‘Fearless in Speech’: The Earliest General Chapters and the Life of Mother Marie Clare Hadfield

4 October, 2021

From the European Province Archives

Although the youngest member of the 1877 General Chapter, Mother Marie Clare Hadfield was not afraid to speak her mind. A child of Layton Hill Convent School in Blackpool, she had joined the SHCJ at 19 and now aged 27, she served as a representative for her sisters. Following the form of vote taking for elections which started with the youngest present, Bishop James Danell turned to M. Marie Clare and asked for her opinion of the modified Rule he had imposed on the Society for three years. Her response was clear and frank:

“My Lord” she replied, “It seems to me that this new Rule has been drawn up to correct abuses that do not exist; and it does not lead us to love and obey our Superiors”.

Silence followed. At the previous chapter, the bishop had perceived Cornelia’s brief bow in place of kneeling and kissing his ring as a lack of submission. She was, in fact, suffering with severe gout. What would he now make of M. Marie Claire’s critique?

Mother Marie Clare Hadfield

At the first General Chapter of 1874, 19 SHCJ sisters were assembled. Superiors of houses would not automatically form part of the chapter and those serving as deputies to represent all of the SHCJ had to be elected. Only choir sisters could be appointed, but they were voted in by the whole community including ‘for this first time only’ the lay or house sisters as Danell’s booklet of instructions to superiors makes clear. The annals state that Danell decided to open the vote to lay sisters in order to placate their anger at the change of their status in the Society after alterations to the Rule made by Rome.

This first chapter meant that Cornelia’s leadership of the SHCJ could be sanctioned by representatives of the SHCJ in England and America. She would no longer be Superior simply by – as Danell’s instructions term it – ‘our implicit consent and by the implicit consent of the Sisters of the Society’.6 Cornelia won by a majority of 15 votes, with Mother Catherine Tracy gaining 2 votes, Mother Aloysia Frankish and Mother Mary Xavier Noble gaining one vote each. The election of Superior General was settled.

It was also at this chapter that Danell presented leather bound copies of his drastically altered version of the SHCJ’s Rule or Constitutions which had been refined and laboured over by Cornelia throughout her time leading the developing Society. Distinctive rules of St. Ignatius were removed. The annals for 1874 further note – supporting the view expressed by M. Marie Clare three years later – that ‘the additions seemed clearly inserted for the purpose of showing or engendering mistrust in Superiors & curtailing their powers.’ Vital amendments made by the sisters were overruled by Danell and Father Bosio, his assistant.

Bishop James Danell

The annals note the pain this moment caused for Cornelia. The Constitutions she carefully shaped in an effort to express and define the spirit of the SHCJ had been fundamentally altered, the ‘work of her life’ all but swept away. She could only hope the Rule might one day ‘finally be restored’.

Nonetheless, Cornelia continued to work on the Constitutions during the trial period assigned by Danell, striving to bring the text in harmony with a spirituality inspired by the Holy Child. She included sections from the work of a French Jesuit, Pierre Cotel, on devotion to the Holy Child as a basis for apostolic work. His influence survives as paragraph 7 in the SHCJ constitutions, exhorting sisters to ‘constantly see Jesus in each of the children whom they have to train’.

In the year 1877, despite his heavy-handed approach at the previous chapter, Danell showed himself to be open to the deputies’ opinions. He welcomed M. Marie Clare’s comments, simply responding “if that is what you think, you have done no harm in saying so. I wish everyone to feel free”. The Chapter continued to give an honest assessment of his Rule and to illustrate the ‘universal disapproval of it’. Danell noted the considerable amendments required and invited the sisters to make detailed changes. He left the sisters with Father Bosio and Father Hogan for a few days to make it easier for the SHCJ deputies to continue their work.

The revision of Danell’s Rule was a meticulous and lengthy process. The annals relate how the sisters of the 1877 Chapter worked from the 3rd to the 9th September, assembling each day for six hours. The Rule was ‘reconsidered paragraph by paragraph’. Despite the ‘intense strain’ of this work, ‘no discordant tone ever disturbed charity’ and there was even ‘a good deal of cheerfulness’ at times among the sisters.

After taking part in the 1877 Chapter, M. Marie Clare became Second Novice Mistress at Mayfield for two years and later returned to Mayfield as Prefect. Working ‘indefatigably’ for the children in her care for 18 years, M. Marie Clare’s necrology notes that many turned to her for help after leaving the school and were inspired by her ‘strong, childlike faith’. Before she took on this important role, M. Marie Clare was sent to Birmingham to be the superior of a new foundation there from 1881 to 1885.

59 Hagley Road, the house of the Birmingham Community from 1881 – 1855. This image was taken in the 1960s, the building was still standing.

The Birmingham papers of the Provincialate Archive include a series of vivid recollections by M. Marie Clare. She expresses her fondness for her days in the city: Without any exaggeration I may say they were amongst the happiest years of the Religious Life of the Community who were privileged to live there.

The community of eight, including Sister Margaret from America, arrived in July 1881 and took on the local girls’ elementary school as well as infant and middle schools. They were welcomed with kindness by Bishop Ullathorne who had met Cornelia and the fledgling Society in the SHCJ’s very first convent in Derby on 17th September 1847. The Oratorian Fathers organised a picnic at Rednal, the Country House of Cardinal Newman and the Fathers, so that the nuns would be better acquainted with the congregation and their future pupils.

The Birmingham papers also contain a letter book. The correspondence between M. Marie Clare, Dr Ullathorne and the Oratorian Fathers pasted in the volume tells the story of this first Birmingham foundation. They bear witness to the warm relationship between the Fathers and the SHCJ community as Masses were arranged, gifts received and advice provided.

John Henry Newman’s view of Cornelia was marred by her alienation from Emily Bowles, Newman’s friend, after the Liverpool property dispute. Nevertheless, throughout their time in Birmingham, he saw the sisters of her Society in a positive light and praised their work. The SHCJ nuns sent the gift of a beretta to him and ‘made a Novena to Our Blessed Mother for your Eminence’s intentions’ on his 81st birthday, the only way they could truly thank him for ‘all your kindness and sympathy towards us from when we came to Edgbaston’. In her reminiscences, Marie Clare recalls Newman’s words when the Birmingham house had to close due to a lack of pupils: Cardinal Newman said that had he the faintest idea that such a calamity was about to happen he himself would have gone round & begged the people to send their children to the Convent School.

The SHCJ’s departure from Birmingham, like Danell’s altered SHCJ Constitutions of 1874, was not permanent. Tragically, Cornelia never saw Rome’s approval of the Rule she had laboured over, but her Society was to witness this happy event when the Papal decree was issued on 7th August 1887. In 1933, the SHCJ returned to Birmingham and went on to work in more schools and other ministries. The Priory school remains a part of the Holy Child Network of Schools to this day. Developed by Cornelia and loyally defended by M. Marie Clare, a nun ‘fearless in speech’ but ‘ever kindly in both her words and judgements’, the spirit of the SHCJ continues to be lived and celebrated by its schools, associates, friends and sisters.

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