Part 1: The SHCJ’s 121 years in Oxford

From the European Province Archives

Thursday, 23rd February 2023 marked 53 years of the SHCJ’s residence in 14-16 Norham Gardens, Oxford. This is the last of several houses from which the Society carried out a variety of ministries, helping to serve the needs of students and residents of the city, interacting with both town and gown.

Sister Catherine Dunstan

The SHCJ Oxford Community began in St Clements, a district in the South East of the city, when they moved into Leslie House on 15th October 1902 to serve the elementary school and local community of St Ignatius Parish. Rev. Mother Angela Saunders was Mother Superior leading Mother Mary Anastasia O’Connor, Mother Mary Agnese Duckett, Mother Mary Bede O’Neill, Sister Stanislaus Long, Mother Francis Xavier Topham and Sister Catherine Dunstan, who had charge of the Kitchen and laundry.

Sister Agnese Duckett, who became headmistress of the Elementary school, described Leslie House as ‘our Nazareth & its environs were little better’. A neighbouring Protestant parson was ‘most hostile’ when the SHCJ sisters arrived. He seethed ‘what sins can I have committed in my life to bring such a curse upon me & my parish?’. Nevertheless, they received a ‘hearty welcome’ from the Catholic fathers of the city, including Father Strappini, the superior of the St Aloysius mission and manager of the parish schools. He was familiar with the SHCJ from his days in Preston.

Leslie House

Another member of the St Aloysius community, Father Scoles, curiously referred to the SHCJ as the ‘six waterpots’, a nickname that perhaps referred to the sisters’ secondary work of encouraging local Catholics to retain their faith. The fathers ‘became like brothers in friendship and confidence’. Despite the increase her to her work, M.M. Agnese saw the weekly lists of persons to visit as a sign of their trust in the SHCJ community.

The ‘Reminiscences’ of M.M. Agnese offer valuable insights into the lives of the people living alongside the Oxford SHCJ and their daily struggles. Since there were so few SHCJ, the Superior General Mother Gonzaga Snow, allowed her to visit people who were ill and impoverished in their homes without a companion. M.M. Agnese felt this had the ‘one great advantage’ of allowing people to ‘more willingly [speak] out their troubles to one’.

Amongst the many stories she relates is that of Mrs Freeman, a mother of five daughters. She had been raised a Catholic in Ireland and wished to return to the Catholic Church despite marrying a Protestant and the threat of dismissal from her work at the Headington Hall Laundry on the Estate of the Morrells. She saw M.M. Agnese in the streets of Oxford and had followed her for half an hour, summoning her courage to share that she ‘was not in want but very unhappy’. Mrs Freeman and all five girls returned to her original faith under the SHCJ’s spiritual guidance but were dismissed from their positions at the laundry. The family were nonetheless grateful to the sisters and, until they had to leave their positions, gifted the sisters ‘choice vegetables and flowers’: a boon to the Oxford SHCJ who were ‘not too well off at that time’.

M.M. Agnese Duckett

M.M. Agnese also visited an army pensioner living with his housekeeper in two rooms on Cowley Road. ‘A great talker’, he told M.M. Agnese about his remarkable life, his ‘hair breadth escapes & other feats of valour in different parts of the world’. M.M. Agnese was unperturbed by the soldier’s initial reluctance to discuss his faith. One week she left him with ‘a few home truths to digest’. She was more disconcerted by the ‘glaring’ of his housekeeper only to find that Mrs Preston had been intently listening and became determined to become a Roman Catholic herself.

When he was eventually persuaded to return to the Church, the soldier Duffy, told Father Blount that against ‘constant attacks from all sides the diplomacy of Napoleon and Wellington would be nowhere!’. Years later, the time came for Mr Duffy to join his brother in Ireland and the SHCJ ensured Mrs Preston ‘lived comfortably’ at the Nazareth Home in Oxford. M.M. Agnese’s ‘magnanimous soldier’ made a point of thanking her as they walked from the church together for the last time.

Continued here:

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