13 September 2019

Harriet Monsell (1811-1883),
an Anglican saint and sister
of William Smith O’Brien

Mother Harriet Monsell (1811-1883), founder of the Community of Saint John Baptist, the ‘Clewer Sisters’

Patrick Comerford

Saint Kieran’s Heritage Association,

Community Centre, Ardagh, Co Limerick,

8 p.m., 13 September 2019

This year marks the 170th anniversary of the trial of William Smith O’Brien and his deportation to Van Diemens Land, now Tasmania where he spent five years. He died in North Wales in 1864.

Tim O’Neill is talking this evening about the decorative script used in the Book of Kells and the decoration on the Ardagh Chalice. Mary Kury is talking about Charlotte Grace O’Brien, a daughter of the Young Irelander leader, who was a poet and also a social activist and who campaigned for better conditions and safe houses for emigrants at Cobh and in the US.

I have been asked to speak this evening about Mother Harriet Monsell (1811-1883), a sister of William Smith O’Brien and who is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England.

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, with her commemoration on 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, a direct descendant of Brian Boru and the O’Brien Kings of Munster. He was the MP for Ennis in the Irish House of Commons (1795-1800) and after the Act of Union he was MP for Co Clare in the Westminster Parliament (1802-1826), until he resigned his seat for health reasons.

Cahermoyle House … Charlotte Smith’s family saved the O’Brien family from penury and bankruptcy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His wife was Charlotte (née Smith), and the Smith family from Cahermoyle had helped to save the O’Brien family from financial ruin and possible bankruptcy.

Charlotte was a devout Anglican and one of the founding lights in the women’s branch of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Later, her children were proud of their mother’s humanitarian work among starving and homeless victims of the famine.

When Sir Edward O’Brien died in 1837, his widow Charlotte 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 in 1837 Canon Charles Harris (1813-1874) – she died in 1865, and he later became Bishop of Gibraltar (1868-1873).

Anne married Canon Arthur Martineau (1807-1872) of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, one of the original ‘Cambridge Apostles.’

● Harriet married Charles Henry Monsell (1815-1850).

Of the four sons, the eldest, Sir Lucius O’Brien (1800-1872), succeeded his father as MP for Co Clare and later inherited a family title as the 13th Lord Inchiquin.

When the Thomond peerages became extinct in 1855 with the death of James O’Brien, third Marquess and seventh Earl of Thomond, it seemed the ancient O’Brien titles had come to an end. However, Sir Lucius O'Brien was surprisingly successful in taking his claim to an obscure and almost-forgotten 16th century title before the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords, and in 1862 he became the 13th Baron Inchiquin.

As a result of the decision in the Lords, Lord Inchiquin’s four surviving sisters and two of his three surviving brothers were given a royal licence to use ‘the style and precedence of the younger sons of a baron’ – meaning, in effect, they could put the prefix ‘The Hon’ in front of their names.

The statue of William Smith O’Brien in O’Connell Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This privilege was denied to another son, William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864), who, as we know, was a leader of the Young Ireland revolution in 1848, was tried for treason and was deported to Tasmania. He later returned to live in Co Limerick, making his home near here at Cahermoyle, which he had inherited through his mother, Charlotte Smith.

Harriet Monsell as a teenage girl

His younger sister, Harriet, married Charles Henry Monsell (1815-1850) on 21 September 1839 at Kilnasoolagh, Newmarket on Fergus, Co Clare. At the time, he was studying and receiving medical treatment at the University of Dublin, or Trinity College Dublin. They moved to Oxford the following year. There, while Charles 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. Charles served first as his father’s curate and then as Prebendary of Donaghamore (1843-1851) in the Chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

Because of his continuing ill health, Charles and Harriet spent much of their later married life in Europe, mostly in Naples. They had no children, and after Canon Charles Monsell died in 1850, Harriet continued her affiliation with the Oxford Movement.

Harriet 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, Mariquita Tennant moved to nearby Windsor, where she soon died.

Harriet Monsell moved to Clewer with her sister Catherine and her husband, the Canon Charles Harris, later Bishop of Gibraltar.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Gibraltar … Harriet Monsell’s brother-in-law, Charles Harris, was Bishop of Gibraltar in 1868-1873 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After Charles Harris moved from Clewer in 1852, Canon Thomas Thellusson Carter (1808-1901) became the Rector of Clewer and the Warden of the House of Mercy. Carter was responsible for reintroducing some Catholic practices into Anglicanism, and he was the founder of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and several charitable organisations.

