1941

The Third Order Regular CSMV is founded in Oxford

In March 1941, after plans for Camberwell had been abandoned, a second, more thoroughgoing attempt was made to found a community of “Cloistered Tertiaries” at the Convent of St Thomas the Martyr in Oxford. They were to be known as the Third Order Regular CSMV, living together under a Superior and a Rule ‘in a life of permanent separation from the world’. Thus they were distinguished from what now became known as the Third Order Secular, or those Tertiaries living “in the world”.

St Thomas’ Convent

The Community of St Thomas the Martyr was an early Tractarian Sisterhood founded by the Reverend Canon Thomas Chamberlain (1810-1892). Now aged and much diminished in numbers, this troubled and ‘chaotic’ community had for many years found it necessary to bring in outside leadership. Between 1935-7, at their request, an amalgamation with CSMV was formalized.

Their large red-brick Convent was built in 1886 on land adjacent to the parish church of St Thomas in the working-class district of Osney in west Oxford. It was demolished in 1958, and an archway is all that now survives of the original building.

Oxford 1922
A map from 1922 showing the Convent buildings in the bottom left corner, bordering Hollybush Row and Osney Lane

With a CSMV Sister as Superior the Convent was run mainly as a retreat house. In 1939 a Sister from the Community of the Holy Name, visiting from New Zealand, found the life there ‘intriguing in its unworldliness’ and sent the following vignette back home:

‘On Sunday quite a sane Wantage one was talking to me about telephones – (They have no telephone here) ‘Telephone, what would we do with a telephone? And where would we put it – couldn’t put it in Mother’s room – Think of her being bothered with all the noise and distraction of that!...And you couldn’t have it in the Community Room – certainly not! And the Portress’ Room – What would they do with it – the portresses are all old and deaf and wouldn’t hear it if it did ring!...There wasn’t the slightest thought of ever wanting to use a telephone themselves and no idea whatever that it might be a convenience to people to be able to ring them up’.
The Gatehouse of St Thomas' Convent
St Thomas' Convent, Oxford

Above: (left) the gateway to St Thomas’ Convent; (right) a view of the Convent building [courtesy of CSMV]

The original cast

Betty Callish
Betty Weingartner, then Betty Callish, as Effie Peacock in the popular 1906 farce The Little Stranger. The actor playing the eponymous child was a sixteen-year-old boy! [Victoria and Albert Museum: Theatre and Performance Archives]

On 7th March three Postulants were admitted to the Third Order Regular in a short service conducted by Fr Henry Bruce SSJE (1900-1986), who was standing in for the Community’s severely ill Warden, Fr Leonard Allen (1873-1942). Fr Bruce, who was trained at St Stephen’s House in Oxford and had held incumbencies and curacies in Scotland and the Bahamas, had only recently been Professed as a member of the Society of St John the Evangelist. In May he became the Community’s Chaplain.

The three Postulants were Cecily Maude (1887-1958), Mary Picton (1907-?) and Roxo Betty Weingartner (1886-?), who on admittance took the name Marica. They were joined by Irene Christison (1897-1983), who had already been admitted as a Postulant back in May 1940. Another aspirant, nurse Agnes Beard (1886-?), dropped out at the last minute.

Cecily Maude was probably the same Tertiary who had been ‘turned out’ of the Order in the following year after persisting in her pursuit of the solitary life. Now that the Advisory Council had decided against the recognition of solitaries she was told that she ‘could only realize what she felt to be her vocation by joining herself to this new foundation’.

At thirty four Mary Picton was by far the youngest of the group. She had grown-up in the village of Holmes Chapel in Cheshire, and like Irene and Cecily came from a medical background. Her mother was a nurse; her father a general practitioner and noted dietitian. She wasn’t employed and was still living at home, and unlike her younger sister had not taken up voluntary war work. Having spent most of January 1941 at the Convent in Wantage she was almost certainly a failed aspirant, re-directed to Oxford on the grounds of ill-health.

Mary and Cecily arrived at St Thomas’ towards the end of February. They would have been greeted on their arrival by Madame Weingartner, who had been in residence since the feast of the Epiphany. Weingartner was a Dutch, Jewish-born former stage actress, mezzo soprano and divorced wife of Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner (1863-1942). She had only recently tested her vocation at Burnham House of Prayer, but unfortunately this had been bracketed by two spells as a patient at Spelthorne St Mary, a CSMV house for “inebriates” near Egham in Surrey. From there she went directly to Oxford, with her discharge notes giving the impression that she left without any prior knowledge of the Community’s plan to establish there a new contemplative community. But she would have been known to Irene, whose CSMV novitiate training at Spelthorne had overlapped with her first stay. Given her age and background it is very unlikely that she would have found an open door anywhere else.

