27 November 2019

Staying in a retreat house
with links with a martyr
and nun from Limerick

Saint Columba’s House on Maybury Hill in Woking, where I am staying this week

Patrick Comerford

I am staying at Saint Columba’s House on Maybury Hill in Woking, taking part in this week’s residential meeting of the Trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Saint Columba’s House is a beautifully refurbished Christian retreat and conference centre a mile from the centre of Woking and just 30 minutes by train from the heart London. It offers facilities for church group meetings, combining a quiet atmosphere and Christian hospitality with facilities for meetings and accommodation.

There are 10 meeting rooms, 26 en-suite bedrooms, two worship spaces. The chapel and oratory are places of Christian worship and rooms are let on the understanding that the Christian ethos of the house is respected. People from any Christian tradition are encouraged to worship in any of the spaces.

Saint Columba’s House is part of the registered charity, Saint Peter’s Home and Sisterhood, and maintains its original Anglican foundation.

The Sisterhood of St Peter was founded as a new Anglican religious community on 25 June 1861 through the active support of Benjamin Lancaster, a London businessman. Susan Oldfield was appointed the first Reverend Mother for the Sisterhood, and the community became actively engaged in health and care provision.

At first, the community was based in Brompton Square in London. The sisters moved to Kilburn in North London a few years later in 1869. Saint Peter’s Home, Woking, was built in 1883. It became the Mother house of the Community during World War II when the Kilburn Convent was destroyed by bombing.

Over the decades the Woking complex had a convent, a hospital, a home for the elderly, a guest house, a home for adults with learning difficulties and a retreat house. At its height there were a number of additional houses around the country and a new community was established as a mission order in Seoul in Korea in 1925 by an Irish-born nun who spent much of her childhood in Limerick.

Mother Mary Clare (1883-1950) was born Clare Emma Whtity at her mother’s family home in Fenloe, near Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, on 30 May 1883, during one of the many family holidays in the Hickman family home. Her father, Dr Richard Whitty (1844-1897), a medical doctor and a land agent, was born in Rathvilly, Co Carlow, into a prominent Church of Ireland clerical family.

Her maternal grandmother was a daughter of Bishop Edward Stopford of Meath. Through her mother, she was a second cousin of Catherine Amelia O’Brien or Kitty O’Brien (1881-1963), the stained glass artist of An Túr Gloine studios; the Irish nationalist and historian Alice Stopford-Green (1847-1929); and the controversial Irish Anglican priest and hymnwriter, Stopford Brooke (1832-1916), who translated Still the Night, a version of Silent Night that has lost popularity.

Clare Emma Whitty spent much of her childhood at No 11 The Crescent, Limerick, on the corner of Barrington Street and almost opposite the Jesuit church. Later, received training in art in Paris, where she became fluent in French, and then worked as a church worker at Saint Alban’s in Birmingham, whose vicar, the Revd Alfred (Cecil) Cooper, later became the fourth Bishop of Korea..

She joined the Anglican Community of Saint Peter, then based in Kilburn, in 1912 and took her vows as a sister in 1915, taking the name Mary Clare. Before the outbreak of World War I, the Revd Mark Trollope (1862-1930), who had been vicar of Saint Augustine’s in Kilburn, became the third Anglican Bishop of Korea. He asked Sister Mary Clare to help set up a society of Korean sisters in Seoul. But World War I disrupted those plans; she eventually reached Korea in 1923, and began Korean language studies.

With the help of Bishop Trollope, she founded the Society of the Holy Cross in Seoul in 1925 and was appointed novice mistress. She was back in England for a time in 1928-1929, when she lived at the mother house of the Community of Saint Peter in Kilburn. She then returned to Seoul to take up her role as the first Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. During World War II, Mother Mary Clare was repatriated to England in 1941.

She left England in 1946, and returned through Kure in Japan to Korea, arriving back in January 1947. On the ship’s passenger list, she described herself as a teacher.

On the outbreak of the Korean War, she turned down an offer from the British embassy to evacuate from Seoul, deciding to stay with her congregation. When the North Korean army besieged Seoul in June 1950, she took refuge with other foreign civilians in the British Embassy. But they were interned by the North Korean forces as they consolidated their occupation of the Korean capital.

On the retreat of the North Korean forces from Seoul following the success of the United Nations forces landing at Inchon, Mother Mary Clare and other foreign civilian prisoners, among them many Christian missionaries, were moved forcibly to the northern part of North Korea.

The last part of their ‘Death March,’ began on 30 October and involved a forced march of over 100 miles in early winter with little food or warm clothing. Mother Mary Clare died on 6 November 1950 near Chunggangjinon. She was buried in a shallow grave near the Chosin Reservoir in the north-west part of North Korea by five French-speaking Roman Catholic sisters. They used an improvised bier to bring her to the top of a neighbouring hill, close to the camp, where they dug her grave.

Ten months after the end of the Korean War, the Church Times published a short obituary notice in April 1954 that described her as a ‘devoted and courageous English Sister.’

Today the Community of the Holy Cross in Seoul continues to thrive as an independent order with close links to the Sisterhood of Saint Peter.

But the numbers of Sisters in England had dwindled by the late 1980s. The old convent was sold, and a new modern nursing home and convent building was opened in 1988. Sadly, in 2002 it too had to close.

Inside one of the chapels at Saint Columba’s House in Woking

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