the seal of the medieval priory
The Sisters in Walsingham


Sisters walking down to Stella MarisThe story of the Sisters in Walsingham divides neatly into two parts - before and after 16 April 1947.

In 1924 Fr Patten approached Mother Sarah of the Community of St Peter, at Horbury in Yorkshire, for help in running the new Hospice and generally assisting with duties in the Shrine. She agreed and first sent Sisters Veronica (the senior), Marguerite and Grace. Over the years these Sisters, and the others who followed, became much loved in the village and Shrine, and an enormous help to Fr Patten.

In 1930 the Community suffered an internal division which resulted in Mother Sarah's moving most of the sisters to Laleham in Surrey, from where the Walsingham sisters then came, rather than from Horbury. Harmony between Fr Patten and Mother Sarah continued until Fr Patten began to think in terms of establishing a permanent autonomous House in Walsingham, breaking away from the Laleham Community.

The story of the subsequent conflict between these two very strong personalities is told in detail, using original documents from the Walsingham Archives, by Michael Yelton in chapter ten of his biography of Fr Patten. Fr Stephenson's account is in Walsingham Way, pp 179-89. (for publishing details see Bibliography page)

The outcome was the departure in early 1947 of the Laleham sisters, and the arrival on 16 April of three Sisters from the Society of St Margaret, sent by Mother Cicely from St Saviour's Priory, Haggerston, in East London. These were Sisters Margaret Mary (the senior), Angela and Julian, who thus formed a branch house.

someone who was there at the time wrote:
I well remember the three sisters actually arriving - at about 4.30 pm by train. They immediately got down to work, Sister Angela in the Anglican Shrine Sacristy and Sister Julian to cook supper for a large number of people who were staying at the Hospice. Sister Julian also managed to fit in being Sacristan at St Mary's Church.

The story of how Fr Patten brought this about is well known and often highly embroidered. The plain truth was that when in London for a routine meeting of the Guardians' executive committee in March 1947 he had discussed the problem of the sisters with Fr Reggie Kingdon, a Guardian and experienced East End priest, who had suggested that he go to St Saviour's Priory to talk to Mother Cicely, which he did that very day, before returning to Norfolk.

He presented the change to the readers of Our Lady's Mirror in the Spring/Summer number of 1947, as follows:

The little Community of Our Lady of Walsingham, as many of our readers will know by now, has come to an end, and the Sisters who were testing their vocations have either gone on to other Communities or found they have no vocation. Their place has been taken by the Sisters of the Priory of S Saviour, Haggerston, who most gallantly stepped into the breach and generously came to our aid. They have come in the hope and with the intention of forming a new Community for Walsingham, and so we hope eventually we shall have our own long longed-for Convent. S Saviour’s is an autonomous convent sprung from and within the Congregation of East Grinstead, with its own Mother and Noviciate, and we look forward to the time when such a House can be established here, a daughter of S Saviour’s and within the same great and venerable congregation. The spirit of Dr Neale [its founder] seems to watch over our Sisters and we trust it will develop and strengthen. Your prayers are asked for the Sisters of S Saviour’s Priory and those working here, and we must not forget those who so generously gave themselves for the work of the Shrine in past years; the Community of S Peter, Laleham, was for many years untiring and unstinting in its generosity and we owe much to the Reverend Mother Sarah and her Sisters. So, too, our prayers must go up for those who in recent years came to test their vocations in the Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham and who laboured with so much love for Our Lady's House. It is sad when changes take place and yet there are always compensations, and whilst missing our old friends very much we are more than happy with our Sisters and grateful to the Mother of the Community of S Saviour’s for their great venture of faith.

go to photographs from the archives

The full story of the Society of St Margaret in Walsingham has been written by Sister Mary Teresa SSM (© The Priory of Our Lady) and is reprinted here with permission:

THE PRIORY OF OUR LADY, WALSINGHAM

In 1855 Dr John Mason Neale founded at East Grinstead in Sussex the Society of St Margaret. This great priest inspired the first Sisters with the understanding that God is glorified not primarily by getting some particular work done, but by entering deeply into the mystery of Christ, and each finding there her own personal sanctification. The cross, which the Sisters wear, is a central symbol of their life, expressing outwardly that intense love of the Saviour, which is the source of their varied works. These works have taken the Sisters into many parts of the world-to America, Canada, Haiti, Sri Lanka and South Africa. As their number increased they went out to found new Autonomous Houses and Mission Houses, all bound together by a common Rule and Constitution. Each has its own Statutes and House Customs, which are relevant to the particular country, area etc. The Founder left them with a special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Name of Jesus.

