History of the Community

'We have come out of seeming chaos and the melting pot' - Sr Hilary Margaret (1944)

The Sisters at Burford Priory (1953)

1939-1949: a tentative beginning

Inspired in part by the Visitation Order, the Society of the Salutation of Mary the Virgin was founded in 1941 as a community for women whose age or health prevented them from pursuing a vocation to the Religious Life in already established communities.

The Third Order CSMV: 1937-1941

Earlier in 1937 a group of Associates of the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage (CSMV), who had made known their desire for a life of greater devotion and commitment while still living 'in the world', were offered the chance of joining its revived 'Exterior Sisterhood'. In the past Exterior Sisters (or Externs) were women who lived by a very simple Rule of Life; as well as upholding the community in their prayers, they lent themselves for varying periods of time to live and work in the branch houses where CSMV carried out its work of education, nursing and other forms of social care. By the 1930s this role had fallen into abeyance, but a new and more definite Rule of Life was drawn-up to meet the needs of the seventeen or so women who were now looking for something more than a loose association and something less than conventual life. Although nothing changed in substance, very soon afterwards they expressed their wish to be known as Tertiaries, and so were constituted as the Third Order of St Mary the Virgin. 

The majority were single women. Unlike their Victorian sisters many had pursued independent careers as teachers, doctors, secretaries, actresses and artists. Irene Christison was a graduate of Edinburgh University, where she had been a leading voice in the Women's Medical Society. She had worked in hospitals in London and the United States, served as a medical missionary in India and South Africa, and had finally settled down to a private practice in rural Sussex. Like a number of her fellow Tertiaries she had at one time been a novice and, like them, found herself unequal to the demands of convent life. At forty years old she would have been considered old for the Religious Life and in fact she suffered from indifferent health, both physical and mental. 

The march of equal rights that was hastened along by the First World War also produced a type which neither Francois de Sales nor Dean Butler could ever have imagined: the devout divorcee. But it was a sign of the times that three of the Tertiaries had failed marriages behind them. And this, just as much as rheumatoid arthritis, was a bar - in this case a moral bar - to anyone wanting to take the veil. Such was the case of the aristocratic Sybil Charlesworth. That her family resorted to imprisoning her one day in a chest, releasing her only when a somewhat diffident suitor finally proposed, did not of course augur well. And in 1931, six years after they were married, she petitioned the Courts to release her from her obligations. Some years later she had the bravery to approach CSMV as an enquirer, and her case was referred to the Community's Council for deliberation. No doubt she saw the writing on the wall and, pre-empting their decision, she decided to throw her lot in with the newly-founded Third Order. Although we might now find it hard to square with the Gospel, the creation of such "daughter" communities was one way in which a social, racial and sexual 'purity' could be maintained within convents while still honouring vocations. A very live issue at the time, for example, was the question of virginity; it was becoming increasingly rare among young aspirants, large numbers of whom were having to be sent away. 

Widows however were not compromised in the same way, and a decision had recently been made to allow them into the fold. Three of those first Tertiaries were also widows. When it was imagined what kind of people might be drawn to this new venture, one suggestion was elderly widows 'whose loneliness had drawn them closer to God'. At fifty Margery Fitzwilliams Hyde was not particularly old, but she was one of the 240,000 women who were widowed by the First World War. She was left with three young children as chatelaine of Longworth House in Berkshire, only a few miles from Wantage and the Community where her mother used to go for Quiet Days. She had always been pious - at her wedding she carried a Prayer Book instead of the usual bouquet - but the loss she suffered must surely have intensified and deepened that faith. In speeches she later gave as a Diocescan leader of the Mother's Union, in which she warned of the dangers of isolation - 'Christ taught His Disciples to gather together' - one can hear echoes of a loneliness which 'the unifying effect of a great many people of the same ideals' was meant to assuage. For some this would naturally have been true of the Third Order, while we know that others would have preferred it to be a more solitary affair. These later had the opportunity of becoming Oblates. 

From its original conception the Third Order contained opposing tensions. One of these led to it being secularised, so that it quickly came to include married women such as Cecile Hutchinson, wife of the Vicar of Mansfield. It is said that on the day of her Profession as a Tertiary in 1940, at the height of the German invasion scare, she declined the offer of staying an extra night in retreat at Wantage in order to get back and be with her young children. No, no, said the then Mother General, the Germans won't be here for another week. And that was that. But a glance at the log book for this period shows that behind her apparent insouciance was an informed anxiety: among the everyday entries are those marking the Nazi advance through Europe.

For Cecile, as for most of these women, the Third Order met their spiritual needs. In Sr Juste Blencowe they were given the equivalent of a novice guardian, who corresponded with the group through monthly letters of formation and counsel. These still survive and make interesting reading. From the outset there was some disquiet from on-high at what was perceived as their 'excessively pious' play-acting, and in one these missives she apologises for a 'brutally direct' exhortation to avoid looking unattractive on purpose: 'There is not the remotest reason for devout people to merit the derisive word 'frumps". Juste also organised conferences and retreats, and among them friendships were born and cemented.

While staying at Wantage they were allowed to wear a purple veil and to sit in choir, which must have delighted the play-actors among them. Yet it didn't satisfy everyone. Among them was a very small group who held out for a fully conventual life.

St Thomas' and the Creation of SSMV: 1941

In 1939-1940, after a false start living alongside a home for 'wayward' girls in Buxted in Sussex - illness and the demands of war making such experiments impossible - four women were brought together in early March 1941 at St Thomas' Convent in Oxford. This was already home to an aged and much-diminished community which after a chequered history had finally handed itself over to CSMV, and there survives an amused description by a visitor from New Zealand of the unworldliness that then prevailed behind its red-brick facade. When one considers the upheaval that faced CSMV during war time; that even in peace time the newly-elected Mother General, Maribel, would be burdened with the care of around 300 Sisters and dozens of branch houses, together with their dependants, it is remarkable that she undertook to honour the spiritual aspirations of these four not very promising women. And they were no mean aspirations: there was great disappointment when they were denied, as they had hoped, the chance to dedicate themselves to Perpetual Adoration of the Sacrament. But Maribel was herself a born contemplative, and would come under fire from some of her own Sisters who felt she was trying to lead the community too far away from its roots in the so-called 'active' life. Whatsmore, she was a known champion of the underdog. So the challenge may in the end have proved irrestisible. It was a tentative experiment, she told her Council, and time would tell whether there was anything genuine about it.

Although a clear sense of their identity and charism would alude them for many years to come, it was established from the outset that the primary work of this new venture was prayer. At first they lived under the Augustinian Rule of CSMV, roughly tailored to their circumstances and with a mitigated austerity. Unable to mortify themselves in the usual ways their particular ascesis was to be, in the words of Maribel, a 'faithful, strict and unremitting attendance' at the Offices of prayer. From a desire to remain a part of the common prayer of the Anglican Church the Sisters at Wantage were obligated not only to the usual sevenfold monastic Office, but also to Mattins and Evensong. By the 1930s there was open discontent at what was felt to be an impossible burden, but a compromise between opposing parties of traditionalists and innovators was still a long way off when the new Regular Tertiaries took to their stalls. In addition to this they were allocated three hours a day of private prayer and reading. The direction of their intercessions - given to them, and not chosen - was to be towards the coming of Christ's Kingdom on earth and the visible Unity of His Church.

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