The SHCJ’s 121 years in Oxford, England

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 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.

M.M. Agnese Duckett

The teaching of M.M. Agnese, Sister Stanislaus and M. Francis Xavier was successful and 69 pupils at the elementary school rose to 122 in 1904. The annals also celebrate 11 baptisms, 18 first communions and 15 confirmations as well as the reception of 10 former protestants into the Catholic church.

1904 also saw the Oxford community make their momentous move to Cherwell Edge once a grand private residence and now belonging to Merton College. In this peaceful yet central spot located South Parks Road, the Oxford community established St Frideswide’s. This hostel provided ‘Catholic surroundings and a Catholic atmosphere’ for young female Catholic Oxford students ‘while leading in every detail the life of the ordinary college-girl’.

The students bonded with each other and the SHCJ who guided them. In 1909, the students acted ‘Shades of Night’ for the workmen building the extensions being made to Cherwell Edge. A magazine produced by the St Frideswide’s English Club named ‘Clippings from the Edge’, describes competitions held for parodies and short stories judged by Reverend Mother as well as lively debates where ‘each member [was] convinced of the justice of her view and the impossibility of all others’. Winifred Marks, a student at Cherwell Edge during the war years, remembers how the SHCJ ensured the girls stayed well fed despite food rationing: ‘true to their vocation worked miracles in providing three cooked meals a day plus mid-morning coffee and afternoon tea.’

St Frideswide’s Students playing Tennis, c.1910

The SHCJ had an 80-year lease on Cherwell Edge and their time there seemed set to end in 1984 when it was likely that Merton College would not renew their lease. As a 1962 report by Mother Gerardine (Sr Elizabeth Swinburne) states, Oxford University wanted Cherwell Edge ‘badly’ while nearby chemistry laboratories expanded. Although it was known that St Frideswide’s was to eventually cease being a hostel for the Students of St Anne’s College – the college formed from the Society for Oxford Home Students which St Frideswide’s had previously belonged to – the SHCJ agreed to continue to fund two of the five scholarships once provided at Cherwell Edge, the Cornelia Connelly and Tolhurst scholarships.

As the needs of the young women of 1960s Britain changed and the University eyed Cherwell Edge ever more hungrily, preparations were made to locate a site more suited to the SHCJ’s future in Oxford. On 19th March 1962, Merton College estate Bursar informed Mother Gerardine that he and the finance committee could not agree to selling the SHCJ the freehold to Cherwell Edge. The SHCJ began to correspond frequently with University authorities, including the Vice-Chancellor, who wrote to Reverend Mother Provincial to express his ‘personal’ gratitude for the decision to leave and free up Cherwell Edge which would ‘make an enormous difference to the University’. Initially Cherwell House, a property on Linton Road, was suggested but the short lease and poor repair of the house rendered it unsuitable.

There is a gap in the records relating to the obtaining 14 and 16 Norham Gardens, but we know from the invitation to the Farewell Gaudy (Party) of 21st June 1969 that this was to be the Oxford Community’s new home by that date. The invitation communicates that ‘old students will always be welcome there’. 120 women, including 12 SHCJ sisters, attended the Gaudy to represent the 702 students who attended Cherwell Edge since St Frideswide’s hostel for students opened its doors to them. There were representatives from every generation of students.

SHCJ, Old girls and their children assembled during the 1969 Farewell Gaudy

The celebrations included a midday Mass, followed by a luncheon and after that ‘just talk, talk and talk’. Letters of thanks sent later expressed gratitude and the emotions felt that day, as summed up by the SHCJ account of it ‘a wonderfully happy one despite the sadness of the occasion’. The day had ‘united in a common bond of friendship the Edgers of all generations’ and the SHCJ hoped that ‘they went out with renewed courage and hope, and that the spirit of Cherwell Edge will live on, even though the place must change hands’.

During this time of transition, in August 1966, after many years as headmistress there, Mother M. Teresa was forced to resign from her position as headmistress of St Aloysius school which had been managed by SHCJ sisters for 64 years. The Provincial, Mother Mary Declan had to warn Fr J. Smalley S.J. that the SHCJ was now unlikely to have a suitable candidate for the role but would be ‘happy to work under the person who is appointed.’ She reflected that it was perhaps ‘a good thing’ for a lay person to take over given the emphasis placed on the role of lay people in the Church at the time. She believed that the presence of an SHCJ on the school staff would maintain the Society’s bond with the school.

