On Jan. 2, 2013, 12 fully habited nuns left their convent forever.
They walked or were helped to a waiting coach. On board there were some suitcases and bedding. They left with all they possessed.
As the coach drew away from their former home, other nuns similarly dressed waved “goodbye” to those leaving. One group of nuns had settled for what they had always known; another had set out on an unknown path. Both groups knew they would never see each other again.
The coach was heading to a monastery on an island off the south coast of England. It was only a temporary halt, though. The departing nuns’ final destination was as yet unclear. As they drove further from the familiar, both physically and spiritually, the sisters began silently to pray the Rosary.
While so doing, the coach’s occupants experienced a strange combination of emotions. The sisters had had to leave their former home that day. For all these vowed religious, but especially for the elderly, this was a wrench that few in the outside world can imagine.
Of course, there was the pain and the poignancy of having to say farewell to those left behind who had shared their former community life. But there was also present a great joy, for just the previous day, 10 of these 12 nuns (two having been received earlier) had been received into the Catholic Church and, for the first time, had received the Body and Blood of Christ.
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“In recent times, the Holy Spirit has moved groups of Anglicans to petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion individually as well as corporately.”
So opened the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, given in Rome, at St. Peter’s, Nov. 4, 2009, the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo. It provided for the establishment of personal ordinariates, through which Anglican faithful might enter, including in a corporate manner, into full communion with the Catholic Church. This declaration was to change forever the lives of a group of Anglican nuns living in a convent in rural England, near Oxford. It was also to set in motion several years of debate, discernment and turmoil for the women concerned before some were able to come to their decision to enter the Church.
As the news of Pope Benedict’s generous and unexpected initiative filtered into the convent, no one there was under any illusion: This had changed everything.
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The Community of St. Mary the Virgin, based in Wantage, Oxfordshire, is one of the oldest Anglican religious communities in the world. It was founded in 1848 as part of the Oxford Movement — a movement of “High-Church Anglicans,” with John Henry Newman as one of its leaders. These Anglicans sought to reinstate Catholic traditions within the liturgy and theology of the Church of England. The nuns wore a traditional habit, sang Gregorian plainchant, reserved what they said was “the Blessed Sacrament,” took vows for life of poverty, chastity and obedience, and, by so doing, sought to replicate the practices of a traditional Catholic religious community. There was one notable difference though: They were Anglicans, not Catholics.
Within the Anglican Communion, there is no Vicar of Christ, no magisterium. From the time of its inception in the 16th century, decision-making within the Church of England occurred through an elected synod, some members of whom may not have had any theological training. In the decades before Anglicanorum Coetibus, those synods had begun to take positions, especially on matters of morals and ecclesiology, which left many traditionally minded Anglicans uneasy. As a more socially liberal wing of the Anglican Communion gained the ascendant, many Anglicans began to “swim the Tiber” — entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.
In times past, individual Anglican conversions were one thing. A member of an Anglican religious order going over to Rome was a wholly other matter. They would have been effectively ending their religious vocation, as there would have been no ability of accommodating them within the canon law of the Catholic Church. The only option was to return that soul to the lay state. Not only that, but many would also have been rendered destitute by such a move, and for a cloistered religious, initially homeless, as well. This was also to say nothing of the anguish of abandoning everything and everyone who had supported one’s spiritual life. The call to follow one’s conscience, as Newman and others had done many years previously, was not a path for the fainthearted.
Nevertheless, from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the words of Anglicanorum Coetibus began to reverberate within the Community of St. Mary the Virgin at Wantage. One sister of the community described that moment as follows:
“This community has always meant everything to me. … My call at the age of 20 was hugely strong: I was absolutely clear that I was meant to be here. … [But] there are two points here. Firstly, the Holy Spirit has spoken to my heart at several moments in my life about union with the Catholic Church. Secondly, yet it was also the Holy Spirit who placed in me a strong sense of call to this particular community. These two aspects of my vocation have governed my choices at moments when it was possible to become a Catholic and I have not done so. But the ordinariate basically opened a possibility I never imagined could be there for me as a religious.”
As it turned out, she was not alone in how she felt.
Mother Winsome was the superior of the community at Wantage. Her overriding wish was to care for the souls of the religious sisters under her authority and to preserve the unity and harmony of the community. It was not long, however, before she began to feel the first tremors caused by Anglicanorum Coetibus. Privately, a not inconsiderable number of the sisters were each coming to Mother Winsome and confiding the same thing, namely, a desire to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. For some, it was, at last, the way in which their religious vocation and their Catholic longings could be reconciled without losing their identity as religious.
There were others within the community who were not willing to make such a move, however, and these, equally, made their feelings known. Mother Winsome had what any superior of a religious community most fears: the very real possibility of a divided community. On one side, there were those attracted to the ordinariate and, on the other, those who wished to remain within the Anglican Communion. The ideal solution for some had always been a united community choosing to remain and — on one level, at least — for things to continue as before. That possibility began to look increasingly unlikely.
