‘Little Remembrances’ and Celebrations at Epiphany

From the European Archives

January’s search into the archives follows the SHCJ’s observance of this important feast.

Six of the Epiphany letters written by Cornelia herself survive in the European Province Archives, with the text of a seventh preserved in a notebook of copies made by Mother St John McMaster. The earliest letter does not carry an original date but was dated by the Cause Historical Commission at 1851-1852. Cornelia opens by referring to the community’s wish for her to tell them ‘what I desire to see you most grow and excel in’ and reflects that:

This day being the Feast of Epiphany, our great Feast of year when we renew our vows, it may perhaps be well for me to comply with your request and give you a little remembrance of the year

Cornelia firstly refers them to the Saints whose advice is ‘far above any I could give you’ but does go on to tell them to be ‘united with God in prayer’ and how to conduct themselves. She warns against ‘inordinate affections’ but wishes the sisters ‘to learn how to interchange severity and firmness with mildness and mercy’. The latter principle is reminiscent of Cornelia’s ideal of a nurturing form of education, as expressed in the Book of Studies where she instructs ‘let not the mistresses be too hasty in punishing nor too eager in seeking faults’. In a later Epiphany letter of 1854, she writes a poetic and often quoted phrase:

As you step through the muddy streets, love God with your feet and when your hands toil love him with your hands & when you teach the children love Him with His little ones

With such words Cornelia could raise the morale of her order as they worked hard to educate children and care for them as well as each other, fighting to establish the Society with scarce funds and in often difficult conditions.

These general letters give less of a sense of Cornelia’s specific relationships or interior life as that given by other correspondence. Nonetheless, they do offer an interesting account of the development of her ideas and her hopes for the Society.

A look through the house diaries from later years shows how Epiphany was celebrated after Mass and the renewal of vows. At Layton Hill a hundred years ago, the sisters had tea with Father Garner and then enjoyed a whist drive and presents. A brief diary note for the 1924 Epiphany at St Leonards states they ‘had competition for nuns’. Whatever this involved it must have been fun as they continued ‘after dinner’. The Winckley Square diarist describes an idyllic Epiphany in 1928 with a visit from Father Davis who was ‘chatty and kind’, games with prizes from 4:30pm until 6pm and time after supper when the community ‘sat round the fire & talked & sang’. The Stanmullen house diary for 1937 remarks upon a ‘beautiful Epiphany letter’ received from Revd Mother General, showing how this tradition continued to encourage the work of the Society, especially for this house established during the previous autumn.

All that remains is to wish everyone a Happy New Year from the European Province archives!

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