Sr Marjorie Thekla CSMV
Sr Marjorie Thekla CSMV, novice mistress to the Third Order Regular [Courtesy of CSMV]
Mother Annie Louisa CSMV
Mother Annie Louisa CSMV [Courtesy of CSMV]

In 1936 Sr Cecilia CSMV had been installed as the Superior of the Community of St Thomas the Martyr. It was now given to her to “mother” the Third Order Regular. Professed in 1902, and herself a late vocation, she was already in her mid-seventies. But her other responsibilities being what they were, it was recognised that she ‘could only give general superintendence’. Great importance was therefore given to the appointment of a novice mistress, and this task fell to Sr Majorie Thekla CSMV. Although she had no prior experience as a formator – she was Professed in 1934 – it was arranged that Mother Annie Louisa, who had been replaced by Mother Maribel as Mother General of CSMV in September 1940, would act as the community’s Visitor and take charge of their religious instruction.

Object, Rule and Constitution

At a Council meeting held at Wantage shortly after the admission of the first Postulants, Mother Annie Louisa explained that the object of the Third Order Regular was to provide women who had ‘a definite vocation to the Religious Life, who were unable to enter our novitiate for reasons of age, health or other ineligibility’, in order that they might ‘live a life of prayer and manual work in close connection with CSMV’. The importance of a ‘close connection’ between the “First” and Third Order communities had been stressed ever since the revival of the Exterior Sisterhood in 1937. It was to be a relationship based on a ‘strong family spirit’. Understanding them to embody this ideal, they cited the Dominicans as their model.

Their Rule was to be that used by CSMV itself, although this would later be amended by hand to suit their changing needs. A number of draft Constitutions were drawn-up, and a ‘still tentative’ version came before the CSMV Council in June 1941, where it was reiterated that their ‘future development [was] necessarily in an experimental stage’. Although there are two extant copies of what appear to be a final draft, over the years it went through a series of major revisions as the community found its way.

The 1941 Constitution states that the Community was to be under the direct authority of the Mother General and her Council. It was her prerogative, for example, as whether or not aspirants could be admitted as Postulants or Postulants clothed as Novices. It was envisaged that a Chapter, when formed, would consist of the Warden, Superior and Novice Mistress and such Tertiaries as had been admitted to full membership. To be a full member the Tertiary must have been under Annual Vows for at least two years, and have completed a Novitiate of the same length. Only after four years in Annual Vows was the Tertiary in a position to apply for the permission to take Perpetual Vows.

Although no timetable has survived, the structure of their day would naturally be determined by set times of corporate and private prayer. Attendance was expected at a daily Eucharist and at the Canonical Hours of Prayer or Divine Office. We know that the Eucharist was celebrated in-house and that only occasional visits were made to St Thomas’ for a High Mass. As to the Office, if they followed the Wantage tradition this would have included Mattins and Evensong as well as the traditional sevenfold monastic office. The Constitution also specifies that three hours a day be given over to private devotions, one of which was to be spent in reading. Provision was also made for private (monthly) and corporate (annual) retreats. The direction of their Intercession was to be the Reign of Christ on earth and the visible unity of His Body, the Church. One of the items dropped from an earlier Constitution was the obligation to keep an unbroken watch before the Tabernacle, and we know from Council minutes that this omission ‘rather distressed’ both novice mistress and novices.

Silence was to be observed from 9am to 12 noon, and from 3pm to 6pm, in addition to the Greater Silence following Compline.

CSMV Rule
A copy of the CSMV Rule used and amended by Irene Christison [Mucknell Archives]

Although it was to be a life of ‘prayer and contemplation’, the Constitution envisages the active side of their life being made up of the spiritual works of mercy, aimed at women in social and professional life, as well as producing works of art and literature, the proceeds of which were to be allotted for their support. This was partly realized with the arrival in October of two professional artists: Joyce Meredith and Florence Gill. However there is no evidence that the Community engaged at this time in anything like spiritual direction, and in 1943 their ‘ministry to souls’ was said to consist of intercession and reparation.

