Archbishop Edwin F O’Brien, Archbishop of Baltimore, announced today that 10 nuns, formerly members of an Episcopal religious community known as the Society of the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor, and the group’s chaplain, Fr Warren Tanghe, were received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church at a Mass earlier today.
The story has generated some interest in the Catholic press. Much is said about the difficulty of remaining in the Anglican Communion, and the decision to "swim the Tiber" and unite with Rome. Nothing, to my knowledge, has ever been written about life at the hilltop itself, and the experience of knowing the Sisters, and what they would bring to Mother Church.
“It was a dark and stormy night...”
...in the spring of 1994. I was driving home from a meeting one evening. With the rain pouring down, I came upon a station wagon, which had run off into a ditch. There, with the hood up, were two sisters in full traditional habit. The former Catholic schoolboy donned the mantle of knighthood, as I swerved around and came to assist. It was a mother superior and her companion, from an order based in Baltimore. Fortunately, a motor club membership and a pay phone were enough to enlist the aid of a tow truck. In the interim, there remained the task of putting them at ease, and we talked of ourselves and our common Faith.
I heard from them shortly thereafter; a lovely card expressing their gratitude for “rescuing” them, and a book they published of spiritual reflections. It was only then that I learned, that the All Saints Sisters of the Poor were... an Episcopal order.
About the Sisters
The Oxford Movement swept the Church of England in the early 19th century, as some of its members rediscovered their Catholic heritage. This brought about within Anglicanism the revival of religious orders, long suppressed since the Reformation. Most Catholics know this movement by one of its leaders, the Venerable John Henry Newman (1801-90), who eventually converted to the Roman Catholic faith. But others stayed, hoping to reform the Anglican Communion from within. Among them were the Reverend Upton Richards, an Anglican priest who, with Mother Harriet Brownlow Byron, founded a society in 1851 to do parish work at All Saints Church on Margaret Street in London. In 1872, three of their sisters came to Baltimore and started an American branch.
The community lives under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, mixing a life of prayer and work. Wearing the full traditional Benedictine habit, their spirituality is based on an Augustinian Rule, inspired by the communities in France visited by Mother Harriet, and written by Father Richards. There are currently twelve sisters at the convent and retreat center in the town of Catonsville. Their day is marked by the Eucharist and the six-fold Daily Office. From this life emerges the ministry of hospitality, as well as the work of weekend retreats, spiritual guidance, and direction of a hospice in Baltimore’s inner city. Their retreats are marked by silence, often featuring the lives and works of such notable Catholics as Gregory the Great, Benedict of Nursia, and Catherine de Heuck Doherty.
As a part of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion, their Mass is based upon the Missale Anglicanum -- essentially the Traditional Roman Mass in English. To hear the psalms chanted in the “king’s English” is a welcome respite from the pedestrian vernacular of our current official reform. Even in their recitation during the “little hours,” they are marked by the slow and measured cadence, beyond the mere poetic, but short of a dreary mantra.
Venturing to the Hilltop
Paul and I visited them later in the spring of that year. The gate at the end of the long neighborhood street opened up to a bucolic estate, with a retreat house and several other residences. At the end of the drive, atop the hill, was the English-style stone convent, looking undisturbed by the ravages of encroaching suburbia, save for the many deer that roamed the grounds as they would emerge from Patabsco State Park.
As the doors opened to greet us, there they were, nearly two dozen “penguins” in total -- hey, that's what they call themselves in their habits, I’m just sayin’ -- to see the man who “saved the lives” of the Reverend Mother and her charge. They loved Paul, who was quite precocious back in those days. We also met a Benedictine monk, a priest who had his own residence there. Dom Edward was a reminder that the Anglicans, too, had a share of the Benedictine tradition. It was at his residence, the priory there on the grounds, that I spent many an hour, conversing on scholarly things, in the manner of gentlemen like C S Lewis and J R R Tolkein.
