The first two SHCJ to study at Oxford, Mother Mary Amadeus Atchison and Mother Mary Theodore White, took their final exams in the summer of 1908, completing their vivas on 23rd July. To mark this beginning in university education for the Society and to celebrate the first class degree obtained by a Mayfield alumnus announced earlier in July, this month’s article will look at some of the SHCJ who graduated from Oxford and the contribution they made to the Society’s work as educators and pioneers.
The SHCJ’s presence in Oxford started with a request from Father Strappini SJ for teachers to take on his elementary school in St Clements. As the school numbers increased from 69 to 122, it became necessary to take on boarders. After the first two properties proved inadequate to meet the increasing need for space, Cherwell Edge with its many floors and attractive garden was rented from Merton College in June 1904. Cherwell Edge was a part of the Society for Oxford Home Students, which later became St Anne’s College. On 27th November 1907, the OHS gave the SHCJ permission to house any number of religious students and 20 secular women.
Fortunately, Merton College had given permission for the SHCJ General Council’s plan to build two wings to the building. It was not until June 1907that the Propaganda Fide has permitted Catholic women ‘to frequent the existing universities in England’. Certain conditions were initially stipulated, including that Catholic women students should be received in houses specifically for them, run by religious orders or ‘lay women of approved life’ and the lectures were to only be attended ‘in the company of a suitable escort’. The SHCJ sisters began to attend university lectures in October 1907. MM Amadeus and MM Theodore both achieved II Class honours degrees. The SHCJ set a significant precedent when in January 1921 Mother Mary Hildegarde Worsley became the very first woman religious in Britain to receive a full degree and masters. Although she studied mathematics, MM Hildegarde had ‘varied gifts, intellectual, artistic and practical’ and as a teacher would sing out the declensions as she taught Latin to her juniors.
Another mathematician SHCJ, Sister Mary Cephas Wahltuch, studied at Newnham College, Cambridge before she was hired to teach at Mayfield. Like MM Hildegarde, she taught her pupils with enthusiasm and affection, remembering the names of almost every child attending Winckley Square school when she was mistress of studies there.Despite having less success in her undergraduate studies than hoped for, her necrology notes that Sister Cephas’ time at Cambridge helped her to become ‘the fully human and balanced person she undoubtably was’. MM Hildegarde’s achievement was followed by Mother Dominica Taylor in March and Mother Mary Elizabeth Potts Chatto in April 1921. MM Elizabeth studied French –she started her honours degree in 1908 -and passed on the benefit of her experience to those attending the Cavendish Square Teacher Training College, London, where she was principal from 1912 to 1925. The care for her students extending to selling ‘her much cherished violin’ to raise funds for a student in financial difficulty. Sisters and secular students of Cherwell Edge later benefitted from MM Elizabeth’s guidance when she became superior in Oxford following her time at Cavendish Square.
One SHCJ who was housed at Cherwell Edge in 1922 since there was no room for her at Lady Margaret Hall, felt such a bond with Oxford that later she chose Mary Frideswide for her religious name. Margaret Helm was twice a student in Oxford. She read English as an undergraduate and then, after a scholarship, a teaching position and her conversion to Catholicism in the USA, she gained a diploma in education from Oxford University in June 1939 as an SHCJ. She went on to successfully improve teaching provision at Layton Hill despite the hardships of the Second World War and was known, by her sister Ursula and her sisters in religion alike,as a woman of ‘integrity and courtesy’ with a vivid imagination.
Sister Barbara Hall was another Oxfordian SHCJ but did not spend her undergraduate years at Cherwell Edge. Barbara was also part of the advanced guard of women graduating in the post-war period, she started an honours course in English language and literature as a student of St Hilda’s College in 1921. Barbara did have a connection to Cherwell Edge since it was there, with her mother, that she was received into the Catholic Church. As an SHCJ, Barbara taught English to older pupils at Winckley Square, Layton Hill and Combe Bank and then worked at Cavendish Square’s post-graduate training college.
This form of teaching prepared her for a ministry in 1966 which was much further afield, assisting the Verona Sisters in their establishment of Asmara University in Eritrea along with Sister Margaret Mary of the American Province. Sister Barbara’s reports from Eritrea describe her work teaching mainly English Language to first years and literature to third and fourth year groups. Her students were mainly of the Coptic Church but also included Muslims and Hindus. The average day involved a bell Barbara recalled as loud enough to wake ‘all Seven Sleepers of Ephesus’ before 6 am, classes and lectures running from 8:40 am until 10:05 pm for most staff, with breaks for meals and a brief ‘siesta’ of silence in the afternoon. Sister Barbara’s lessons went on until only 9:15 pm ‘owing, probably, to visible grey hairs’. Elsewhere she describes country drives meeting friendly rural communities living with little amenities in ‘austere and lovely’ landscapes.
After years of providing a spiritual centre as well as a physical home to Catholic women studying for Oxford degrees, it became apparent that Cherwell Edge was too large a building for the work of the SHCJ in Oxford and the community moved to 14-16 Norham Gardens in September 1969. As the SHCJ’s activities into academia continue, the archives and library have collected the research of a number of later SHCJ, including Sister Justina Chikezie’s work. The Cherwell Centre’s support for Sister Justina’s research is of a different kind to the ministry of the hostel established in 1904. Nonetheless, assistance from historian and archivist sisters with the archives held at Norham Gardens in 2006 contributed to Sister Justina’s dissertation for her own Masters in Education, where she investigated Cornelia Connelly’s educational principles and current Holy Child education in Nigeria. Both Sister Justina’s academic endeavour and the help offered by fellow SHCJ can be seen as a continuance of work by the sisters of Cherwell Edge, to take the advantage of university study and go on to support the learning of others, in this way preparing to ‘meet the wants of the age’.