Yesterday, a most remarkable thing came to fruition. You will remember that the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (SBVM), formerly members of the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin (CSMV), were received into the Church, and erected as a new community by the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham on January 1. They had nothing but their faith that all would be well. No money, no home; and by any sensible worldly standards an uncertain future. Well: now, against all the odds (at one time their prospects of finding a suitable home were really not looking good) they have been given a purpose-built convent building to live in; and they moved into it yesterday.
Mother Winsome, the Superior of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said on hearing the news: “We are absolutely overjoyed to have been given the opportunity to live in this convent. We have prayed long and hard and the Lord has opened up this way for us. It is a gift from God.”
The Sisters have been living for the last eight months as guests at an enclosed Benedictine abbey on the Isle of Wight. “The abbess and the community there shared their Benedictine life with us and welcomed us into their hearts in the most wonderfully generous way”, Mother Winsome said. “It has been a life of complete harmony and joy and it will be a wrench to leave. But we are pleased beyond measure that our journey of faith has taken this new direction.”
The remarkable thing, so remarkable I have to think it is a sign that this is all part of God’s purpose for the English Church, and of his favour towards these good (and I strongly suspect holy) women, is where the home has been found, and under whose auspices. To understand this sign we need to remember a little English church history.
The first thing to remember is how deeply the CSMV was rooted in the history of the attempted Catholic revival in the Church of England, and how that movement, known as the Oxford Movement, found its true vocation within the Catholic Church because of one man, John Henry Newman: the first example of the English Catholic Church being enriched by what Pope Paul was later to call the “Anglican Patrimony” which some converts have through the years brought with them. On February 2 1848, two significant events, both ultimately originating in this movement, took place: John Henry Newman founded the Birmingham Oratory at a site (later named by Newman “Maryvale”) on Oscott Hill, Birmingham; and William John Butler, the Vicar of Wantage, founded the Community of St Mary the Virgin — an act which sprang from the ideals of the movement of which Newman himself had been the uncontested intellectual leader, and of which he remained so within its Anglican manifestation, even after his “defection” to Rome.
Back to the present. The Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with one exception all formerly of the Community of St Mary the Virgin, and led by the CSMV’s former superior, yesterday moved into their new convent, previously occupied by the Little Sisters of the Assumption: and situated at a site on (guess where?) Oscott Hill, Birmingham, a stone’s throw from Maryvale, where in 1842 the Oratory had been founded on the same day as the CSMV: surely a most remarkable Newmanian homecoming. If you are sceptically inclined, you can call that a coincidence if you like. I am a simple soul, and I call it a sign.
This has all been the result of much prayer. Surely, to begin with, we may in all humility speculate that Our Lady’s prayers have had a good deal to do with this perfect outcome. The Sisters, as they did when they were still members of the CSMV, have kept the rosary as an integral part of their habits and at the centre of their prayers. Their new buildings were constructed by Sisters dedicated to Our Lady’s Assumption into heaven. A final Marian footnote: the only SBVM sister not a former of the CSMV was the superior of an Anglican order based in Walsingham itself. And surely, the prayers of John Henry Newman, under whose patronage the ordinariate was established, and over which he has been such a decisive influence, must have been both asked for and bountifully granted.
One final reflection: what has the ordinariate to do with all this? In other words, why didn’t they just become “ordinary Catholics like the rest of us”, as I have heard it acidly put by one sceptic. It’s quite simple; one of the reasons the ordinariate was set up in the first place is that the former Anglicans from whom the ordinariate was constructed have liturgical traditions (many of which derive from the Anglican Middle Ages) which they really care about, and a tradition in particular of careful and numinous celebration of the Mass which, to be candid, is not universally found in English Catholic churches today (though I think there may be signs of improvement). The CSMV have always cared about the liturgy: and the SBMV were anxious to maintain this part of their heritage: so the ordinariate was the natural way for them to come into communion with the Holy See. As Mother Winsome herself put it: “We have come from within one of the oldest communities in the Church of England: the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage. We will always treasure the tradition of Plainchant for which this Sisterhood has been so well known. This historic Chant tradition will be part of the Patrimony which we carry forward into the Universal Church.”
The Sisters will still need our prayers as they settle in to their new building. Their website isn’t yet fully functioning, since they haven’t time at the moment to attend to it. In the meantime, you could say a decade or two of the rosary for them: and you might support them by buying one of the hand-made rosaries they never stopped making: until their website is up again, orders can be placed through this email address: [email protected] (incidentally, isn’t that the coolest email address ever?)