A FRIEND described the young Lydia Sellon as “an excessively plain woman . . . who had that about her which commanded an admiration akin to awe”. Throughout her life, opinions about her varied. She was charming. She was imperious. She was winning. She was overbearing. She had vision. E. B. Pusey, her spiritual director, said that, her sex aside, she had the qualities of a bishop.
“I was passing through one of the worst parts of a seaport,” she reminisced about her time in Devonport. “It was midnight. I had had an urgent message from a dying woman. A person started forward and seized my dress. The dim lamp-light fell on my wooden cross. ‘You are a Sister of Mercy?’
“‘Yes. Can I do anything for you?’
“‘Promise me, if I am ill, to come to me.’
“‘I do promise’.”
At first, the reappearance of Sisters of Mercy in the life of the Church of England aroused deep suspicions. Dark rumours circulated of ascetic practices behind convent walls. There were riots in Sussex when it was reported that a nun had perished in suspicious circumstances. In Plymouth, the Sisters were pelted with potatoes and plates.
Long after Anglican nuns had been grudgingly accepted for their good works in the slums, there lingered an embarrassment at their presence in Anglican drawing rooms.
Athelstan Riley was a leading Anglo-Catholic layman in the late-19th century; his wife, Andalusia, did not share all his views. “Some of Athelstan’s black beetles,” she explained hurriedly to her afternoon callers as they caught sight of two nuns on the stairs of 2 Kensington Court.
And Anthony Trollope made merry with his sniggering reference in The Warden to the 107th clause of the Custody Bill, which ordered “the bodily search of nuns for Jesuitical symbols by aged clergymen”.
Despite persecution and ridicule, Lydia Sellon’s community carried on their work in the dockland slums of Plymouth, and among the cholera victims there, and later in London. Critics came to realise that the welfare work of the Sisters could not have been achieved without the discipline of corporate prayer.
They also came to accept that the establishment of housing for the homeless, ragged schools, hostels for girls at risk, homes for old sailors, soup kitchens, a convalescent hospital, and training schools could not have been achieved without a person of iron determination and inflexible self-discipline at the helm. Not for nothing was she the daughter of a naval commander.
In response to a call for volunteer nurses during the Crimean War, Mother Lydia called on Florence Nightingale in London. She had it in mind to accompany a party of eight Sisters to Scutari, but “after a long conversation”, it was decided that it would not be a good idea for the indomitable Mother Superior to be putting herself under the authority of the equally indomitable Miss Nightingale. These two powerful women came to an accommodation.
Her instructions to the Sisters on their departure for Constantinople were that they should adhere to their Rule and observe silence among themselves on the journey. At Scutari, they were to follow the instructions of the “medical man”, but not converse with him; when attending to the wounds of the soldiers, they were to think of the wounds of Christ, and “keep calm as before the foot of his Cross”.
For their material needs they were each issued by a well-wisher with a voluminous railway rug, which they learnt to use as mattress, blanket, shawl, carpet, and screen —such were the exigencies of travel to the Levant in 1854.
Travel to Hawaii was equally hazardous. In 1867, Mother Lydia and a party of seven Sisters travelled to Honolulu to found a school and mission house. The final leg of their journey by sea from San Francisco was in “a rickety, scarcely sea-worthy old boat”. When it was found that the water supply was contaminated, the Sisters were constrained to consume the captain’s entire stock of California wine.
Their work in Hawaii was well received. On Ascension Day 1867, the newly built priory was dedicated by the bishop. The procession included Mother Lydia, the Bishop, 40 girl-students with baskets of flowers, and Queen Emma of Hawaii, herself an Associate of the Society. Carried in the procession was a banner fashioned from a chasuble belonging to Dr Pusey.
Many sisterhoods were founded in the 19th century. They flourished in the 20th century, and were a valued part of church life. They began to dwindle when their teaching and pastoral work was taken over by secular agencies, and women found the doors open to the diaconate and priesthood.
Would Lydia Sellon have been dismayed to find Ascot Priory serving now as a retreat and conference centre? Surely not. Possessed, as she was, of episcopal qualities, she would have found a new vocation in the modern Church, with — or even without — the approval of Dr Pusey.
The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in the diocese of Guildford.
In 1848, Lydia Sellon (1821-76) — she did not use her first name, Priscilla — founded one of the first sisterhoods in the Church of England since the Reformation. The Devonport Sisters of Mercy worked among the destitute of Plymouth and Devonport, setting up schools, orphanages, and, housing projects, besides tending the sick during three cholera epidemics. In 1856, the community merged with the Sisters of the Holy Cross, in Regent’s Park, founded in 1845. The enlarged community became known as the Society of the Most Holy Trinity, and established its mother house at Ascot. It set up houses in several cities in the UK and overseas.
Mother Lydia is remembered by the Church on the anniversary of her death, 20 November 1876.