Last week, a truly historic event took place, with the formal erection, solemn profession and monastic consecration of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the former convent of another Marian order, the Little Sisters of the Assumption.
A year ago, after the sisters’ reception into the Catholic Church, and their formal recognition, on New Years day 2013, as a new religious association within the Catholic Church (but not yet as a full-fledged religious community) by the Ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, Mgr Keith Newton, I wrote the following:
“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 [some time] 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.’”
Well, they have had, as they thought, an uncertain year, for much of which it did seem as though their prospects of finding a suitable home were really not looking good: they lived for the first eight months after their reception into the Church as guests at an enclosed Benedictine abbey on the Isle of Wight. This seems to have been an important learning experience; but not one that could have gone on indefinitely. “The abbess and the community there shared their Benedictine life with us and welcomed us into their hearts in the most wonderfully generous way”, Mother Winsome said on hearing the news that they were indeed to have a new home. “It has been a life of complete harmony and joy and it will be a wrench to leave. But we are pleased beyond measure that our journey of faith has taken this new direction.”
Their new buildings, at 99 Old Oscottt Hill, Kingstanding, a stone’s throw from the Maryvale insititute in Birmingham, are not, it has to be said, picturesque. Going from beautiful Gothic architecture to something that looks like an airport lounge or an NHS hospital is a common (some, but not me, would say salutary) experience for Anglican converts. The sisters’ new monastery, after the architectural beauties of Wantage, might have been depressing: but clearly they are not to them. For, truly, once you have been welcomed into their new home by the sisters, you hardly notice the architectural privations of the place, so glowing is their faith.
All of the sisters had already, as Anglicans, made their final vows, at different times, widely separated, something which was acknowledged in the ceremony in the fact that after Mother Winsome herself made her Profession of Solemn Vows, the rest of the sisters followed in order, “according to their years in religion”: a recognition of the reality of their vocations as Anglican sisters (which once the Catholic Church would have denied, simply — and absurdly — considering their former Community of Saint Mary the Virgin to have been an association of pious protestant laywomen).
What we witnessed last week was the final vows of all the sisters TOGETHER but one after the other: this led to a tenfold repetition of the same words, a truly awesome thing to witness, for the repetition brought home to those of us who were NOT making these vows what a profoundly solemn total commitment was being entered into.
The sisters began by replying in the affirmative, together, to each of the following questions, put by the Ordinary:
Will you live according to the Rule of St Benedict and the Constitutions and Directory of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the rest of your life?
Will you be gentle and loving to your Sisters and to all people, serving Christ in them in the Spiirit of the Holy Rule?
Do you promise stability within this monastery for the rest of your life?
Do you promise conversion of life and obedience according to the Rule of St Benedict and the traditions of this monastery?
Do you promise to devote every faculty of body, mind and spirit to God’s service in this community forever?
Then, individually, each sister placed her hand between those of the Ordinary, and pronounced the formula of profession:
I, Sister [name here] make my profession and promise to Almighty God before the whole company of heaven in the presence of the congregation and into your hands, Monsignor Keith Newton, Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, that I will live for the rest of my life in stability. conversion of life and obedience according to the rule of St Benedict and the Constitutions and Directory of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Each sister then signed her Chart of Profession, which was placed on the altar. That was the core of the liturgy of Profession. It was followed by the litany of saints, and the handing of a leather-bound copy of the rule of St Benedict and a copy the Constitution of the new monastery to each sister as she knelt, putting her hands between Mother Winsome’s as a sign of obedience. After Mass, the recessional hymn, heartily sung by the whole congregation, was the Salve Regina.
The whole thing was unforgettable; there are moments when I am particularly proud to be a Catholic: and this was one of them. The Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary are a jewel in the crown, not just of the Ordinariate – of which they are, as the Ordinary, Mgr Newton said, the praying heart – but of the English Catholic Church as a whole. Now, they need our support and our practical help. We should all pray for them; and we should, if we can, support them financially. So if you have the odd thousand pounds that you were wondering what to do with, the sisters will use it better than you could; but anything you send will be used for the building of the kingdom, by these good and courageous women who are so close to it.