Community of the Sisters of the Church

Emily Ayckbowm: Founder of CSC

This essay was written in an attempt to amend an impression: Mother Emily had always seemed to me a non-dimensional figure.  As flat as the plaque on our conservatory wall.   

I set out to read my way towards her.  I read her Instructions on the Rule, segments of her journal, many of her letters, and what others had said about her.  And so began a sense of encounter, and that inspiring impression that here was someone truly worth knowing. 

What I have written amounts to a personal account and does not represent the official view of the Community.  Nor does it represent my concluding view.  There may be mistakes of fact and impression; these will have to be corrected in the light of deepening relationship and reflection. What I offer are merely thoughts thus far and are therefore, open to alteration.

Ruth White CSC

Michaelmas 2005


Beginnings  

The Community of the Sisters of the Church was founded in 1870 by Emily Ayckbowm.  She was the Order’s first novice and Reverend Mother.

Emily was born in 1836. She was the daughter of the Reverend Frederick Ayckbowm, rector of Holy Trinity Church, Chester. From an early age she demonstrated a strong social conscience.  She challenged the practice of pew-ownership, whereby wealthy families bought pews thereby, consigning the poor to the margins of the church.  In 1866 there was an outbreak of cholera in England. An isolation hospital was set-up in an old farm building on the outskirts of Chester and volunteers were sought to nurse the sick and the dying; Emily and a friend assumed responsibility, and, in the following year both women were commended for their “invaluable services.”  

In 1864 Emily founded the Church Extension Association, commonly known as the CEA.  The title she chose for her work was all embracing, and, indeed, it was to include various projects for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The Association helped the poor, in particular, by feeding and providing a basic education to children. It supported the establishment of places of free and open worship (in opposition to pew-ownership), and it gave assistance to churches overseas. The CEA also developed a publishing department and opened a bookshop on Paternoster Row.  Numerous books and pamphlets on education and teaching were published by the CEA, several of which were written by Emily. There were also CEA hymnbooks and catechisms, and, pictures for use in Sunday schools. The bookshop thrived until the First World War. The CEA produced a quarterly magazine, Our Work, which promoted the charitable activity of the society and acted as a focus for its membership which soon extended around the world. By 1887 Our Work had over 50,000 readers. The magazine was still in circulation in the 1960s. Funds were also raised through CEA depots, the forerunners of today’s charity shops.

In her Instructions on the Rule of the Sisters of the Church, Mother Emily describes how the work of the CEA foreshadowed the nature of the work to be undertaken by her Sisterhood, and, indeed, like its parent society, the Community was to be dedicated to the work of Church Extension. Writing of its foundation Mother Emily remarks, “ Sisters of the Church suggested itself as the most appropriate name its Members could assume, since the main object of their prayers and labours was the advancement of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church.”   By that title her radical intention was sealed: “Their distinctive appellation, Sisters of the Church, shall serve to remind all who enter the Order of the exalted service to which by the voice of God they have been called ... The Sisters shall consider the call to instruct the ignorant, feed the hungry and tend the poor and suffering, as a precious opportunity of showing forth their love to Jesus Christ by serving Him in His members.”  

Up-and-Running

Emily was clothed as the first novice of the Sisterhood on 5th April, 1870.  She writes in her journal with a characteristic lack of fuss, “April 5th This Home [20 Belgrave Road] was opened. The house was first blessed and then the first service, Emily Ayckbowm was received, four Third Order Sisters were admitted ....” [4]  The hard slog of building her Community was underway, and indeed, only two days later we find her recording a mundane but telling detail about the strenuous road ahead: spoons and forks belonging to the Community were exchanged for a chalice! Emily was professed in 1872, and when in 1873 the second novice was professed, she felt it appropriate to take the title of Mother. Mother Emily had the support of Fr. R.C. Kirkpatrick who was engaged in the building of St. Augustine’s, Kilburn, and in 1880 a Convent and Orphanage were built in Randolph Gardens, adjacent to the church.

