This past week I have been on retreat at the Convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Maryvale on the edge of Birmingham. I hope that many other priests and laity will go there, now that the Sisters are more settled, and find as I did, a place of prayer, warm Benedictine hospitality, and profound quiet.
Many of you will know that our Ordinariate Sisters came from the Anglican community at Wantage, founded in 1848 by W J Butler, Rector of Wantage. The Community was part of that rebirth of Catholic life and spirituality which we call the Oxford Movement. It is not surprising that, with the marginalisation of the Movement within the C of E in recent years, the majority of the Community (including Reverend Mother) decided to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Twelve Sisters were received, and constituted by the Ordinary, Mgr Newton, into the Community of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On leaving Wantage they found a temporary home at St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight, and then came to their present home at Maryvale in Birmingham.
Outwardly the new Convent is very different from Wantage. It looks like a Junior School from the 1970’s as you approach it. It is plain, functional, warm but not overheated, comfortable but not luxurious. It has no Gothic cloisters, no turrets or pointy windows. The chapel is extremely simple, with a small choir for the sisters behind the plain altar. It is not romantic, nor even very beautiful, yet it is one of the most profoundly quiet and prayerful places I have ever been. It is hard to believe that the Community has only been
there a matter of months.
The Wantage Sisters had a significant reputation for their work in researching, printing and singing plainchant to English texts, using the forms and melodies from the pre-Reformation Church in England. This has much in common with the chant known by Catholics throughout the world, but with fascinating variants and differences. The Sisters at Maryvale are working hard to rebuild this tradition, with great success. The four day offices are entirely sung (in English with the Gospel Canticles and their antiphons in Latin) and they plan to introduce the Vigil Office (best known to most of us as the Office of Readings) very soon.
We received a wonderful welcome from the sisters, and had the great privilege of celebrating and concelebrating at their daily Mass. Everything had been thought of, the food was plentiful, and there was discrete help at first in finding our way around the office books. Just to sit and absorb psalm, canticle and scripture as the Community prayed them, was worth coming to Birmingham for. I think we in the Ordinariate should be deeply grateful to Mother Winsome and the Sisters for their brave faithfulness to Pope Benedict XVI’s call to Anglicans to re-union within the worldwide Church. It has not been an easy journey for them, and they want to be of service to us.
So two very grateful priests of the Ordinariate commend the Community to your attention and to your prayers. Above all, go their on retreat and find it, as we did, a place of blessing.