1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sisterhoods

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SISTERHOODS (Modern Anglican). The dissolution of religious houses in England (1536-1540) under Henry VIII. swept away more than 140 nunneries, and the Anglican Church was left without sisterhoods for three centuries. But as these had for 900 years formed part of her system, there were protests from time to time and attempts at restoration. Amongst such protests, which generally dwelt a good deal on the want of provision for unmarried women, may be mentioned three in successive centuries. The historian Fuller would have been glad “if such feminine foundations had still continued,” those “good shee-schools,” only without vows (Bk. vi.). Richardson the novelist, in Sir Charles Grandison, wishes there could be a Protestant nunnery in every county, “with a truly worthy divine, at the appointment of the bishop of the diocese, to direct and animate the devotion of such a society”; in 1829 the poet Southey, in his Colloquies (cxiii.), trusts that “thirty years hence this reproach also may be effaced, and England may have its Béguines and its sisters of mercy. It is grievously in need of them.” Also small practical efforts were made in the religious households of Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding, 1625, and of William Law at King's Cliffe, 1743; and under Charles II., says Fr. Bede, Autob., “about 12 Protestant ladies of gentle birth and considerable means” founded a shortlived convent, with Sancroft, then Dean of St Paul's, for director.

Southey's appeal had weight, and before the thirty years had passed, compassion for the needs of the destitute in great cities, and the impulse of a strong Church revival, aroused a body of laymen, among whom were included Mr Gladstone, Sir T. D. Acland, Mr A. J. Beresford-Hope, Lord Lyttelton and Lord John Manners (chairman), to exertions which restored sisterhoods to the Church of England. On 26th March 1845 the Park Village Community was set on foot in Regent's Park, London, to minister to the poor population of St Pancras. The “Rule” was compiled by Dr Pusey, who also gave spiritual supervision. In the Crimean War the superior and other sisters went out as nurses with Florence Nightingale. The community afterwards united with the Devonport Sisters, founded by Miss Sellon in 1849, and together they form what is known as Ascot Priory. The St Thomas's sisterhood at Oxford commenced in 1847; and the present mother-superior of the Holy Trinity Convent at Oxford, Marian Hughes, dedicated herself before witnesses to such a life as early as 1841 (Liddon's Life of Dr Pusey, iii.).

Four sisterhoods stand together as the largest: those of Clewer, Wantage, All Saints and East Grinstead; and the work of the first may stand as a specimen of that of others. The “Community of St John the Baptist” at Clewer, near Windsor, arose in 1849 through the efforts of Mrs Tennant and the vicar, afterwards warden of the society, the Rev. T. T. Carter, to save fallen women. Under the first superior, Harriet Monsell, the numbers grew apace, and are now above 200. Their services to society and the Church include 6 houses for fallen women, 7 orphanages, 9 elementary and high schools and colleges, 5 hospitals, mission work in 13 parishes and visiting in several “married quarters” of barracks. Many of these are important institutions, and their labours extend over a wide area; two of the settlements are in India and two in the United States. A list of 26 sisterhoods is given in the Official Year-Book of the C.E. (1900), to which may be added 10 institutions of deaconesses, many of whom live in community under rule. The Episcopal Church of Scotland has 3 sisterhoods and they are found also at Toronto, “Saint John the Divine”; Brisbane, “Sacred Advent”; Grahamstown, “Resurrection”; Bloemfontein, “St Michael and All Angels”; Maritzburg, “Saint John the Divine.” The Year-Book (1911) of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America (Anglican) mentions 18 American sisterhoods and 7 deaconess homes and training colleges.

Practically all Anglican sisterhoods originated in works of mercy, and this fact largely accounts for the rapidity with which they have won their way to the good will and confidence of the Church. Their number is believed to exceed 3000, and the demand for their services is greater than the supply. Bishops are often their visitors, and Church Congresses, Convocation and Lambeth Conferences have given them encouragement and regulation. This change in sympathy, again, has gained a hearing from modern historians, who tend more and more to discredit the wholesale defamation of the dissolution period. This charitable activity, however, distinguishes the modern sister from the nuns of primitive and medieval times, who were cloistered and contemplative, and left external works to deaconesses, or to laywomen of a “third order,” or to the freer societies like the Béguines. St Vincent de Paul is considered to have begun the new era with his institution of “Sisters of Charity” in 1634. Another modern feature is the fuller recognition of family ties: Rule 29 of the Clewer sisters directs that “the sisters shall have free intercourse with relations, who may visit them at any time.” But in most essential respects modern sisterhoods follow the ancient traditions. They devote themselves to the celibate life, have property in common, and observe a common rule of prayer, fellowship and work. Government is by a sister superior, assisted by various officers. The warden and chaplain are clergy, and the visitor is commonly a bishop. In one important regard there has been hesitation, and authorities like Dr Littledale and Bishop Grafton contend strongly for the primitive ideal of the convent as family, with a constitutional government, as against the later and widespread Jesuit ideal of the convent as regiment, with a theory of despotic rule and absolute obedience. If some early mistakes in the restoration of sisterhoods were due to this exaggerated doctrine of obedience, the doctrine itself may be trusted to disappear among a Church and people accustomed to free institutions and to respect for individuality.

Authorities. — T. T. Carter, Memoir of Harriet Monsell; Dr R. F. Littledale, Papers on “Sisterhoods” in the Monthly Packet (July 1874-November 1879); Parl. Report on Convent. and Monast. Inst. (1870); Lina Eckenstein, Woman under Monasticism; Bishop Grafton, Vocation.

(J. O. N.)