There were further complications. The convent’s buildings and grounds were owned by the Anglican community, so to go on living there as a Catholic community was not a viable long-term option. Some of the community might be united in their desire to become part of the ordinariate, but acting on this impulse, it became clear, would also render them homeless.
For the next years, the Community of St. Mary the Virgin prayed and lived as one. They worked alongside each other and sang together the Office. They hoped for a solution. As time went on, however, it became clear that the sisters who wished to become Catholic would have to leave Wantage.
Despite the private and sensitive nature of this period of discernment, word seeped out beyond the convent walls of what the nuns were considering doing. Soon hate mail started arriving at the convent from those furious that some of the sisters were contemplating entering the Catholic Church. All sorts of false accusations began to be leveled at individual sisters. Pressure began to be applied to Mother Winsome to discourage any sisters from making such a move.
Finally, Mother Winsome, herself now intent on becoming Catholic, called the whole community together. She told them that any sister wishing to be received into the Catholic Church “had to be prepared to walk down the drive with just what she could carry in a bag in her hand, leaving everything else behind, without any guarantees for the future, just going forward in blind faith in accordance with her conscience.”
In the end, 11 sisters and a recently joined religious sister from another community elected to make that walk. Three of the sisters were in their 80s, three were in their 70s, and two of the sisters were prepared to leave the monastery’s infirmary and the care they received there to follow the call of conscience. One of the more elderly members of the community said what many of them now felt: “I want to die a Catholic.”
What one of the community who wanted to become Catholic described as “the years of trauma, pain, bitterness and persecution” finally came to an end when, on the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, Jan. 1, 2013, the Anglican religious sisters were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
On the morning after their reception, as they prepared to leave their home forever, the beaming sisters met each other with the words, “I’m a Catholic!” The inevitable joyous reply was, “So am I!” They then collected their few personal belongings and walked, were helped or were carried to the waiting coach.
The future of the 12 was as uncertain as their way of life in the past had been fixed and stable.
Unexpectedly, an offer came for a temporary refuge from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Cecilia’s on the Isle of Wight. That abbey, part of the Solesmes Congregation, had been expecting 12 sisters from a South American convent for a prolonged visit. At the last minute, the visiting sisters were unable to come. But the abbey had made all the preparations: 12 cells had been prepared and were now empty. When St. Cecilia's Abbey became aware of the plight of the Wantage sisters, they immediately offered them abode. At St. Cecilia’s, it was proposed that these new Catholic religious would learn the ways of the Church and they would listen to conferences on the Rule of St. Benedict and monastic life.
When the long coach journey came to a close, drawing them away from all they had known, a journey that could be measured not just in miles but also emotionally and spiritually, the vehicle pulled up outside the doors of St. Cecilia's Abbey. And as it did so, through the dark night, the Wantage sisters saw light coming forth as the great doors of the monastery were flung open, and they heard the words: “Welcome home.”
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That was not the end though.
By the time they had arrived on the Isle of Wight, the Wantage Sisters no longer existed canonically. In addition, they were penniless, as well as homeless. Their initial living arrangements at St. Cecilia’s Abbey were only temporary.
The Sisters needed a permanent home – but where? And, how?
They prayed; they hoped; they waited.
Word came to the Sisters that a convent in the Birmingham area was about to be sold. The Sisters arranged to visit it. When they did so, they realized that it would make a perfect home. And, what’s more, the three elderly nuns who were vacating the convent wanted to leave all the furnishings and furniture behind. For the destitute Wantage nuns this was starting to sound too good to be true.
There was only one problem. The Wantage sisters as yet had no means to purchase the convent.
Still, they prayed; they hoped; they waited.
An anonymous benefactor appeared. The convent was purchased, and duly handed to the Wantage sisters. Soon they had arrived at their new home with everything prepared for them: from beds and bedding, to carpets and furniture, to every pot, pan and kitchen utensil required for serving a community of 12 souls.
There was something else though. The nuns vacating the convent had been concerned that the convent chapel where they had worshiped for decades would have to be deconsecrated. As it happened, the Tabernacle was never emptied. The red sanctuary light continued to burn in welcome as a new religious community of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, took possession of its permanent home.
They live there still.
They live on Providence alone.
They have wanted for nothing.
Shortly after being received into the Catholic Church, in 1845, John Henry Newman was offered a place at Old Oscott house, then in the country about 4 miles from Birmingham. While staying there, he wrote the following: “I am writing in the next room to the chapel. It is such an incomprehensible blessing to have Christ’s bodily presence in one’s house, within one’s walls, as it swallows up all other privileges and destroys, or should destroy, every pain.”
Barely five minutes’ walk from where the now Blessed John Henry wrote those words, today there stands a convent. Within its walls there resides a new religious foundation of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham: the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.