Sister Lydia Gabler

At St Joseph’s school, a lay head had already been appointed after Sister M. Honoria’s retirement in 1953. However, his resignation after two months and a further headmaster moving to a role in the Secondary department in 1958 meant that Sr Lydia Gabler, who had been Sr M. Honoria’s assistant, took on the headship of St Joseph’s Primary department. She worked there with ‘four or five yoke- companions as SHCJ assistants’ – these being Sr M. McEntree, Sr M. Constance, Sr Jane Bennet and Sr Oonagh Barry – until 1977 when she reached retirement age.

In November 1969, Sister Mary Matthew wrote to her Provincial sending the architect’s plans for number 16 and details the slow but sure progress in number 14 as upstairs rooms were plastered and the wash basins were installed. She warns that the basement ‘still looks a shambles’ but states she will insist that such areas are completed in January to ensure that the community could move in February 1970. She worried about ‘the Province’s reaction to our carrying on with the University work here’ but hoped ‘it will be for God’s greater Glory in the long run’ with an ‘indirect apostolate, i.e. training others for the apostolate’ realised.

Part of plan of alterations of changes to No. 14- 16 Norham Gardens, 1979

The Oxford house diaries record the removal of the first half of the Cherwell Edge SHCJ household to Norham Gardens on 23rd February 1970. The upheaval must have been eased by the ‘many kind welcoming letters, messages and gifts’ received from friends and well-wishers. Nine more SHCJ came to Norham Gardens the following day, the rest were to stay at Cherwell Edge until 18th March when they would leave to join the SHCJ’s other Oxford property at the time in Park Town. Masses were alternated between the two houses until March, with the first two masses being celebrated at Norham Gardens on 25th and 26th February when the Blessed Sacrament had been reserved. Plans for the adaptation of 14 to 16 Norham Gardens continued into the summer of 1970, with Sister Mary Michael keeping Reverend Mother Provincial informed of progress. On 2nd February 1971, a formal letter of support was received from Bishop Anthony Emery, representing the Archbishop of Birmingham’s Office, for the establishment of a Pastoral Centre by the SHCJ.

Bishop Anthony stated that the Oxford based priests he had met with were ‘enthusiastic and readily agreed with me about the urgent need for such a Centre in Oxford’.

Following this, an SHCJ working party was held in Norham Gardens on 24th April 1971 to ‘discuss plans for the pastoral centre and formulate a policy’. By June 1971, with the Centre’s direction outlined in this way, Sister Mary Lalor wrote to local schools offering the centre as a venue for residential courses with a conference room to seat 50 and residential accommodation for 25. From this early period onwards, organisations of diverse religions and purposes benefitted from the hospitality made available.

These included groups from the charities Oxfam, NSPCC and Oxford Mind, Catholic organisations such as the Catholic Education Service as well as the Buddhist Aukana Trust, the Reform Synagogue Retreat, the London School of Counselling and the Oxford Theatre Group.

The Cherwell Centre has also long provided a gathering place for SHCJ meetings and celebrations of feasts and Jubilees. In 1997, the SHCJ Community of Hastings moved to Rose Hill in East Oxford and the neighbouring communities would often share celebrations together.

For over 50 years the Cherwell Centre has carried out its mission to be ‘a place of Christ centred hospitality where, in an atmosphere of freedom and peace, people are supported in their search for God’. The SHCJ sisters had long strived to provide such ‘freedom and peace’ not only to the students whose learning they nurtured but also the parish, primary and secondary school children they taught. This gift was also received from SHCJ sisters by individuals such as Mrs Freeman who simply wished to return to the faith she had grown up practicing in an Edwardian Oxford where wealthy employers still held an attitude of religious intolerance against their workers.

In a year where many European Province sisters face great changes ahead, may they feel as those celebrating at Cherwell Edge for the last time did, despite the sadness of leaving, a ‘renewed courage and hope’ that the spirit of their community will live on.

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