With the founding of the Order, the Community of the Sisters of the Church and the Church Extension Association amalgamated, the Sisterhood undertaking “the control and application of all [the CEA’s] charitable funds and resources.” [5]  Guests today will notice that they pay their cheques to the parent society of the Community.

Under the 1870 Education Act all children between the ages of 5 and 12 were to be enabled to attend school; however, no denominational religious instruction was to be allowed in these schools. Mother Emily was appalled; she believed that education should not be separated from God - specifically, the Anglican rendition of God! She determined that the Community with its parent society, the CEA, should be in the vanguard of providing Church schools for children. She wrote: “We have been called into existence as a Sisterhood at a time when the Faith of our Fathers is attacked with a reckless daring and insolence unknown hitherto in the history of our country. God only knows to what labours and sacrifices we may be called in our vocation of defending the Faith and spreading a knowledge of the Truth.” [6]

Her energy and determination were remarkable. By 1893 she had established eight substantial schools in London, one in Liverpool, one in Croydon, and one in York. Others were opening in Canada and Australia.

Christ’s Kingdom on Earth was also to be extended to the homeless, the poor, to children abused and neglected, to men working on the docks and building London’s underground. Orphanages were established at Kilburn, Brondesbury and Clevedon. Convalescent homes for sick children from poor backgrounds were built at Broadstairs and St Anne’s in Lancashire. Appalled by the workhouses and, convinced of their annihilating influence upon their occupants, Mother Emily undertook to provide for children an atmosphere of kindness, order, fun and respect. She believed that a child properly nurtured stood a real chance of embarking upon a happy and creative life. In the face of virulent opposition, she offered home and succour to foundlings and illegitimate children. Her critics claimed that thereby, she encouraged vice. However, Mother Emily’s view was quite otherwise: “It has always seemed to us that the poor babes who come into the world with no parental love to welcome them, no good influence to surround them, have a very special claim upon Sisters.” [7]  

Mother Emily was a key player in that movement of women who established and joined Anglican Religious Communities because they wished to dedicate themselves to a life of social service, other outlets for which were slight in a patriarchal society taking little account of women and their ability. In Emily’s case, it is clear that the religious call took precedence; however, there were many other women of that first generation of Sisters for whom the religious impulse was secondary, and social activism and the opportunity to live meaningful lives in a community organised by women, was primary. 

That women were able to manage themselves effectively was something of a shock and threat to the Church hierarchy. Particular opprobrium was reserved for the Sisters of the Church, and their Founder, for they were particularly successful as a charitable concern and therefore, threatened the popularity of the established Church. In her turn, Mother Emily maintained a shrewd scepticism about about priests and male interference.  She writes in her journal: “It is very seldom that the suggestions of priests (however good and holy men they may be) would not do more harm than good to a Sisterhood.”  Elsewhere she observes: “In real truth the only Sisterhoods (in the English Church) that have done well, have been originated by women; and men have made such a mess of Religious Communities among themselves that it is absurd they should try to subject Sisterhoods now to their control.”  [8]

While members of the episcopacy fulminated against the Sisters of the Church, one secretly desiring to excommunicate the whole sisterhood, the Community raised vast amounts of money for the alleviation of poverty, particularly among children. The Charity Organization Society, a vociferous opponent of the Sisters of the Church, had to admit that the Community was “one of the largest and best-known charities in London in 1887, only seventeen years after [its] foundation.” [9]

The Rule and Living It

Mother Emily took sixteen years to write the Rule for the Sisters of the Church, such was the depth of her research and reflection. She drew on the writings of many of the great saints including, Saints Augustine and Bernard, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa, Francis de Sales and Ignatius Loyola. She considered, too, the religious life as it was expressed by other Orders, in particular, the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a French Order committed to teaching, and the Christian Brothers founded by the Venerable de la Salle. [10]  She sought a synthesis of ideas and traditions and insights which would best reflect her intention to bring succour to the destitute and an unequivocal witness to the salving love of Christ. 

