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A pristine new religious community in England, full of life and confidence, is a sign of hope: we must all pray for the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Their reception into the Church will bring many of the Oxford Movement’s deepest insights

By on Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Oxford Oratory

The Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Oxford Oratory

I have had, as we all have, many good moments in my life as a Catholic (greatly outweighing the inevitable bad ones); but yesterday was one of the very best. Have I ever, I try to recall, had such a vivid sense of how glorious it is to be a Catholic, of the transcendent splendour of the Catholic life? Probably, but I wonder if any liturgy ever passed off with such an exultant sense of joyful celebration? I am referring, as some of you who read my last post may have surmised, to the reception of 11 sisters led by their mother Superior (all the active ones) now formerly of the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, into the Catholic Church, and their formal erection (joined by another former Anglican sister who had already been received) as a new community by the Ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, Mgr Keith Newton.

They were received wearing their habits; but the habits looked different; it turned out that that was because the sisters, having now adopted the rule of St Benedict, had adopted the traditional wimple of the Benedictine order, and their habits were now black, not blue (two of the remaining CSMV sisters had come in their blue habits to support them, and were seated in the pew behind). There was something unexpectedly moving about the formal document erecting the brand new community, who will be known as the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (SBVM), despite its being couched in the unlovely bureaucratic language apparently beloved of canon lawyers; it was solemnly proclaimed by the Ordinary (who was wearing the most splendid baroque mitre I have ever seen, very tall indeed, and suitably impressive he looked in it): but the formal document brought home what had happened. Here was a pristine, freshly minted Catholic community, fizzing with new life and (unlike, I fear, most Catholic sisters these days) wearing full habits, based on their old ones but adapted to their new Benedictine lives. I had feared they might be received in lay clothes, only being clothed in their habits once the new community had been formally established, but there was no nonsense of that kind. An intrinsic part of their habit is still the rosary, which hangs at their sides, and each rosary was blessed and individually copiously sprinkled with holy water by Mgr Newton.

I have never been wholeheartedly one for the sign of peace: but during it, I looked over at the newly erected community, joyfully exchanging it among themselves, and a deeply moving sight it was. Others were looking too: it reduced one lady to tears. I remembered my own reception into the Church over 20 years ago: afterwards, an old lady came up to me and said, very simply, “welcome home”: that was a moment I have never forgotten, and I have always greeted converts in these words ever since: I said it to several of the sisters afterwards.

It turned out that Fr Daniel Seward of my own parish, St Aloysius, Oxford (he is provost of the Oxford Oratory), had been preparing the sisters for their reception for the last year (the ordinariate couldn’t have chosen better, the Oratory is a great conversion centre), and he made the same point, welcoming them home while at the same time taking seriously what the community had already achieved, against the Anglican grain, within the Church of England.

This is how he began his rather splendid sermon (you can read it all here):

“My dear Mother, my dear Sisters,

“Welcome home!

“I say this even though you do not have at present a physical home, because for all of us our holy Mother the Church is our home. In this life we have no abiding city, but already we know something of the heavenly Jerusalem, because we are united with the Church triumphant through the communion of saints. When in 1845, Blessed John Henry Newman was received into the One Fold of the Redeemer, he said, “what an outcast I seemed to myself, when I took down from the shelves of my library the volumes of St Athanasius or St Basil, and set myself to study them; and how, on the contrary, when at length I was brought into Catholic communion, I kissed them with delight, with a feeling that in them I had more than all that I had lost, and, as though I were directly addressing the glorious saints, who bequeathed them to the Church, I said to the inanimate pages, ‘You are now mine, and I am yours, beyond any mistake.’

“Today sisters, you can say the same, for you become one with St Gregory the Great, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Benedict, St Edward the Confessor and all those holy men and women who have been signs through the ages of God’s providence.” He pointed out how deeply the CSMV was rooted in the history of the attempted Catholic revival in the Church of England, and how closely the Oxford Movement, linked with that, was later enriched and deepened within the Catholic Church by one man, John Henry Newman. “On February 2 1848,” pointed out Fr Daniel, “two significant events which stem from this reawakening took place: John Henry Newman founded the English Oratory at Maryvale and William John Butler, the Vicar of Wantage, founded the Community of St Mary the Virgin”: an act which sprang from a movement of which Newman had been the uncontested intellectual leader, and remained so, even after his “defection” to Rome.

The lives of the SBVM will now be uncertain. They have nothing: but they are full of confidence that all will be well, in God’s way, not theirs. They will be spending the next six weeks with a Benedictine community, to acclimatise themselves to Benedictine ways. Then, they will be homeless and penniless: in the words of their splendid superior, Mother Winsome: “We’ve got an uncertain future. But we are doing this because we truly believe this is God’s call. The Bible is full of people called to step out in faith not knowing where they were going or how they will be provided for and that truly is the situation we are following.”

