The Anchoresses

Older pilgrims remember that there were anchoresses in the Shrine grounds, and will probably recall the names of two, Sister Mary Phillida and Mother Mary Magdalene. It may come as a surprise that there were in fact three: in chronological order Sister Mary Lioba came between them. Sister Mary Phillida (Lady Phillida Shirley: 1896-1985) lived in the Shrine grounds from 1933 to 1985, Mother Mary Magdalene (Mary Elliott-Weekes: 1911-1995) from 1972 to 1995, and Sister Mary Lioba (Beryl Iris Higgs: 1896-1986) from 1959 to 1968. Not that anyone will be able to remember their faces very well. Sister Mary Phillida was the most invisible, and might at best be encountered as a grey shrouded figure at the back of a chapel or glimpsed as she glided between the Shrine church and her anchorage. This was on the Hospice (Stella Maris House) side of the wall, very near the Tomb (the side of which was not visible in those days) and what is now the Tower. Nothing could be seen in the summer because of the foliage, but in winter one could just make out the hut. Sister Mary Phillida came to the Shrine in 1933, was clothed in 1934 and professed in 1943, with final vows in 1946. She was Lady Phillida Shirley, the daughter of the 11th Earl Ferrers, and in early life had been a pianist talented enough to give recitals at the Wigmore Hall. Fr Patten was heard to say "If God has achieved anything in this place it is because Sister Mary Phillida has been and is a silent centre of the ongoing miracle". She died in 1985. She became so ill that the doctor arranged for her to be taken into the convent to be looked after, and she died after five days. At her previously-written request she was then laid out and taken back to her own cell before her requiem. The Shrine owns a set of vestments made from the Court Presentation garments worn about 1920 by Lady Phillida, known as the Shirley set. Mother Mary Magdalene's vocation was different. Although for some time she lived behind the wall in the Shrine gardens, and she was spiritually aware of Sister Mary Phillida, they never spoke. She was able to be more outgoing and under certain conditions was available to pilgrims in the exercise of her undoubted healing ministry. The former Chapter House of the Community of St Augustine was made available to her for counselling. This Chapter House was in St Augustine's: in the Library there is a door towards the end on the right. This now leads into a small kitchen (formerly storeroom) but in those days this was a larger room which was the Chapter House. Enid Chadwick had painted a Crucifix on its wall. The Community was dissolved in 1958 and when Mother Mary Magdalene was given the room for counselling a new door (now bricked up) was made from it opening into the garden on the south side of the Shrine church. This enabled those consulting her to go via the church without their having to enter the College grounds and St Augustine's. Its position can be seen in the brickwork today. The hedge between the South (Jubilee) Cloister and St Augustine's was planted then to enhance the privacy. Mother Mary Magdalene was sometimes unfavourably compared with Sister Mary Phillida by those who did not understand the difference in their individual vocations: Mother Mary Teresa explains this in her homily preached at the Requiem Mass on 21 August 1995. (Copies of this homily are available from the honorary archivist.) There is a plaque commemorating Mother Mary Magdalene on the wall opposite the New Refectory, in the area where her anchorhold was situated, as seen in the photographs below - the dates on the plaque should read 1972-1995. She had made her life vows on 27 March 1982 (photograph below). Sister Mary Lioba was at Walsingham for a shorter time and had a less defined vocation. A former nun from West Malling, she came to Walsingham in 1959 to explore the possibilities of living as a solitary. There she met Bridget Monahan (her reminiscences), who subsequently had an anchorage built for her and placed in the then garden of St Anne's. Sister Mary Lioba took vows on 26 November 1960 and stayed until she was forced to leave because of illness. Bridget took responsibility for her, and the convent sisters looked after her daily needs. When in April 1968 she became too ill to stay in seclusion she went into a London care home so that she could be near her London hospital. After two years she was so unhappy that Bridget took her to live with her in Worcester and generously looked after her for eleven more years. On 1 April 1977 there was a service of thanksgiving in St Faith's Chapel, Westminster Abbey, for the silver jubilee of her first profession at West Malling. Under the pen- name 'Pinions' she wrote for the Church Times and also under that pen-name published a book called Wind on the Sand: The Hidden Life of an Anchoress (1980): this gives a detailed account of her life, including her time at Walsingham. The vacant anchorhold was subsequently used by Mother Mary Magdalene. Three photographs [below] from the Priory's scrapbook give an indication of the anchorage areas. Marks on the Refectory side of the wall are still visible, showing where Mother Mary Magdalene's hut joined it. A slate plaque commemorating her is alongside (picture above). Pictures of the walls today are further down the page. top of page
We were grateful to the late Fr Donald Strachan for clarification of the positions of the two anchorages: any more information about any of the anchoresses will be welcomed. These three photographs are from the Priory's scrapbook and are taken from the Stella Maris side of the wall. The caption for the one on the left says 'Gate to Sister's Hermitage', then 'which can be seen through the trees in the other two photographs'. The refurbished Halifax Altar is seen in these two photographs below:
two photographs in the Priory scrapbook showing the area of the anchorages two photographs in the Priory scrapbook showing the area of the anchorages
above: two photographs in the Priory scrapbook showing the area of the anchorages below: both sides of the wall, February 2010
the Stella Maris House side of the wall (compare with above pictures): the marks of Sister Mary Phillida's anchorage can still be seen.
the New Refectory side of the wall showing the markings of Mother Mary Magdalene's hut.
closer view above of the left and right pillar-ends on the New Refectory side of the wall; the plaque commemorates Mother Mary Magdalene (a close-up picture is in the text about Mother Mary Magdalene above ): the dates should read 1972-1995.
Mother Mary Magdalene being led to her anchorhold by the Bishop of Norwich, 1982
the photograph below shows Mother Mary Magdalene leaving the Shrine Church to be led to her anchorhold by the Bishop of Norwich, Maurice Wood, on 27 March 1982. Dom Augustine Morris OSB is on the left.
Mother Mary Magdalene's plaque: the dates should read 1972-1995
the word 'anchoress' is a feminine form of the word 'anchorite': both have been used at Walsingham