Mother Emily perceived humanity to be in a dreadful plight, and, indeed, this was an age of appalling social degradation and poverty, and of a pervading disenchantment with the Church and God. Rationalism had taken hold, that stark accompaniment to industrialisation. Mother Emily writes in her Instruction on the Rule, “For Humanity - has most truly - in these last times fallen among thieves. Robbed of God’s preventing and sustaining Grace, enfeebled for lack of Sacramental strength, Humanity lies wounded and half dead by the way-side, the great highway-side of the world. And it is those that have bound themselves to solemn vows to God’s peculiar service, who are called to kneel by the prostrate form of the sufferer to bind up is wounds ....” [11]

In the Rule, Mother Emily emphasises the centrality of prayer: “It must ever be borne in mind that by prayer and meditation we learn to tread the path of spiritual perfection, and attain to that realization of the unseen, which more than any external restrictions will sustain the supernatural grace of a religious vocation.” [12]  Throughout her writings (which were prolific) Mother Emily strives to set that difficult balance between active work and prayer. Although dedicated to “work for God amid the din, and the jar, and unrest of modern life,” [13] she was definite about the primacy of prayer and the inner life of devotion. In her consideration of the aim and purpose of the Order she states that the placing of “inner sanctity before work, however good that work may be, constitutes” the very essence of the life of a Religious. [14]  She adds, with characteristic insight, “She who would fain be a guide to others, on the Heavenward path, needs first to bend her own steps in the right direction. Our work is very much what we are ourselves.” [15]  She tells her Sisters to “regard intercession as the most powerful means which God places in their hands for benefiting their neighbour.” [16]

Again and again Mother Emily exhorts her Sisters not to be distracted by personal whim or inclination, but instead to be guided by the will of God. “Apart from God, all we may do is nothing worth. It may indeed have the outward appearance of goodness ... but when at the last Great Day it is judged and tried by fire, it will prove to be wood, hay, or stubble - fit only for the burning.” [17]  Elsewhere in her Instructions on the Rule, and guarding against that kind of independence of spirit which destroys Community, she states: “The life of a Sister of the Church is one in which self and selfishness should have no part.” [18]

Perceiving the formidable task confronting her Sisterhood, Mother Emily describes the definite and particular commitment she expects of her Sisters: “They [are] to hold themselves ready to sacrifice all individual interests and preferences, to resign personal wishes and inclinations, comfort and convenience, even life itself (if needful) for the sake of spreading the knowledge of God’s Truth.” [19]

A Life of Challenge

The call to self-sacrifice became a stark reality for those Sisters sent to work in remote parts of the world. In a letter to her Sisters written in Lent 1892, Mother Emily acknowledges the arduous nature of the work being undertaken by her Sisters not only in England, but also, by then, in Canada and, at great distance and isolation, in India. “Their calling is not without its crosses and trials, but, let us not doubt, it has likewise its compensations.” [20]  “Overwhelmed with entreaties to undertake work abroad” [21] sisters were sent first to Canada, then to India and Burma, to New York, Australia and New Zealand, and to South Africa, where they helped to nurse soldiers wounded in the Boer War. Numerous schools were established within this global enterprise, and work with the destitute was undertaken in several cities around the world. Within a few years of Mother Emily’s death, “her sisters had truly girdled the globe.” [22]

“The most comically audacious Mother in the universe.” 

Such determination, intensity and piety might convey the impression of a woman who was unremittingly severe; in fact, though she could be insistent and forthright, Mother Emily was a woman of kindness. Not a few recollections mention the warmth of her smile and the sweetness of her nature.   Children loved her. One Sister who knew her describes her thus: “She had a very keen sense of humour, and a bright joyousness.” Another remarks that she brought “merriment and humour” to sisters’ recreation: a gift, indeed! Still another remarks on her ability to combine authority with sweetness. Her enthusiasm, kindness and courtesy are all commented upon. [23]  We are told that she was reasonably tall, slim with brown hair [in her youth] and “large blue eyes, straight features and a look of strength and decision.” [24] Archbishop Benson, irritated by her adamant protection of her Community’s independence, called her “the most comically audacious Mother in the universe” [25]; however, we know, too, that she could be surprisingly shy and retiring. 

