...we answer God's call - to discover and make known - the love of the Heart of Jesus...


Berrymead... Roehampton... wartime... students... now


In December 2017 the England and Wales Province marks the 175th anniversary of the arrival of six sisters and two students in Berrymead Priory, Acton on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Anniversaries always prompt us to look both back and forward. What were those sisters looking forward to on their new mission in this country, where they were to struggle with the language, the customs and prejudice, never mind the problems with buildings and recruitment? Their foundress Madeleine Sophie Barat was clear: the Society needed to be in both England and Ireland. She was getting more and more requests for foundations where English was essential. Most of all, though was the desire to make the devotion to the Heart of Jesus loved in this country. 


Eight years later new premises, in a better location with more potential, were found, Elm Grove in Roehampton, at the time still a village just outside London. A Jesuit, Fr. Rowe said to them, “You must go there even if you have to eat dry bread!” On 24th August 1850 the Society took possession.


One hundred and sixty-seven years later Roehampton is still home to Digby Stuart College, Sacred Heart Primary School, Duchesne House and two other RSCJ communities. Over the years there has been much development here and across the country.


There are the institutions the Society founded: the school at Roehampton which was evacuated during the War then moved to Woldingham in 1946… the “poor” school in Roehampton, now Sacred Heart Primary (1872-)… a teacher training college at West Hill (1874), expanding to a new site at St Charles Square in Kensington (1905) and then back to Roehampton as Digby Stuart College in 1946… more schools in Hove, Brighton (1877- 1966), Hammersmith (1893-), Fenham, Newcastle (1905-, having moved from Carlisle 1889 and Gosforth 1904) and Tunbridge Wells (1915-)… another teacher training college, St Mary’s Fenham, from 1905 until 1985.  


There have also been non-teaching ventures: a house in Oxford (1929-2015), providing housing for several generations of students, and then, in 1979, the opening of a retreat and spirituality centre, Llannerchwen, near Brecon in Wales.


How many lives and hearts touched in all these places?


Following Vatican II the RSCJ turned to new ways of bringing the Heart of Jesus into people’s lives, some working with more marginalised groups, migrants, asylum seekers, in hospitals, with the Citizens Advice Bureau, and some in chaplaincy, spiritual direction, counselling, sacred dance and other areas of education. New, smaller communities in more ordinary houses have replaced the larger, institutional ones, enabling sisters to live more closely among the people they serve. 


Part of an international congregration, English sisters have spent time in provinces further afield: for example, Korea, Uganda-Kenya, India, Egypt and Indonesia. Indeed the Society’s foundations in Malta, India and Australia came from England. Of course Mabel Digby and Janet Stuart served as Superiors General and other sisters have been General Council members or in Rome in other roles. 


For many, though, the real story is that of remarkable women with a huge range of gifts and experience who both individually and as a group made all this happen. We think of Mabel Digby, who on arrival from France in 1872 re-organised everything from the water supply, to the quarters for the religious, to making sure studies followed more English lines, and opened the teacher training college. Later Janet Stuart, who as well as raising the bar for educational standards, is remembered for her spirituality, poetry and counsel. Many have followed: Rose Thunder who welcomed refugees from war torn Europe; Constance Perry who oversaw the opening of a house in Oxford initially for sisters studying at the university; Winifrede Archer-Shee who coped with the traumas of World War Two, evacuation on a vast scale and, of course, the bombing of Roehampton. 


Then there were those who responded to the Vatican II call to return to the gospel and the spirit of their founder to adapt their mission to the present day. This was a huge process involving consultation across the globe, and in the 1970s the changes took effect: ending enclosure and the habit, moving to smaller communities and different types of work, whilst remaining contemplative and apostolic, always aware of the constant call to discover and reveal the love of the Heart of Jesus and watching for the “signs of the times”.


Some found the changes difficult, both inside and outside of the congregation, but the new ways gave much more freedom to engage with the issues of the day and to develop their mission in partnerships. Part of this was handing over their institutions to lay leadership. The Peru Chapter in 2008 addressed specifically those who collaborate with the Society, "You have encouraged us to walk in the way of Sophie. Her heritage belongs to us all. With you we try to listen to the heartbeat of God in the reality of our world. Together let us continue to strive for a world where no-one is excluded and each one has a rightful place.”


Prue Wilson RSCJ, who was Provincial 1977-83, wrote “We must live the good news of the Gospel so that others will experience being loved and called to love.”*  I am sure each one of you can recognise in her words an RSCJ you know!


Hilary Thompson
Schools and College Network Coordinator


(This is an amended version of an article which was originally written for the Digby Stuart Association newsletter)


*My Father Took Me to the Circus: Religious life from within by Prue Wilson, DLT, 1984, page 98