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 300 years earlier.

The women lived according to a rule attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo. 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.

The foundation of the sisterhood was viewed with alarm, but the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, despite his misgivings, acted as Visitor to the Community until he moved to Winchester in 1869.

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, Kent, in 1875 for health reasons, although she was occasionally able to visit the communities she founded.

She died in Folkestone on the morning of 25 March 1883, which that year was both the Feast of the Annunciation and Easter Day. Because of this coincidence, her commemoration in the Calendar of the Church of England has been moved to the following day, 26 March.

Harriet Monsell House seen to the right of the room in Liddon where I stayed at Ripon College Cuddesdon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A tradition continues

Harriet Monsell’s Clewer Sisters continue to this day. Some years ago, they moved to a new house and Education Centre built at Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford, which is known as Harriet Monsell House.

I regularly visited other theological colleges in England to meet colleagues who taught in the same areas as me, and who shared the same fields of academic interests, including Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History. One of those colleges was Ripon College Cuddesdon, south of Oxford.

There has been a theological college at Cuddesdon for 165 years. Cuddesdon College was established in 1854 by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who was the first visitor to Mother Harriet’s community. His vision was for a college independent of any specific Church faction, and with a focus on the discipline of daily prayer and spiritual formation.

The college buildings, most of them designed by GE Street, were built opposite his episcopal palace, Cuddesdon Palace. A merger with Ripon Hall, Oxford, in the 1970s formed Ripon College Cuddesdon. The college is the largest provider of ordination training in the United Kingdom, and has trained a third of the current bishops, deans and archdeacons in the Church of England.

In 2012, the five remaining sisters from two Anglican religious orders joined the college community at Cuddesdon: the Community of Good Shepherd and the Community of Saint John Baptist, (CSJB), also known as the Sisters of Mercy or the Clewer Sisters, founded by Mother Harriet.

They provide a praying presence throughout the year and offer spiritual direction, quiet days and guided retreats.

The college chapel at Cuddesdon was voted into second place in the prestigious architectural prize, the Stirling Prize (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With their move to Cuddesdon, they built a new Harriet Monsell House in the college grounds and endowed the new college chapel. In October 2013, this chapel was voted into second place in one of Britain’s most prestigious architectural prizes, the Stirling Prize, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

The BBC and the RIBA ran the online poll. The winning building was Astley Castle, Warwickshire, and the other shortlisted buildings included the University of Limerick Medical School.

The new, elliptical Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon is the place of worship for the nuns and for the staff and ordinands. The chapel name honours the saintly Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln and a former chaplain and principal of Cuddesdon Theological College.

The chapel, which stands at the centre of the college, is dramatic and subtle, modern and yet crafted from natural materials. It can seat 120 people, cost £2.6 million, and took 18 months to build. It was designed by in 2009 by Niall McLaughlin Architects and opened in February 2013.

The outside wall is made of Clipsham stone arranged in a dogtooth style, with alternate rough and smooth edges facing outwards. Each one was individually snapped using a hand-held tool.

Refined and restrained, timeless and serene – this new chapel projects a remarkable sense of permanence. The sophisticated design is beguilingly simple, as light streams down through the hip-high windows. The furniture and beams are made of larch and ash, the walls and ceiling, rendered in lime plaster, with subtle variations in textures and shade.

The new chapel at Ripon College Cuddesdon may be the most interesting chapel in any theological college in the Church of England today and has attracted considerable media attention (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Worshippers enter the chapel at Cuddesdon through a dark hallway. There are three steps down to the polished floor of the chapel, but above, the latticed woodwork draws your eye up towards high windows with dappled light from the surrounding trees.

The elliptical shape achieves another layer of symbolic detail. On one side the window protrudes exactly between two trees, offering the only uninterrupted view across the valley. On the other, the heavy, thick wooden doorway is aligned with the trunk of a large copper beech tree.

‘Much like when people come out of the cinema and it feels like they’ve been immersed in one world and are coming out into another, that's what I wanted from the chapel,’ says Niall McLaughlin. ‘I wanted people to come out underneath the protective canopy of the beech.’

The outside wall is made of Clipsham stone arranged in a dogtooth style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The college grounds are rich in trees, and trees are a recurring theme in the chapel. They surround the chapel, they fill the views from every window and their dappled light creates a soft and nuanced light – like moving stained glass. Inside the building, sweeping wooden arches rise up to the ceiling. They are the trees, the gothic arches and a whisper of the ship.

