The Fabric of the Church
The murals of St Margaret and St Winifred, two female saints, are part of the fabric of St Mary’s Church, a constant mark in the masonry, and a continued reminder of the work of certain women in the parish: the Sisters of the Society of St Margaret who came to Cardiff from East Grinstead and, in turn, left their own mark.
They have laboured
“I am thankful to say I am gradually getting better,” wrote Fr Jones in 1890. He had been spending some time with his old college friend, Evan Lewis, the Dean of Bangor, recuperating from an accident, a collision with a cyclist. This, combined with the death of his sister and the stress of personal attacks upon him, had weakened the 63 year old priest.
“To those who were close to him he never seemed again so active and energetic or strong in health as he had been before,” reads his biography.
“You were all startled, I have no doubt, to hear that Sister Ruth and Sister Rose were leaving us,” he continued in his letter “They have now gone. Sister Ruth’s loss of sight was the cause of her asking the Mother Superior to relieve her and send another Sister in her place.”
“I frankly acknowledge the great work done by them and the other Sisters of East Grinstead in this place. The people amongst whom they have laboured have always found in them sympathizing hearts and a desire for their good.”
As he recuperated in Bangor, many of his parishioners were of the same mind. Meeting together they resolved to have two female saints painted on the chancel arch in memory of the work of the Sisters of Charity in the parish. They chose St Winifred, Virgin and Martyr, of Holywell in North Wales and, most significantly, St Margaret, the Patron Saint of the Sisters of East Grinstead.
The Sisters of St Margaret
The Society of St Margaret was founded in 1855 by Dr John Mason Neale at Rotherfield, England. He was a priest of the Church of England and, whilst a student at Cambridge, had become influenced by the Oxford Movement. As the numbers increased, the Sisters moved into their first convent, Saint Margaret’s in East Grinstead, Sussex.
The society had a difficult start. Growing naturally from within the Oxford Movement’s catholic revival, it was met with resistance by those suspicious of anything suggesting Roman Catholicism. Dr Neale himself had received personal attacks and threats, and had been manhandled at the funeral of one of the sisters.
Arrival at St Mary’s
In 1873, the Reverend Mother Superior agreed to send three sisters to St Mary’s, and they arrived later in the Autumn. Their number included Sister Ruth and Sister Rose mentioned in his letter.
They lived at first in an upper story of a house in Bute Street and, soon after, moved to “a poor little house in Maria Street” before settling more permanently at 1, North Church Street where they remained until 1937.
A precarious ride
The opposition and personal attacks experienced by Neale in establishing the Society was replicated in the lives of so many people influenced by the Oxford Movement, and Fr Jones was no different.
Amongst the Deanery clergy was general approval for the Sisters. They admired their work but one or two were not in favour of their “distinctive dress” which they thought would cause offence and hinder their work. For Fr Jones, this reservation was no obstacle. “We will have Sisters before long, distinctive dress and all,” he said to himself at the time.
Rumours abounded, and some of the more absurd stories which were circulated in the parish did, at time, cause the clergy to smile. For instance, it was stated that an empty coffin was taken into the church on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, and that the Sisters of Mercy spent the night there worshipping it.
It was also said that the church was kept darkened all day on Good Friday and that “Mr. Sankey and the curate” carried the Vicar round the church on their shoulders. “Now, as Mr. Sankey is very tall and I am very short,” said the Curate, “the Vicar must have had a very uncomfortable and precarious ride!”
The ride indeed was often precarious. The Marquess of Bute, who had recently converted to Roman Catholicism, still took an interest in life at St Mary’s and contributed to its funds, and the story went that the Vicar was in the pay of the Roman Church, and went to the Castle every morning for his orders.
“The Vicar was not one to lose heart easily, but he could scarcely fail to feel the strain of the uphill fight, and the frequent opposition must have told upon him,” reads his biography.
Some believed the Sister’s presence an insult to the Protestants of the Parish. “Really the Vicar had no idea of insulting any, Protestant or otherwise,” said his Curate, “but had they said that the Vicar wished these ladies to help him in making Catholics of the Protestants, and doing them good in body and soul, they would have been about right.”
‘I’ll chuck you over the bannister!’
At first there were only three Sisters but their numbers gradually increased so that, in 1888, there were six at work, and as it was reported at the time, “we could easily find work for double that number.” Despite some initial opposition, with “their simple goodness, gentleness and tact they soon made their way in spite of it.”
As soon as the Sisters got settled they set to work, took part in the Sunday Schools, held Bible Classes on weeknights, prepared candidates for confirmation, sought out the unbaptized and brought them to the font. In one year over six hundred were baptized. They visited the sick and poor in an area and time where there was significant hardship and squalor, poor housing and social inequality.
They showed great determination and patience. One day, Sister Ruth, on hearing that a local man was ill with a terrible disease, called at his house to visit him. His wife was having none of it. She called from the top of the stairs, “If you do not go down, I’ll chuck you over the banister!” The Sister quietly went away then, but then somehow got in afterwards and visited the man till he died.
The Sisters held Mothers’ Meetings at four places in the parish, which were attended by about one hundred and thirty mothers. Through this contact, the Sisters were able to help them in many different ways.
A very good work
In February, 1875, the Sisters began Day School work at Bute Lane Mission School, for girls and infants. This school was always full, and many more would have attended if the building allowed it.
Soon after this school was opened, an official of the School Board called one morning to see the school, and part of his description of it was that he saw “a large crucifix at one end of the room and a Nun at the other.” I need not say the crucifix still remains there, and the Nun is doing a very good work, such as the School Board never can do,” said Fr Jones.
The following year, they began work at Bute Terrace Girls’ School, and Sister Ruth started the Guild of S. Michael and All Angels. With a membership of up to ninety girls, it was the most successful Guild in the parish, and intended to help girls from Confirmation age until marriage, “and as a rule they seem to marry fairly well.”
In addition to the schools under the care of the sisters, there were seven other National Schools in the parish under the management of the Vicar and a Committee. Each School received the ministry of the Sisters and the parish clergy.
They established a Guild House for girls in Canal Parade, described as “a kind of recreation room, partly for work and partly for amusement, where the girls may assemble … and be kept from rambling about the streets; in a word, to keep them from mischief!” It was at this house that they established a middle class school called St Gwendoline’s which closed at Easter 1899.
Legacy of Love
In 1937, the sisters were recalled to the Mother House and their ministry in the parish came to an end. When they left the parish after more than six decades they had played an essential part in the mission and ministry of the parish, leaving a legacy of love with transformed lives and strengthened faith.
Although no longer present in the parish, there are still Sisters of the Society in the UK and in the US and Asia, including the Priory of Our Lady in Walsingham in Norfolk founded in 1955
The murals of St Margaret and St Winifred, two female saints, are part of the fabric of St Mary’s Church and continue as a constant reminder of the work of those women from East Grinstead who came to Cardiff and, in turn, left their own mark.