Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God — from "Morning," John Keble (1827)
Edward Pusey, like the other major figures of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement (John Henry Newman and John Keble), had for some time nurtured a wish to establish religious communities within the Church of England. In 1841, Marian Rebecca Hughes took vows in front of him, dedicating herself to the service of God. She went on to found the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Oxford, in the building now occupied by St Antony's College; but that was not until 1848. By then, Newman had formed a religious community in Littlemore, in the south-eastern part of Oxford, where he was eventually received into the Roman Catholic church; and the first religious sisterhood in the Church of England since the Reformation had also been founded, this time by a committee including Gladstone and Pusey. From these seeds grew a movement which would have a huge influence not just on the spiritual climate of the age, but on its social history and its culture as well.
From the Park Village Sisterhood to the work of Lydia Sellon
Plaque on No. 17, Park Village West.
The first sisterhood was in London, as proclaimed on the blue plaque outside No. 17, Park Village West, near Regent's Park. On March 26th 1845, two young women arrived to take up residence there: a Miss Jane Ellacombe, who became known as Sister Anne, and a Miss Mary Bruce, who became Sister Mary. They were soon joined by others, including an older woman, all of them observing a strict routine of worship in nearby Christ Church, Albany Street. They aroused great curiosity in the neighbourhood, until a visit from "the notorious Dr Pusey" confirmed that this "innocent-looking villa was nothing else but a 'Puseyite Nunnery'" (see "Ascot Priory"). The sisters were visited there not only by Pusey himself, but also by the devoutly religious (Priscilla) Lydia Sellon. When the Park Village Sisterhood merged with Sellon's own Devonport Sisters of Mercy in 1856, the new foundation then became the Society of the Sisters of Mercy of the Most Holy Trinity, with Sellon as its Mother or Lady Superior (see Cobb).
17, Park Village West — the home of the Park Village Sisterhood. [Click on thumbnail for larger inage.]
Although Marian Hughes and the band of women at Park Village West had dedicated themselves before her, Sellon (1821-1876) is generally considered the "true foundress of the women's orders which now grace and serve our Church" ("Priscilla Lydia Sellon") — perhaps because it had proved difficult to find the right person to lead the Park Village flock. The daughter of a naval commander who actively supported her endeavours, Sellon first committed herself to the life of service in 1848 when she responded to an appeal by the Bishop of Exeter to help the poor in Plymouth and Devonport. She became deeply involved in the education of needy children, and her work soon spread into other fields. Blessed with good organisational abilities and a great deal of stamina, and guided by Pusey, she set up a whole range of institutions. These included a girls' domestic training school, a boys' night school, facilities for the starving (in other words, a soup kitchen) and a home for the sailors' orphans. She also worked to improve the lot of female emigrants. Almshouses and other such charitable homes followed, and the sisters' charitable efforts reached beyond Plymouth into other towns like Manchester and Bristol. Naturally, Sellon's fame spread too, drawing the attention of other like-minded women besides those in Park Village West. All this was a major factor in encouraging the growth of religious orders of both women and men in the nineteenth century (see Kollar, "Religious Orders" 666).
Sellon's ministrations were much in demand, especially during the cholera epidemic of 1849. She also put together a contingent of nursing sisters who went out to the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. In 1864 a mission was established in the Pacific, with a school being founded in the Sandwich Islands (modern Hawaii). The headquarters of the mission were in Honolulu, and Sellon, despite increasing health problems, made the long voyage to visit it in person. "It was the first time any Anglican sisterhood had ventured into work overseas," writes Peter Cobb. Nearer home, she responded to the cholera epidemic of 1866 in London's East End by setting up a hospital in an empty warehouse. When smallpox swept the same area in 1870, she sent her sisters to help at Ascot Priory, where they had to erect tents in the grounds to care for the huge influx of cases. Many of those treated there survived.
Nevertheless, this forceful and energetic Catholic Revivalist was not without her detractors. Anglicans were wary of the sisters' black garb and the rituals of their worship. At one point there was a regular "campaign to discredit" her (Kollar, "Flowers, Pictures, and Crosses"), which even included "scandalous though ludicrous suggestions" about her relationship with Pusey ("Priscilla Lydia Sellon"). Pusey himself spoke out loudly in defence of the controversial sisterhood: "The works of mercy opened at Devonport embrace the whole range of which our Blessed Lord speaks relatively to the Day of Judgment," he insisted (qtd. in "Priscilla Lydia Sellon"). There was nothing specifically Roman Catholic about it. Sellon too protested her allegiance to the Church of England.
Sellon, who had already suffered two strokes, suffered a third while visiting Osborne House, West Malvern in Worcestershire, and died there in late 1876 aged fifty-five. The Times obituary recalled the attacks made on "[t]his novel experiment of a community of English Sisters" (qtd. in "Priscilla Lydia Sellon"); but she had had a huge influence: there were over fifty women's religious orders within the Church of England before the reign was out, supplying "vocations for women which combined spirituality and social utility," and also providing "a measure of independence from constricting Victorian ideologies of womanhood" (Hapke 725). This last point is significant, for it suggests that becoming a nun often enlarged rather than narrowed the horizons of these women. As a result perhaps, according to Susan Mumm, "more than 10,000 had tried the life by the end of the century" (xii). Brotherhoods too had multiplied. The work that Sellon herself had set in motion continued for many years. In fact, the last two sisters at the Ascot Priory, which became the sisterhood's home, only died in 2004 (see Mosley).
Cobb, Peter G. "Sellon, (Priscilla) Lydia (1821-1876)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 2 May 2009.
Gladstone, W. E. "'Robert Elsmere': The Battle of Belief." Reprinted in The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007. 260-279.
Hapke, Laura. "Sisterhoods." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York & London: Garland, 1988. 725.
Kollar, Rene. "Flowers, Pictures and Crosses: Criticisms of Priscilla Lydia Sellon's Care of Young Girls." Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2004. Viewed 2 May 2009.
———— "Religious Orders." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York & London: Garland, 1988. 666-7.
Mosley, Brian, "Prominent Citizens: Miss Priscilla Lydia Sellon." The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History. Viewed 2 May 2009.
Mumm, Susan. All Saints Sisters of the Poor: An Anglican Sisterhood in the Nineteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2001.
"Priscilla Lydia Sellon" on Project Canterbury. Viewed 2 May 2009.
"Ascot Priory: A Sermon Preached in Pusey House in Celebration of the Revival of the Religious Life in the Church of England." Viewed 2 May 2009.
Anson, Peter. The Call of the Cloister: Religious Communities and Kindred Bodies in the Anglican Communion. London: SPCK, 1964.
Yates, Nigel. Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.
Last modified 2 May 2009