Once a year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, Paul and I would attend the retreat house, for what amounted to an annual informal respite for those associated with the order. We attended Lauds and Vespers, as well as the Mass (without receiving communion). No one expected a young boy to be that well behaved, but he ate what the Sisters put in front of them, and always asked for seconds. When we attended the Office, one of the Sisters would slip me a note: “Reverend Mother will receive you in the sitting room in fifteen minutes.” When we weren't visiting with the Sisters, we would hike the grounds and sneak up on the deer, read books in the library, or play board games.
I also found that, whenever I went through a rough patch, and there were a couple of them for awhile, I could always find refuge there. I would stay at the priory and be alone in contemplation, attend the Eucharist and the Hours, or have tea with Father in the afternoon. I found a spiritual guide in the Reverend Mother, which was unusual. My experience with women Religious over the years had not generally been that positive, in no small part due to the changes that occurred in religious life in the 1960s and beyond. I cannot quite explain it all that well, except to say that, rather than my saving them, our acquaintanceship has been mostly about them saving MY life.
I will give you an example. I learned a fool-proof way to pray for a miracle. If you have a dispute with your brethren, you go to bed at night saying this prayer over and over; as you breathe in, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done...” then as you breathe out “...for me and (the name of the other person).” The next morning, the miracle is granted. It is not always the one you expect, and sometimes you have to look hard for it, but it is there, and it never fails. I found that the hard part was not so much getting the miracle, as it was getting up the nerve to ask for it. There is a lesson there about the spiritual life, you think?
Coming Together in Rome
It is easier to explain their reconciliation with Rome, than it is what these Sisters have meant to me. Their decision was not something entered into lightly, but was a journey that took many years, probably since before I met them. Of the twelve Sisters in the community, two intend to remain Anglican, if still faithful to their vows. That nearly all of them came together is remarkable, when you consider that it could just as easily have torn them apart. The preservation of their liturgical life would be a paramount concern, one that I expect was a major part of any negotiations.
The All Saints Sisters can be distinguished from many of the new “traditional” religious orders, in that they have the advantages that come from longevity. On the other hand, unlike some long-established orders, they have been spared much of the baggage that occurred in many Catholic orders during the 1960s and 1970s. This is not to say that they did not have struggles of their own, or they would never have left the Anglican Communion to begin with. It is perhaps in light of this, that they bring a new attitude about the celibate life. The best way to explain this is something the Reverend Mother once told me: “I used my sexual energy to build a hospice.” If you understand the true meaning of the celibate life, one that is beyond the mere forsaking of genital expression of human sexuality, it takes all this talk about the “theology of the body,” and shows us that Mother Church has possessed this knowledge all along.
Rome has been all the poorer without a genuine Anglican expression of the spiritual life in her midst. She will be all the richer for it now.
Another challenge facing them, is the depletion of their ranks, which is by nearly half in just the time I've known them. Most of this was through the passing of older Sisters into eternity. In any case, they are in dire need of vocations. Information about them can be found at a website set up by one of their associates: www.asspconvent.org.
My last visit to the Hilltop was three years ago. It was then that I learned that the Reverend Mother had retired, and that the Sisters had elected a new Mother Superior. The woman I knew as “Reverend Mother” eschewed the privilege of being addressed as “Mother” in favor of being known merely as “Sister.” She was unable to see me when I called on them, but one of the other Sisters told me of the... well, the change of management. It occurred to me, knowing the delicate balance that is the life of a religious community, that I should wait for at least a year before visiting again.
But one thing led to another, and one year became three. When I spoke to Sister on the phone, I was told that the event being held this day was closed to the public, including me. But I would like to think I was there in spirit. And I hope that young women from near and far will visit them, and discover what I did, each in their own way. If you are such a woman, and you feel called to be a mystical bride with Our Lord, do not miss the opportunity to visit the All Saints Sisters.
Tell them I sent you. It couldn’t hurt.