It would seem that Mother Annie Louisa saw this work as distinctively Dominican in character. In one of her first classes she highlighted the absence of a Dominican Third Order within the Church of England and stressed the ‘tremendous need of the present day for the promulgation of the Faith’. In 1939 the Christian Truth Association had published her short biography of the Dominican Tertiary St Catherine of Siena, whose life and works played a prominent part in the rest of her teaching that year. It is possible, however, that she confused what was intended to be a Dominican structure with a Dominican charism.

The community’s logbook provides a fascinating, albeit frustratingly terse, account of the Community’s day to day life, but there are very few references to the Sisters carrying out any specific work. By the Winter of 1941 we know that Mary was involved in teaching Sunday School, presumably at St Thomas’, and that Irene had begun as an apprentice cutter in the habit room at Wantage. There is also an oblique reference to Marica preparing typescripts. Although the 1941 Constitution talks of a ‘permanent separation from the world’, this was to be understood primarily in a spiritual sense. There was at this stage to be no enclosure, although room was left open for individual vocations to develop in that direction. As a result the log book records plenty of comings and goings. Irene had been allowed to bring her car with her and assumed the role of taxi driver. They were also granted three weeks leave a year for the purpose of rest or visiting relations. On 9 October Irene went to stay with her sister for two nights in order to see her brother, then on leave from the army. As for correspondence with the outside world, they followed the ‘free and unconstrained’ practice adopted at Wantage, although there too letters had to ‘pass unopened through the hands of the Superior before and after delivery’.

The first Novices

Although the Constitution allowed for a Postulancy of no less than six months (a handwritten amendment on one version reduces it to four), by mid-April at the latest preparations were already in hand for the clothing of Cecily and Irene. The speed with which this took place may have been a recognition of their prior experience, both within CSMV and elsewhere.

On 12 April they made the first of several visits to Wantage to be fitted for their (black) habits, wimples and veils. A week later they had their first clothing class on the beginnings of the Rule and the Augustinian spirit of interior mortification. This in-house formation would later be supplemented by weekly trips to Wantage for choir practice, novice classes and Vespers.

On 9 May the two candidates went into Retreat, led by Mother Annie Louisa. She gave them a course of meditations on the Paternoster, linked with sayings from St Catherine of Siena and a ‘bit from our Rule’, as well as passages from Canticles for private meditation. They emerged on 14th, and the clothing took place at a Sung Mass at 8.45am presided over by the church historian and CSMV Warden The Rev Dr Beresford Kidd (1864-1948). It was also the occasion for Sr Majorie Thekla to be officially blessed and take her promises as novice mistress. As a clothing treat they were taken out (or rather chaperoned, for Irene drove) for a picnic lunch, returning home in time for a Festival Tea. ‘So ended a very happy day’.

The two remaining Postulants – Mary and Marica – were not clothed until September and January respectively. Mary completed the full six months, while Marica’s was postponed as a result of behaviour that led to her temporary dismissal. The incident in question took place during a fortnight’s rest with the Holy Rood Sisters at Findon in June. The logbook entries don’t go into details, but it was noted that her return was conditional on ‘show[ing] penitence’ and that ‘if she comes back, she begins at the bottom’. Whatever happened it would colour for some time the way in which CSMV Sisters regarded this nascent community.

A name change

Although she had been lecturing the Postulants and Novices on the Augustinian tradition and the history of the Third Orders since March, in December Mother Annie Louisa discovered that there had in fact never been Augustinian Regular Tertiaries. Not happy to set a precedent, Mother Maribel decided to change the name of the Community to the Society of the Salutation of Mary the Virgin. One terse explanation for this choice was jotted down in the logbook by Sr Marjorie Thekla: ‘Salutation being the old English name of the Visitation repr[esenting] the hidden life Mary saluted Eliz[abeth], we do not know in what words. Mary carried her secret in her heart but no one knew’. This aside, it was of course an obvious choice for a community made up of older women and those in poor health. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal had the same vocations in mind when they founded the Visitation Order at Annecy in 1610, and their Rule – which was Augustinian – was an important source of inspiration for Wantage’s founder, Dean Butler.

This of course meant that the Third Order was no longer divided into Regular and Secular. Over the previous nine months or so St Thomas’ had been used as a hub by Seculars in a way consonant with the original vision. A number of admissions had, for example, taken place there. But from this point onwards, although it would act as something of a recruiting ground, the Third Order went its own way. In 1950 long-standing confusion over the character of the Order led to it being recast as an Oblature.