-backs they may have faced, and in spite of the inauspicious circumstances of total warfare, a small number of available Tertiaries persisted in their desire to ‘withdraw from the world and lead a cloistered life’. In July 1940 the Chapter and Council of CSMV met to consider their request to live a special life of prayer, under a Rule and with a habit. The Mother General, Mother Annie Louisa, explained that they were ‘in the main, “Society” people’ and ‘ineligible for a regular community by reason of age, health etc’. Although several of them were taken up with war work, there were apparently still two people ready to make a start. These have not yet been identified, although Irene was probably one of them.

Although the war had caused a huge amount of disruption to the work of the Community, the Mother General was still willing – albeit tentatively – to honour and invest in their vision. By this time Sr Juste was working at a new convalescence hostel opened in Camberwell for ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) women of the Eastern Command. This had been at the prompting of a Tertiary who was then serving as one of their senior officers. This was almost certainly Bel Lithiby (see 1937), who was then dividing her time between Margery Hyde at Longworth in Berkshire and Waltham Cross in Essex, where she lived with Sybil Charlesworth and some other ATS recruits. At the Chapter and Council meetings it was suggested that this might serve as a replacement for Buxted – a live-in community as well as a centre for “ordinary” Tertiaries. It is strange that in the minutes of these meetings no mention is made of Buxted, nor is it clear why they didn’t all return there.

Despite later accounts to the contrary, this plan did not materialise. For a short-time it may have been a base for visiting Tertiaries, but by September a decision had already been made to close the hostel. Heavy German bombing had left it unsafe for occupation. Sr Juste stayed on for a short-time afterwards to offer shelter to those left homeless by the raids. But after the house itself received a direct hit she was sent back to Buxted.

ATS Hostel, Camberwell
The site of the hostel in Camberwell, which had been home to 'old ladies' before their evacuation to Wantage

* This is somewhat confusing as the probationary Tertiaries were referred to as novices. What’s more, when in March 1941 four women were admitted at St Thomas’ Convent to the Third Order Regular, which was to all intents and purposes a new venture, it was noted that Irene had already been received as a postulant at Findon back in May 1940 and therefore wasn’t required to go through the admission rite. This suggests that she occupied a category all of her own at a date which precedes the Chapter and Council discussions that July, where the participants appear to be working on the assumption that “Cloistered Tertiaries” did not yet exist. One possible explanation is that this was a development of her anomalous position as a CMSV Novice, and that she was admitted as a Postulant at a time when there was every expectation of a Third Order community being re-established in the near future.