The ordinariate, I am told, is looking for a new home for them, with some realistic hopes of actually finding one. Meanwhile, the ordinariate monsignori are in no doubt as to the historic significance for the ordinariate itself of the establishment of this new community. As a spokesman said: “We are delighted to have a community of sisters at the heart of our work. As we continue to welcome Anglicans into the full communion of the Catholic Church, and establish a distinctive life of witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the prayerful support of these sisters will be invaluable. We look forward, also, to receiving a great deal from their rich liturgical and musical heritage, which is rightly respected far and wide as a positive contribution to the wider renewal of the Sacred Liturgy which we are currently seeing in the Catholic Church”. (We got a small taste of that after Mass: there was no recessional hymn; instead, the sisters processed to the lady chapel, where they alone sang the Salve Regina, in Latin, clear and confident, a most beautiful sound). Then the Mass truly was over; it had all been an almost stunning and glorious experience, one I will never forget.

Now, it is for all of us to pray for the new community, that it may flourish and grow. I hope for new vocations to it (I would bet on several in the next 12 months: any takers?), and will certainly pray for that. This historic event (I don’t think it’s too much to call it that) is a sign of great hope for the future of the Catholic Church in England. Other signs are to be found in certain dioceses, both North and South, two in particular: and above all in today’s news from the Diocese of Westminster. This is a time of hope for the Church in this country.

  • teigitur

    A great day for the Church. “Welcome home” indeed.

  • Deodatus

    How beautifully you write of this Blessed occasion – our prayer is now that this new Order be given its earthly abode and happy security for its Ministry of life and prayer!

  • Elizabeth Mills

    Thank you Dr Oddie.  A glorious occasion, and so beautifully described.  We sat enthalled throughout the reception, service, the announcements.  It was simply one of the most moving and honourable events I have witnessed in our church – and there have been many!!

  • ParingaHall

    Welcome home dear sisters. May you flourish in the Lord.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    A warm, welcome home, Sisters! 

    Yay!!!

  • http://twitter.com/dlongenecker1 Dwight Longenecker

    Wish I had been there! Thanks for the good write up

  • Peregrinus

    Warmest congratulations to the sisters in their faithful witness to the unity which Our Lord calls us into. They will be greatly blessed for their heroic virtue.

  • wlinden

    Are these Lewis’ “Some Ladies at Wantage”?

  • Juan Velez

    Welcome home Sisters! Your homecoming is a great joy to the Church. We will pray for you.

  • http://twitter.com/John_Fisher51 John Fisher

    Excuse me if I hold the applause. What took them so long? My view is either a person holds to the Catholic Faith, (and Anglicanism has never been a proponent of the Catholic Faith contrary to the imaginations of the so called High Church Movement), or he does not. You cannot long stride the theological fence without serious damage to your theological and doctrinal convictions. The words Anglican Catholic are an oxymoron, as classical Anglicanism has always had more in common with the views of John Calvin than with my namesake, John Fisher.

  • Jeannine

     Just what I wanted to know!

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Whilst I agree with you about sitting on the theological fence, we don’t always respond to God’s grace immediately. There is much that is good within Anglicanism but (as the current state of that communion shows) to be preserved, those goods need to be within the visible Church. I struggled to leave Anglicanism and can understand why the sisters did. God bless them and let’s hope that other Anglicans will realize that their true home is within the Catholic Church.

  • JabbaPapa

    Welcome back !!!

  • W Oddie

    I have always assumed so

  • W Oddie

    In fact, the dedication of Perelandra was one result of a letter written by Sister penelope, one of the Wantage sisters to Lewis, after she had read Out of the silent Planet. This led to a correspondence between them.  The Mother Superior invited Lewis to come and talk to the Junior Sisters in April 1942, when he had nearly finished writing Perelandra. Two years later he wrote an introduction to Sister Penelope’s translation of Athanasius, De incarnatione Verbi (The Incarnation of the Word of God, 1944). 

  • Dr Pusey

    “They are homeless and penniless” and, as the able bodied members of the community have walked out on the rest of the  thirty or so sisters most of whom are aged and infirm. Four of these twelve are over eighty years of age. While I wish them well I wonder whether the consequences of all this will be as triumphant as Dr Oddie predicts. Given the number of people currently joining any religious orders, it is highly unlikely that there will be a flood of postulants. But maybe I am wrong…let’s wait and see.