St Saviour’s Priory in Haggerston is one of these Houses, formed by the Founder himself in East London amid some of the worst slums of the time. Here the name of Mother Kate is still held in honour, and it was to her Convent that Fr Hope Patten, the Restorer of the Shrine, made the request which led the Sisters of St Margaret to Walsingham in 1947. During the 25 years from 1922, Walsingham had witnessed the setting up of the image of Our Lady, the re-building of the Holy House, the creation of the pilgrimage church, and the restoration of the Shrine as a great centre of faith and devotion in honour of the Incarnation. During these years various Orders provided Sisters who struggled valiantly with the ever-increasing work, but none were able to continue, for one reason or another. By 1947 it seemed as if Walsingham would be left without Sisters. However, one foggy night, Fr Hope Patten appeared at the door of the Priory in London. Asking for Mother Cicely, he made his desperate request without preliminaries. "Mother, we need Sisters for Walsingham." With the Founder’s maxim in mind - 'the impossible must be done' - her daring response in the affirmative seemed to show that his petition was of God. With the minimum of delay, three Sisters were sent, and a Branch House of St Saviour’s Priory began.

At first, the Sisters lived in part of the old Hospice, named 'Stella Maris', their strenuous work in the Shrine and village bringing them the love and esteem of both pilgrims and parishioners. Above all, they brought with them to Walsingham the common life and ethos of the Community. It was in 1955, the centenary year of the Society, that the Branch House became an Autonomous House, with its own Mother, thus enabling them to receive and train their own novices. It was a most appropriate 'hundredth birthday gift' that the Society should be planting a new House in England’s Nazareth, where the truth of the Incarnation is proclaimed in a special way. The Bishop of Norwich came on May 10th to inaugurate the independent Priory and to install Sister Margaret Mary as their first Superior. In June 1955 a start was made on the new buildings, and in the following January, work began on the convent chapel. This was dedicated on February 9th 1957.

photographs; see references in Our Lady's Mirror to the building of the new convent: Summer 1955; Autumn 1955; Spring 1956; Autumn 1956; Winter-Spring 1957;

Over the years the Sisters have cared for pilgrim, villager and visitor alike, in many varied ways. In earlier times, they looked after the Hospice, made the bookings, coped with the Shrine finances, cooked the meals, ran the sacristy – as well as helping out wherever they could in the parish. As the years went by, and the number of pilgrims and buildings increased, they handed over most of these works to lay people. They continue to work in the Sacristy on Saturdays, help in the busy Education Department, are round and about the grounds and buildings whenever possible in a pastoral capacity - as well as many other tasks outside Walsingham itself, which include Quiet Days, preaching, conferences, spiritual direction etc. Nor must it ever be forgotten that the priority of the traditional 'monastic' life goes on day-by-day within the convent itself, with all the normal duties of the household to be covered.

The Sisters welcome a small number of guests and retreatants in S Margaret’s Cottage, which has three twin bedded rooms upstairs, as well as a single, ensuite bed-sit on the ground floor, suitable for anyone unable to manage stairs. The cottage is self catering and is available throughout the year for a holiday or quiet time. Religious, and women seeking a quiet time in retreat, may stay in the Convent if they prefer to do so.

In July 1984, Mother Julian resigned on account of ill health. The little Community of eight Sisters eventually decided that the best way forward was to ask the Chapter of St Saviour's Priory to receive the Walsingham House back as a Branch House for the next three years, and to go from there. In February 1985, two Sisters from London went up to Walsingham to help out, exchanging with others from time to time. In February 1988 this arrangement became more permanent - or so it seemed at the time!

Having retired as Mother in London in January 1992, Sister Mary Teresa went to Walsingham to take charge as Sister Superior in March 1993. Sister Christina Mary and Sister Phyllis joined her during the following two months. Changes began to take place in both Houses in various ways, with the Walsingham Sisters wishing to retain the more 'monastic', traditional, way of living the Religious Life, whereas their Sisters in London were experimenting with new ways of expressing that life. Added to this, the Sisters in London were content with the Ordination of women, but those in Walsingham were not happy with it. With all this in mind, it was eventually decided in both Houses that Walsingham should once more revert to being an autonomous House of the Society. This took place in January 1994, with Sister Mary Teresa being installed as Mother. The Walsingham Sisters were well aware that they were taking a great risk, as their numbers were small and the Sisters not in their first youth!! They were, however, convinced that it was the right move to make - and it certainly left both Houses free to go the way in which each felt called by God. Vocations began to trickle in very slowly, some coming for a time and then leaving, after having discerned that it was not for them after all. Each brought something to the Community, and hopefully took something away with them.

