Harriet Monsell (1811-1883) is one of the few Irish-born women to be remembered in the Calendar of Saints in Common Worship in the Church of England. However, because her commemoration this week falls on the Tuesday in Holy Week, she is unlikely to be included in many commemorations today [26 March].
Harriet Monsell was the founder of the Community of Saint John Baptist, an order of Anglican nuns dedicated to social service. By the time she died on Easter Day, 25 March 1883, the order had numerous houses, including houses in England, India and the Americas.
The Hon Harriet O’Brien was born in 1811, the third daughter and the eighth of nine children of Sir Edward O’Brien (1773-1826) of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare. Her father was the MP for Ennis in the Irish House of Commons (1795-1800) and MP for Co Clare in the Westminster Parliament (1802-1826), until he resigned the seat for health reasons.
When Edward O’Brien died in 1837, his widow Charlotte (née Smith), who was a devout Anglican, moved to London with their four daughters, then to Dublin and to other places. The second daughter, Grace, never married, but the other three daughters, including Harriet, married Anglican priests: Catherine married Charles Harris, Bishop of Gibraltar; and Anne married Canon Arthur Martineau of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Of the four sons, Lucius O’Brien (1800-1872) succeeded his father as MP for Co Clare and later inherited a family title as the 13th Lord Inchiquin; while William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864), was a leader of the Young Ireland revolution in 1848, was tried for treason, deported to Tasmania, but later returned to live in Co Limerick.
On 21 September 1839, Harriet married Charles Henry Monsell (1815-1850) while he was studying and receiving medical treatment at the University of Dublin. They moved to Oxford the following year. There, while he completed his studies, they came under the influence of the Oxford Movement. Charles was the third son of the Ven Thomas Bewley Monsell, Archdeacon of Derry, and after his ordination he became his father’s curate. Later, he became a canon of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.
Because of his continuing ill health, the couple spent much of their later married life in Europe, most often in Naples.
After Canon Charles Monsell died in 1850, Harriet continued her affiliation with the Oxford Movement. She began working in the railroad and army village of Clewer among former prostitutes and unmarried mothers at a House of Mercy. The house had been founded some years earlier by Mrs Mariquita Tennant, who was a Spanish refugee, a convert to Anglicanism and a clergyman’s widow. However, due to ill health, Mrs Tennant moved to nearby Windsor, where she soon died.
Harriet Monsell moved to Clewer with her sister Catherine and her husband, the Revd Charles Harris, later Bishop of Gibraltar.
After Charles Harris moved to another parish in 1852, Canon Thomas Thellusson Carter became the Rector of Clewer and the Warden of the House of Mercy. Soon, Harriet Monsell professed religious vows with two other women, and became Mother Superior of one of the first Anglican religious orders since the Reformation.
The women lived according to a rule attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo and at first they were called the Sisters of Mercy. They later changed their name to reflect their inspiration from Saint John the Baptist’s call to penitence. During the new order’s first five years, it expanded from assisting about 30 marginalised women to dedicating a building to serve about 80 women.
As the Community of Saint John Baptist, the nuns were guided by Mother Harriet, with her energy and humour. They extended their original mission to running about 40 institutions, including mission houses in parishes, as well as orphanages, schools and hospitals.
Mother Harriet retired to Folkestone in 1875 for health reasons, although she was occasionally able to visit the communities she founded.
She died on the morning of 25 March 1883, which was both the Feast of the Annunciation and Easter Day that year. Because of this coincidence, her commemoration in the Calendar of the Church of England has been moved to 26 March.
A new Education Centre and home for the Sisters of Begbroke is being built at Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford, and is to be known as Harriet Monsell House.
This new wing will provide a space for dialogue on the issues reflecting the challenges and opportunities of modern life, house the new projects and events arising from the success of our Research Centre, and enable the provision of better and deeper training for clergy at all levels. The plans also include a state-of-the-art lecture theatre.
The top two floors will provide a new home for the Sisters of Begbroke whose presence at the college “is eagerly awaited in order to complement our rhythm of prayer and help deepen our spiritual formation as a community.”
O God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served,
and to give his life for the life of the world.
Lead us by his love
to serve all those whom the world offers no comfort and little help.
Through us give hope to the hopeless,
love to the unloved,
peace to the troubled,
and rest to the weary, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
Hosea 2: 18-23; Psalm 94: 1-15; Romans 12: 9-21; Luke 6: 20-36.
Tomorrow (27 March): Charles Henry Brent.