The Sisters in Walsingham [the later section updated by Sister Mary Angela SSM in August 2020]
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 10 of his biography of Fr Patten (2006; 2nd edn 2022). Fr Stephenson's account is in Walsingham Way, published in 1970 and reprinted in 2008 (pp 179-89 in both editions). Michael Yelton deals with the whole history of the Sisters throughout his book. The outcome of the conflict 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. top of page This account of the Society of St Margaret in Walsingham, below, was written by Sister Mary Teresa SSM in 2009 and has been on this website since then. In 2020 Sister Mary Angela SSM updated and continued the story. Sister Mary Teresa SSM died on 12 January 2021: may she rest in peace. All text below this is © The Priory of Our Lady. 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 the foundation stone was laid on 28 July by the Reverend Mother of St Saviour’s Haggerston. In January 1956 work began on the Convent Chapel. This was dedicated by the Bishop of Norwich on February 9th 1957. [The architect of the convent was John Page of Blakeney, and of the convent chapel Milner & Craze.] 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. top of page _______________________________________________ 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 Margaret in 2002, the two remaining Sisters were transferred to the Walsingham Chapter, and the Convent in Aberdeen was finally closed. Sister Mary Joan subsequently died in Care. Sister Columba moved to a small flat in Aberdeen, where she continued to live the Religious Life as a Sister of St Margaret, with some pastoral work, until her death on 8 April 2023. The Priory and its Chapel were restored and modernised at great cost during 1997-8, but no debts were incurred. 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 were recently decorated both inside and out, with a three-year plan of regular maintenance now in place. St Margaret’s Cottage is well used by retreatants and pilgrim groups, and the Conservatory, with its kitchenette, is also a useful meeting place. The Sisters maintain the fivefold Divine Office, have Mass in the Chapel Tuesday-Saturday, but attend 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. There is daily Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel from 10:30 - 12noon apart from Thursdays when Mass is followed by a half hour Exposition and Benediction, and Sundays. It is a great joy to have local Associates and friends, pilgrims and visitors taking part in this time of prayer. The Sisters have four weeks holiday each year and Mondays as a free day. After several visits an Enquirer/Aspirant is received as a Postulant for 6 months or so, followed by 2-3 years in the Noviciate and then Annual Vows for at least three years before final Profession. Each House in the Society of St Margaret is free to decide whether to wear secular clothing; but the Sisters here in Walsingham have chosen to retain the traditional habit. Three Sisters left the Priory in December 2010 in order to join the Ordinariate, and others have died after years of devoted service. Sister Mary Teresa, aged 90, is in Care with our Sisters in Chiswick leaving Sister Mary Angela and Sister Carol Elizabeth in the Priory. We are available for pastoral care of pilgrims to the Shrine, assist with ‘laying on of hands’ at the liturgies of healing, give talks to parish groups, lead Quiet Days and also assist in the Welcome Centre one afternoon a week. Sister Carol Elizabeth leads the ‘Open the Book’ once a week in Walsingham CofE Primary School. With each of us receiving a specific call in the Holy House (at different times) to come to Walsingham, we are sure that this Priory will continue and are soon to welcome a promising Aspirant. Please pray for us and for vocations to the Religious Life, as holy places need a praying presence! Updated by Sister Mary Angela SSM (Sister Administrator): August 2020 © The Priory of Our Lady. _____ 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” top of page
October 1952
Sisters walking down Holt Road 1937. The gateway is where the Brandie Gate is now.
The 1930s: Two Sisters walking down Holt Road past the ‘Welcome Centre’ site. Behind the wall was Stella Maris’s garage. They are probably about to turn into the Shrine gardens through the ‘Brandie Gate’, or perhaps into ‘Stella Maris House’ next to it. At that time the house had a door on to the road, which can just be seen on the right of this picture.
The 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 [what is now Stella Maris House] 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 were 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 as at the beginning). 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.