When the three Sisters came up from London in the Spring of 1993, there were eight of the original 'Walsingham' Sisters in the Community here. Later on, two Sisters transferred from East Grinstead, also two from other Communities and two of the novices were professed. When the Convent in Aberdeen closed, on the death of Mother Verity in 2002, Sister Columba and Sister Mary Joan were transferred to the Walsingham Chapter, and the convent in Aberdeen was finally closed. Sister Columba remained in Aberdeen, moving to a small flat where she continues to live the Religious Life as a Sister of St Margaret and is a member of the Chaplaincy team in two hospitals.

Over the ensuing years, the Priory and its Chapel have been restored and modernised at great cost. The Sisters had no idea at the time what this would involve, but were well aware that much restoration was essential if they were to remain. It was soon discovered that immense work was needed on the foundations, owing to subsidence, poor drainage and insufficient depth of foundations. With no money, apart from what was needed for daily living expenses, the Sisters had to set about raising all that was needed - and achieved this at a final cost of something in the region of £750,000.The House and Chapel have now been restored, St Margaret’s Cottage, the new Guest House, is up and running and finally a Conservatory has been built for the use of groups etc. This brought to an end all the massive building works, with no debts incurred.

The Sisters sing the fourfold Office, have a daily Mass in the chapel, but attend the Shrine or one of the local parishes on Sundays. Each has one and a half hour's prayer a day, a monthly day in retreat and an annual long retreat from 5-8 days. They now have Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel every day from 10:30 - 12:30, apart from Sunday and Thursday. It is a great joy to have local Associates and friends, pilgrims and visitors now taking part in this. The Sisters have four weeks holiday each year and usually a free afternoon and evening every week, one of these being a day in a silent retreat. The postulancy is normally for 6 months, followed by 2-3 years in the Noviciate and then Annual Vows for at least three years before final Profession. Each House in the Community is free to decide whether to wear secular clothing, the Sisters here in Walsingham having chosen to retain the habit.

In January 2006 Mother Mary Teresa informed the Chapter that she felt it was the right time for her to retire as Mother and did not wish to stand for election again. The lot fell on Sister Mary Clare, who was installed on April 18th 2006. She appointed Sister Mary Teresa as the Novice Guardian.

Due to memory loss and increasing confusion, Sister Mary Joan, aged 90, was admitted to Dorrington House, a new Residential Home in Wells-next-the-Sea, in November 2008. She had reached the stage when she needed 24 hour care, and has settled very happily. It is a beautiful purpose-built house, and the Staff are very caring.

The year 2009 will be the beginning of a new era and should prove to be an exciting new beginning and challenge. After Easter 2008, the Sisters were given a sabbatical of three months from the Shrine Sacristy work, to enable them to have some space and time to discern their way forward in their ministry in the Shrine. This year they will only be working in the Shrine sacristy on Saturdays and on the major festivals. The opening of the Welcome Centre has already provided another outlet, and the arrival of Bishop Lindsay as the new Administrator has brought further changes with the Sisters leading the Sprinkling and helping in the Laying on of hands and other pastoral duties.

In the spring of 2009 Mother Mary Clare completed her three year term as Mother and Sister Carolyne Joseph was elected Mother. Sister Mary Clare went off for a 6 month Sabbatical, making the Uckfield House her base, towards the end of which she asked for 6 months to test her vocation to the Uckfield House, as she felt more at home there than in Walsingham. The Chapter at Walsingham granted her leave to do this and this began on October 17th. With Sister Columba in Aberdeen, Sister Mary Joan in Wells, and now Sister Mary Clare in Uckfield, the number of professed sisters in the Priory numbers 9. There are, however, several young women making enquiries, so we watch and pray that we may be blessed with much needed new life.

[updated November 2009]

MISSION STATEMENT

We, the Sisters of the Society of S Margaret in Walsingham, are called in our diversity to strive together to transcend the pain of a divided Church and world by our joyful 'Yes to God' in Christ. In fulfilment of the vision of our Founder, our daily life is centred on its regular rhythm of corporate and personal prayer.
We endeavour to make our life in Community an extension of the Holy Family. From these, and our stable presence, flows our involvement in the ministry of welcome, healing and reconciliation in the Shrine, the local parishes, wider church and the world.

"Behold, I make all things new"