Maria's Diary 26
Humanity has no support to duty
Both contrary in dealing and punctuality:
Nonetheless deny each claims still their validity
Former needs emotional skip where later regularity!
I haven’t written in my diary for over a year now, but Moma thinks it would be good therapy for me to write down about my experiences in the convent.
To be honest, I don’t remember lots of details, so I am relying on what others have told me and things that were written up in the paper about me and another woman who was also there. I think my mental health was compromised by my stay there but even so, I feel guilty at leaving.
The convent is located in Eldad, just outside Plymouth, which is an old rectangular chapel built as headquarters for the priest Father Prynne of St. Peters to do his charitable work. It is in a very poor area in Devonport. It is the haunt of the worst vice and misery which human nature is capable of. The evils are not even veiled. Every third house is a beer shop, and shocking language is common among the residents. There are wild and neglected children with heathenish ignorance who swarm the streets.
I entered the convent as a companion, rather than having committed myself straight away to becoming a nun. But my intention was there none the less. I took this route in order to give my family less grief. None of them encouraged me in my plan.
The head of the convent was Mother Lydia Sellon. She and her best friend Sister Catherine, had started the convent about 1845. She was planning on going abroad for her health, when she heard a message from the Bishop of Exeter asking for women to dedicate themselves to helping the poor in Devonport.
She set up orphanages and schools, and was instrumental during the cholera outbreak of 1849 in helping the victims and their families.
I was welcomed by Mother Lydia and Sister Catherine, and told them that since I was considering becoming a nun, it would be sensible if I knew what this type of life would have in store for me. So I was given the habit to wear, and the same stark cell as the other nuns. Some of the other companions were only there for a short time, to give them some respite from family problems, and they had better accommodation and were allowed to wear their own clothes.
I was asked to practice obedience, poverty and celibacy. I thought I was bound to these, but as it turns out, I never was asked to take a sacred vow, so my obedience to their will was completely under my control.
The story has been written up in newspapers across the country. In the papers it says none of the Sisters have made vows. They make a solemn promise before God which they cannot in conscience break and from which Mother Lydia does not profess to release them as in her opinion nothing but the instigation of Satan could induce them to violate. Certainly I felt bound and that is why I stayed with it as long as I did, and went back after I had been allowed to go home.
My goods, such as they were, and all my money was taken into joint usage for the good of the community. I knew that Mother Lydia had given her entire wealth, which was considerable from her mother’s will and borrowed from her father against his will. So my contribution seemed very slight in comparison. I never had any money which was why when I ran away, I had to call on a policeman to help me find some place where I could shelter while I decided what to do next.
Lady Olivia Stratford and her sister Lady Georgia, were from Ireland. They were there because of some situation at home. I knew their father was a famous nobleman of some sort, but we were told not to discuss family things so I didn’t really find out much about them. They just wore ordinary clothes, and did very little of the charitable work.
Augusta Strange I think was sort of in the same situation as me, and she also wore a black dress with a wooden crucifix. I have heard since I returned home that her parents are very worried about her health, considering the negative publicity about the convent.
The newspapers make such a point of saying that the things we did were much more Roman Catholic than Anglican. Some considered our crucifixes which we wore, and also were displayed in most rooms of the convent, were idolatry and that was one of the things the Anglicans broke from the Roman church because of. They commented on the genuflections we made, and the rosaries and the fact we had church with communion each day. I didn’t realise that these were Romish practices, and I felt quite happy to do these things, which all seemed to add to the feeling of giving glory to God.
Before I left, one of the young Sisters, Sister Gabrielle, escaped. We didn’t really know what was going on, but she was very vocal about how she felt she wasn’t getting the letters she expected to receive. And she said they punished her by making her keep silent for days and even weeks at a time. Also they had the doctor visit her and he seemed to think she had mental issues. She ran away to a relative in Blackford, but picked the wrong person to run to, as the relative immediately brought her back. But eventually her mother found out how unhappy she was, and came and forcibly removed her. It was a week or so after that that she wrote articles for the newspaper about her experiences. Of course, we didn’t have access to those things at the convent. But certainly things were much more uncomfortable within our walls after all of this happened. And it made me worry ever more about how I had not had any letters from my Moma.
I too had medical problems. I had headaches so bad that I couldn’t see properly or even think. They had me see the doctor and he tried cutting my hair and putting leeches on my scalp, but that didn’t help. I think it was eating away in my mind, that in the five months that I had been in there, there had been no letters from my Moma. Papa was in China, and my brothers were mostly away doing their jobs all over the world, but my sisters and mother were in Exeter staying with our Grandfather Bowring and our aunts. They have a huge house called Larkbeare, which has been in the family for many generations.
But going back to Diane Campbell, the girl who ran away. I have now read all the stories that she wrote and although I must say that I don’t know how completely true they are, some things she says are very much what I experienced.
She said we were told that when teaching at the orphans' homes to avoid all discussions of theology or religious subjects but within our sisterhood we were to talk about these things. Diane felt that the orphans were taken advantage of, as they weren’t paid for the hand work they did which was sold. And they were locked in at night. But I feel that as they were given shelter, food and security, as well as being taught basic education skills and occupational skills, they were being given a fair wage.