  • Gildaswiseman

    Fruits of the rosary, I suspect.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    You accuse these Sisters of walking out on the aged and infirm.  It is my understanding that they wanted to stay put but separate but this was not allowed to them.  Dr Oddie wrote in his previous offering:

    The sisters had hoped that those becoming Catholic — who are the core of the community, those most active in its life — could stay on at the convent in order to care for the remainder of the sisters, who are mostly old and frail, and for whose care they have thus far been responsible. Anglican and Catholic sisters would have continued to sing the office together, but there would have been “appropriate Eucharistic provision”: the Catholic sisters would have had their own Mass. That way, says the community’s mother superior (who is leading the group of sisters soon to be received into the Church) they could have continued to look after the older sisters. But, writes the superior, Mother Winsome: “After considerable discussion with the authorities of the Church of England and the ordinariate, it has become clear that this would not be possible.”

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4TV5YCE7SP4QIMDP3WS7P4O6MY Asantey

    God is to be praised for making the John 17 come to fruition. Amen and Glory to God for this wonderful gift to the Catholic Church in England and to the Universal Church.

  • Savonarola

    I wish them every blessing, but a dozen elderly nuns are hardly likely to set anything on fire with new life. As for that ridiculous mitre (which has no purpose other than to make a little man look big and therefore important) how I would love to knock it off.

  • W Oddie

    They’re not all elderly, actually they’re a good range of ages, including (mostly) the young and early middle-aged. As for the mitre, that pathetic comment shows what a nasty pathetic little man you must be. Mgr Newton doesn’t just look important; He IS important, very important, and I thank God for him and his ministry.Savonarola be damned.

  • Iainw9

    Amen, welcome Sisters – God bless you all

  • Dr Pusey

    If you read the Bishop of Oxford’s letter in the Church Times it was Rome which decided that it would not be possible to have an ecumenical community which made Dr Oddie’s previous offering rather misleading in that he seemed to lay the blame on the Anglican Bishops for this. They then had the choice of staying or going but I guess by that time it was too late. It still leaves the remainder of the community in a helpless position and themselves “homeless and penniless” to quote the preacher at their reception ceremony.

  • JFJ

    Great article.  Wish I could have been there as I know one of the sisters.  Someone should buy the Begbroke Priory and give it to them!

  • cephas2

    The new orders are so greatly needed in this country. This week my husband, who is terminally ill, was brought into the Catholic Church by a very holy priest from the Franciscans Immaculate, who are about 20 miles away from us, because our parish priest does not believe in the need to ‘change’ anyone. 

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I am afraid I do not have access to the Church Times.  However I would guess that the Church of England has ample resources to support those who have stayed with them.  Presumably the Sisters who have remained have whatever endowment the Convent possessed?

  • Dr Pusey

    The Bishop of Oxford has set up an advisory committee to work things out at Wantage. (that was also in his letter). I would think that in the end they will be moved into nursing care and the beautiful convent will end up as flats to pay for the care. There is a down side to every story alas. Best wishes to all the sisters wherever they are.

  • Charlemagne

    Your priest is quite right. Do you think Our Lord would have rejected your dear husband if you hadn’t travelled the 20 miles?

  • Happy

    Reading this from far away in Western Canada it is indeed a joyful story. I am sure God will provide abundantly .

  • Nicolas Bellord

    So you see no need to change or be converted?  I am afraid your understanding of the Catholic Faith is sorely lacking.  Being brought into the Catholic Church gives one the opportunity to confess one’s sins, to make amends by prayer, to commune with the Real Presence and a great peace as death approaches.

    The priest who refused this should resign or be sacked.

  • John Shiner Coventry

    Delighted to welcome the Sisters of the Virgin Mary to the Catholic family. Several years ago I went on a pilgrimage to Walsingham and made a visit while there to the Anglican Church I believe it was called
    Saint Marys it had been rebuilt after the great fire in the sixties. While looking around I came across
    two elderly nuns and we had a short but joyful conversation,it appears they were Anglican and came from near Oxford ?. They told me how sad they were not being united to the Catholic Church,I also 
    felt sad for them and sad that such good holy nuns should not be part of the Catholic Church. I have told this story many times since then and always felt sad .So this is a very joyful time for me.

                               John 

  • Anglicanus Catholicus

    Perhaps you do not choose to have access to the Church Times? You can buy it in newsagents and see it online. As a Catholic I can say that it often has articles from which even Catholics can learn.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    No I do not choose to have access to the Church Times. One is governed by what one can afford and what one has time to read and frankly I find the position of the Church of England utterly lacking in justification.   The nearest newsagent who might stock it is many miles away and the online version seems to be restricted to subscribers.  In any case I could not find the Bishops letter on their website.  

    However it does look more than probable that the remaining sisters will be provided for.  I am sure that the sisters who have joined the ordinariate will have satisfied themselves on that score and I just thought it was lacking in charity to say what Dr Pusey said.

  • tim

    Maybe not, but why should the parish priest refuse such a request from someone on the point of death?

  • tim

    So, not joy in heaven about repentant sinners (if that’s the appropriate epithet, which I doubt) but rather cavilling about delay?