One wonders if Emily’s true fighting strength was given its fullest expression in her writing, rather than in direct encounter with people. Self-confidence was not always hers; in her journal she berates herself for what she considers a weak performance in interview. Later in life, she suspected a group of Sisters of losing sight of their vocation but seems not to have tackled them; thus she left herself exposed to their treachery. 

Perhaps one of Emily’s most striking virtues was her strong tendency to hope, particularly when confronted with adversity. In the face of opposition over the issue of foundlings and illegitimate children, and over the management of her community, which set her against the House of Bishops, she evinced an attitude of unshiftable hope mixed with a wry sense of humour. In a letter to her sisters, dated October 1897, she writes: “The Lambeth Synod has come and gone. We could not help feeling amused at the threats with which we were favoured, as to what the Bishops in solemn conclave would certainly do and say against the Sisters of the Church!” [26]  Perhaps not surprisingly, hope was a theme she impressed upon her Sisters, describing it as “the spur to our undertakings, the support of our labours, and the secret of our patience and fortitude.”  [27]

As already intimated, good humour seems to have been part of that inclination to hope. Indeed, it is Emily herself who reveals to us her capacity to be light-hearted. She tells us that she had met with women friends to discuss her plan for the Sisterhood: “Every Friday afternoon [we met at] Duke Street [London, where she was then living], where after an early tea, we discussed our project, often with considerable merriment.” [28] Conviviality was followed by Vespers when, she tells us, she and her friends “squeezed into a tiny Oratory of which half my little bedroom was composed.” [29] And so we learn that our Community was born not only of her prayers and determination but also of a proclivity for fun. 

An Ending  

Condolences and tributes poured in, the most moving from her own Sisters. From distant Adelaide a Sister expressed the sheer depth of loss and love: “It seems impossible to express oneself about our dear Foundress. She was that, and a great deal more; she truly was our Mother in every sense, and I am so thankful to have known her and worked under her at Broadstairs. We would do anything, would we not, to try and carry out her wishes? We will all try to be faithful, and I am sure we are a united Community now.” [30]  

Mother Emily’s legacy to us?

A spirituality rooted and established in the love of Christ; a strong hope; and a determined commitment to the world with which we are united in the Body of Christ.


Bibliography 

A Valiant Victorian:  The Life and Times of Mother Emily Ayckbowm

Journal of Mother Emily Ayckbowm

Letters of Mother Emily Ayckbowm

Instructions on the Rule of the Sisters of the Church: compiled by Emily Mother Foundress


References 

1.    A Valiant Victorian: the life and times of Emily Ayckbowm

2.    Instructions on the Rule: the Aim and Purpose of the Order: p15

3.    A Valiant Victorian: p37

4.    Journal of Emily Ayckbowm

5.    A Valiant Victorian: p?

6.    A Valiant Victorian: p73

7.    A Valiant Victorian: p151

8.    Stolen Daughters: Virgin Mothers: Susan Mumm: p155

9.    Stolen Daughters: Virgin Mothers: Susan Mumm:p88 ff

10.    A Valiant Victorian: p41

11.    Instructions on the Rule: p4

12.    Valiant Victorian: p42

13.  Instructions on the Rule: p4

14.  Instructions on the Rule: p7

15.  Instructions on the Rule: p7

16.  Letter: date?

17.  Instructions on the Rule: p8

18.  Instructions on the Rule: p9

19.  ?

20.  Letter 1892

21.  Our Work 1890

22.  Valiant Victorian: p117

23.  Valiant Victorian: p215

24.  Valiant Victorian: p16

25.  Valiant Victorian: p?

26.  Letter 1897

27.  Valiant Victorian: p207

28.  Journal of Emily Ayckbowm

29.  Journal of Emily Ayckbowm

30.    Valiant Victorian: p211