She said we were told to do self signing of the cross from head to foot. We were told to believe in Transubstantiation, that it was Jesus’ real body and blood in the communion, and that in Baptism the Holy Spirit actually comes to the person.
Because of all the adverse publicity, the Bishop investigated the convent and sought to find out the truth.
He felt the convent establishment was guilty for dispensing unsound opinions among the poor and breeding up young ladies to be blind instruments of the vain silly or superstitious woman who may call herself lady superior. The bishop was told that she said, “A mother has no call to be the confident of her daughter.” If Mother Lydia thinks the mother will not consent to the decision, she goes ahead without asking for it.
Diane's mother was opposed so Diane was told to “consider the voice of God speaking through conscience rather the voice of filial affection. Satan was attempting to make her waiver.” It isn’t that the mother is supposed to be a disguise of Satan, but the advice of the mother superior is preferred to the natural mother.
Our routine was this: rise at 5, lauds at 6, prayer in the oratory 8, church 9.30, prayers at 1 and 6, church at 7 and vespers at 9 followed by compline.
There was a sort of altar in the chapel, with red cloth on the walls, and a table with a large cross on a raised platform.
Our habit was a black woolen dress, with large sleeves. We wear a crucifix on the front, and a small head covering. We had cloaks to wear in bad weather.
Our bedrooms were sparsely furnished, and one big bedroom was divided into two with a deal wall separating them, although we each had a door and one and half windows. There was only a black metal bed, a wash stand with a pitcher and bowl and a psalter.
I was happy in that I enjoyed the work, and felt like I was doing a good job. But after a while I wondered about why none of my letters elicited return letters from Moma and my friends. So I asked about it, and they gave very guarded answers.
I felt grieved and disappointed. So I determined one night, after I had been there five months or so, to go out and talk to a magistrate or someone, to see if he could help me contact Moma. I planned to leave when they were all in the chapel one evening about 7.
I found a policeman, Sgt. Payne, who was on duty near the Royal Hotel and asked him if he could direct me to a magistrate. He asked me if I was confined to the convent, and I answered, no, that I was free to go, “but I have no purse and I have not as yet been supplied with the promised means to contact my Mother. I feel certain letters which I have written and others which I expected to receive have in some way been mislaid.”
So the policeman took me to Sir William Harris, at the magistrate’s house, and first I spoke to his wife and afterwards told him my story. He tried to get me to go to the vicar of St Andrew’s parish but I didn’t want to go there. He knocked at the other priest, Rev. Hadow’s house but nobody was in. So he suggested I write a letter to my mother, and he would post it for me the next day. So I did that, and said I was happy to return back to the convent. He walked me part way back as I said I didn’t know the way.
When I got back, Mother Lydia questioned me about my absence, and I told her my problem. She then found a letter to me from Moma, in which she was urging me to come home. So the next day, Sister Catherine Chambers and I went to the Magistrate’s house and rescued my other letter, and I told him that I’d heard from my mother and all was fine now. I was going home. Sister Catherine Chambers accompanied me on the coach trip to Exeter.
However in the meantime, the priests, hearing the story from the magistrate, had contacted Moma and she, despite being very disabled had got on a coach to come to Plymouth to rescue me, and we crossed paths.
I was happy to be home, and my friends went on about how awful I looked. Nobody had a good word to say about the convent. They all thought that I had been coerced into staying against my will. But I felt that I had made a promise to God, and after a few days of recovering, I slipped away one day and made my way back to the convent.
When she found I was gone, Moma contacted the convent and asked to speak to Mother Lydia, but apparently she was out. So she found out that it was at least true that I had returned, but that they had been told that my mother had given permission for me to return, which was, of course, not the case. So my sisters Edith and Emily came and accompanied me back home again.
The press made a great deal about the whole thing.
One letter in the paper is said to be from one of my relatives. It says, “Entirely as we all disapproved and discountenanced her connection with the Sister of Mercy (what a perversion of the word) yet we had no suspicion on the inhumane means by which both body and soul were debased at Eldad. Her hair was cut close and her eyebrows nearly destroyed. She was exhausted and had a worn appearance. It was not only the frightful dirty garments she wore that made her so unlike herself. Her nerves were in a frightening shattered state.”
After a few weeks, I felt well enough and Moma and I went on a trip to see various relatives.
The other nun that left, was Diane Campbell, but in the convent we knew her as Sister Geraldine. She was never content, and spent much of her time being corrected for her faults. I will include her side of the story. But I must also mention that because of the controversy, the convent was again inspected by bishops and others, and their main criticism was that we practised what they termed as the Oxford movement or Anglo-Catholicism, when we were pretending to be Church of England.
In the end Mother Lydia brought a law suit against the newspaper which was most critical of her and won the case, and there was a huge fine to pay.
The Oxford movement was coming into force, which provided a compromise between the two religions, and so there became a sort of high church, low church division. Many of those involved in the Oxford movement did later become proper Catholics.
The nuns wouldn’t let Sister Geraldine leave, and when she left they were no doubt worried about what she would say about the convent, and she even published a pamphlet about how awful it was. When I left, she was asked if she knew me. She said she had seen me and that I had looked very unhappy.
I am recovering, and although I accepted that convent was not the right one for me, I have not lost my need for religion in some form in my life.