Part of the inspiration for the building was a play on the word nave. As well as referring to the main part of a church, nave is derived from the Latin word for boat, and also refers to the hub of a wheel and to the navel.

‘It is the bit that doesn’t move, everything else swirls around it. This is a place of stillness and watchfulness. This is a place where people come to gaze,’ the then Principal of Cuddesdon, Canon Martin Percy, told the BBC. He described the acoustics inside the chapel as ‘seeping through your skin and into your soul.’

‘This chapel with its use of light, space, glass, wood and stone captures our hope for the church and the world, and for the shaping of religious and spiritual life,’ Professor Percy said.

‘There is so much metaphor in this chapel,’ Edwin Heathcote, architectural critic, wrote in the Financial Times. ‘It has all these layers of imbued meaning, perhaps there are too many. Maybe they tried too hard. But it works. It’s a very pure kind of architecture. It would have been a dream commission.’

Dean Henry Lucius O’Brien … a full-length portrait in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Other family Church connections:

In 1862, the year the House of Lords snubbed William Smith O’Brien, his elder daughter, Lucy Josephine, married the Very Rev John Gwynn, Dean of Raphoe and Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin.

At one time, three Gwynn brothers were prominent in TCD so that it was referred to jokingly as ‘Gwynnity College.’ Dean Gwynn’s son, the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, shared his grandfather’s radical political outlook: it is said that the concept of the Irish Citizens’ Army was born in his college rooms, and later, as senior master, he introduced social studies to Trinity.

Robert’s daughter, the late Mercy Simms, wife of Archbishop George Simms, was equally active in campaigning on social issues.

Harriet’s nephew and William Smith O’Brien’s son, the Very Revd Lucius Henry O’Brien (1842-1913), was the Dean of Limerick from 1905 to 1913. He was born at Cahermoyle, Co Limerick, on 13 August 1842, and was educated at Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, and Trinity College Dublin (BA 1865, MA 1874).

It seemed only natural that he would either pursue a career in radical politics or seek ordination. He was ordained at Salisbury Cathedral in 1869 and became a curate in Mere in Wiltshire, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain, before returning to Ireland as a curate in Ramelton, Co Donegal, where his brother-in-law, John Gwynn, was the rector.

In 1872, he married Emily Mary Hannah Montgomery (1848-1942) from Beaulieu, Co Louth, on the banks of the River Boyne.

Lucius Henry O’Brien returned to his native Co Limerick in 1878 as Rector of Adare. There he was also a canon and then Treasurer of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. When he was elected Dean of Limerick in 1905, it was seen as an appropriate appointment, as the O’Briens were credited with founding Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the 12th century.

While he was dean, his works in the cathedral included the new reredos in the chancel, carved in 1907 by James Pearse, father of the 1916 rebel leader Patrick Pearse.

Dean O’Brien died on 25 September 1913. His nephew, the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, helped to conduct the funeral in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which included John Ellerton’s hymn ‘Now the Labourer’s Task is O’er.’

His obituary in the Limerick Chronicle said: ‘He was most sympathetic to the poor, and a generous friend to all local charities.’ The charities he was involved with directly included the Limerick Protestant Orphan Society and Barrington’s Hospital. His wife Emily died on 6 June 1942 at the age of 94.

A full-length portrait in the chapter room in Saint Mary’s Cathedral shows Dean O’Brien with his Irish wolfhound by his hand, and the River Shannon and Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the background.

Dean O’Brien’s brother, Edward William O’Brien, married the Hon Mary Spring Rice, a granddaughter of Lord Monteagle. Their son, the landscape and portrait artist William Dermod O’Brien (1865-1945), was born at Mount Trenchard House, near Foynes, Co Limerick, on 10 June 1865.

For a time after his mother’s death, Dermod O’Brien was raised at Cahermoyle by his aunt, Harriet’s cousin, the nationalist activist Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909), along with his sisters Nelly and Lucy, until their father married again in 1880.

Dermod O’Brien was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. After graduating from Cambridge, he travelled to Paris, and studied with Walter Osborne. Back in Paris, he studied at Académie Julian, before moving to London in 1893 and Dublin in 1901.

The Lancet Windows by Catherine O’Brien in the Jebb Chapel commemorating the Very Revd Lucius Henry O’Brien, a former Dean of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and a former adjunct assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin and the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

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