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‘I am sad, but it’s the right time’

by
20 March 2020

Jemima Thackray speaks to the last active member of the Community of St Peter at the end of an era

St Peter’s Charity 

The Community of St Peter, in 2000

The Community of St Peter, in 2000

WITH the stroke of a pen it was done: St Peter’s Home and Sisterhood, a religious community of women dedicated since the Victorian era to a Rule of Life centred on prayer and nursing the sick, was formerly closed as a charity. One of the last two remaining Sisters, Reverend Mother Angela, signed the paperwork required by the Charity Commission in the presence of the charity’s trustees.

She felt “happy and grateful”, she says, reflecting on the legal culmination of the Community to which she has devoted her life since the age of 22.

“There is a sense that the community here has served its purpose,” observes Andrew Falconer, Chaplain to the now dispersed community and to St Columba’s House, the on-site retreat house. “The Sisterhood is now making way for other things.”

The dissolution, as far as the Church of England is concerned, will follow swiftly once the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who chairs the Advisory Council on the Relations of Bishops and Religious Communities, makes a formal written request to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

 

FIGURES from 2018 showed that there were 37 “Recognised Religious Communities” in the Church of England, with approximately 320 professed members. The Independent reports, however, that the number of women entering religious orders in the Church has fallen steadily, from 504 in 2002, to 310 in 2012.

St Peter’s Charity Sisters from The Society of The Holy Cross, Seoul, in 1990

In recent years, communities have begun to share their houses with others. Malling Abbey invited in St Augustine’s College of Theology (Features, 7 September 2018), and, in 2018, the nuns of All Hallows’ Convent, Ditchingham, in Norfolk, decided to give away their buildings and nine-acre grounds in a Dragon’s Den-style contest (News, 23 September 2018).

While some have expressed alarm about numerical decline (Comment, 25 February 2009), others point to the growth of part-time vocations. In 2018, Recognised Communities reported an additional 2730 Oblates, Tertiaries, Associates or Outer Brothers and Sisters, while Acknowledged Communities reported 5310.

This movement towards a new expression of vocation to the religious life — one in which people live and work in secular society, and need not be celibates — chimes with the Church’s recognition of the growth of dispersed communities, a model that dates back to the early 13th century, when St Francis of Assisi formed his Third Order (News, 26 May 2017; Features, 28 September 2018).

 

AFTER the legal formalities to end the St Peter’s Community charity, the staff at the retreat centre, St Columba’s House, raised a glass and cut a cake to celebrate 159 years of Christian service given by a community that started its journey in a small house in Brompton Square, London, and ended with a fine collection of buildings among a forest of pine trees, most of which are now privately owned, on Maybury Hill in Woking.

“It’s not the end of course,” says Mother Angela, who now lives off-site, while the only other surviving member of St Peter’s Community is now cared for in a nursing home near by. “God’s work continues in new ways. And not much will change for me: I will still come over every day for morning prayer, and visit Sister Margaret Paul at her home. I am sad, but it’s the right time.”

St Peter’s Charity Sisters from The Society of The Holy Cross, Seoul, in 1990  

The community was founded in 1861 by the businessman and philanthropist Benjamin Lancaster, who was a governor of St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park. He was concerned about the convalescence of the poorest patients who returned to hard conditions after a stay in hospital — a challenge that is redolent of talk of “bed-blocking” in the NHS today. The 12-bed facility at Brompton Square was run by two Sisters, who were required to nurse the patients while leading “a life of prayer and service, in poverty of spirit, purity of heart and obedience of will”.

Soon, the house in Brompton Square was outgrown, and the community moved to Kilburn, where a children’s ward was added, and an offshoot was established in Somerset to nurse patients who had TB. Some of the Sisters were also sent out from the hospitals, nursing cholera victims in the slums of east London, and looking after undernourished children at a holiday home in St Leonards-on-Sea. A leaflet from the time says that people in St Leonards-on-Sea took pleasure in watching the Sisters nurse the children to “become brown and rosy instead of thin and pale”.

The community also sent 17 Sisters as missionaries to Korea in 1892, when the Rt Revd John Corfe, the first Anglican Bishop in Korea, asked for support from the UK’s religious communities. Sister Mary Clare, who was the first Mother Superior of the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross in Seoul, nurtured the young community there until, in 1950, she was captured and martyred by Communist soldiers during the Korean War.

This community in South Korea continues to thrive, and is known particularly for its work in women’s education and training. Its members are also active in training and nurturing novices, who are soon to open a religious community in Myanmar.

St Peter’s Charity Mother Angela in the kitchen with Sister Fidelia

The two communities in Woking and South Korea have remained mission partners over the years, and some of the Sisters from Seoul visited in 2008 to work and pray for a renewal of vocations to the religious life in the UK. “The work in Korea is part of the work of St Peter’s Sisterhood continuing,” Mother Angela says.

 

THE Sisters continued to care for patients, including some sent from NHS hospitals near by, at the St Peter’s Home convalescence facility throughout the early to mid-20th century, with . As the state provision of healthcare improved, however, the Sisters (by then living in a smaller convent built in the grounds) turned their efforts to caring for the elderly in the on-site nursing home, as well as to serving those who came for rest and quiet at the retreat centre, St Columba’s House.

Mother Angela entered the convent as its youngest Sister. She had already completed nursing training; her parents had hoped that working in a hospital would put her off the idea of becoming a nun, but she was determined. “My mother was not very happy with my decision. When I first mentioned the idea to her, she told me never to talk about it in this house again. But the call just got stronger. I’d always seen the nuns when I was a girl at Summer School and thought they were all rather queer — I think it was God’s way of getting back at me!”

St Peter’s Charity St Peter’s Charity 

She remembers the days when the Sisters would keep all seven Divine Offices, and, as well as nursing duties, she would “rotate between the laundry and the kitchen. It was all simple work. I would chat away to God as I was going along. But I needed the formality of liturgical prayer, too: we would say the Office with intentions for all the people who were sick in the hospital.”

 

HOSPITALITY is a charism of many religious communities, but it seems a defining feature of the stories told about St Peter’s Community. Sister Margaret Paul, the other surviving member of the Sisterhood, remembers when her mother became very ill, which presented her with “a very real crisis of vocation as my mother was alone and her welfare was not only a loving concern but a moral duty and responsibility. But it was decided that my mother could come and be looked after in this Community. I was privileged to care for her and be with her at the end.

“I learned then, as I have continued to learn ever since, that, in God, there is no complication, contradiction, or confusion, only perfect harmony and peace, so that what is right in one direction is also right in everything else — ‘no variableness or shadow of turning’.”

St Peter’s Charity Rosamira Ward, St. Peter’s Convent, Woking

Mother Lucy Clare, a former Mother Superior who died in 2018, wrote about her experience of the Sisters’ hospitality when she first visited as a young aspirant and developed appendicitis during her stay. It was the care that she received from the community which confirmed her vocation: “I discovered I was receiving what I had come to give. It’s a family made up of many individual people, yet each finding within a community the place of their vocation — that place where Christ is central. All that is done is done from the heart, where love is.”

 

ST COLUMBA’S HOUSE, the 25-bedroom retreat house that opened its doors “to people of all faiths and none” in 1969, is one of the ways in which the legacy of hospitality and care is continued. One of its “USPs” (unique selling-points), Mr Falconer says, “is how international our guests are, and from many Christian traditions, including Russian Orthodox and many groups from the Anglican Communion around the world”.

The Sisters have always been active in greeting, serving, listening, and praying for residents of the retreat house. Mother Angela still pops in every day to talk to the chaplain and the guests. Now, besides continuing the tradition begun by the Sisters by aiming to treat every visitor as Christ might be treated, the House offers a spirituality programme that draws on Christian Celtic traditions.

“Many lives have been touched and enhanced by both their ministry and their prayers,” Dr Walker says. He has been Bishop Visitor to the community for the past decade and acknowledges the ways in which its legacy will continue. He thinks that it is “fitting” that it is ending “at a time when fresh forms of religious life are springing up in many parts of the Church”.

“There is a sense in which, as St Peter’s Community comes to an end, there is room being made for a new kind of dispersed religious community that is very much rooted in the mystic and contemplative Christian traditions,” Mr Falconer says. “People are still looking for structure in an unstructured life — and St Columba’s House will continue to be part of this movement of renewal.”

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