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Community of St Wilfrid, Exeter



Community of St Wilfrid, Exeter

Link with Helen Lance

Helen Lance (1891-1974) was listed in the 1939 National Registration as resident at 34 Bartholomew Street East, Exeter. This was St Wilfrid's Home, the centre of the Community of St Wilfrid, a religious order of Anglican sisters.

In 2019 a plaque was installed in Exeter Cathedral in their memory, as reported in an article in the Cathedral News at the time:

The Newest Plaque in the Cathedral
It is rare for a new plaque to be installed in the Cathedral – so what is the story behind the one recently installed in the North Quire Aisle?

The plaque commemorates the work and worship of the Sisters of the Community of St Wilfrid. People who have lived here for any length of time, will know that these nuns, in their black habits were once a familiar sight in the city.

The Rector of All Hallows-on-the–Wall, John Gilberd Pearse, was so moved by the poverty of his parishioners, he founded the Anglican Order of St Wilfrid in 1866 to care for them.

Their contribution was significant:
* A daily soup kitchen – they served ‘Penny Dinners’ of hot soup, meat, potatoes and suet pudding
* Sisters ran a crèche in St Nicholas Priory for young children while their parents went to work
* Work was organised for women – mostly laundry and sewing (they were paid 4d (before decimalisation) for making a shirt)
* Workshops and recreational classes were held for unemployed men
* They founded a Home for aged women (from 1873–1914)
* Sisters nursed the sick and dying
* They ran an orphanage from 1866 until 1954
* They helped in parishes and taught in the Sunday Schools
* Sisters bravely nursed victims of cholera epidemics in Bovey Tracey and Torquay
* In 1870 they opened a school (which still continues today)

The Community grew, but was never greater than 24 members at any one time.

The Sisters continued to work and worship in Exeter until 2004 when the last member of the Order died.

The late Canon John Thurmer, chaplain to the Community of St Wilfrid, who was so impressed by their devotion and dedication to the service of others, initiated the idea for a plaque to remember the Sisters’ contribution.

It is surely appropriate that they will be remembered in the Cathedral for many years to come.

Diana Symes, Trustee of St Wilfrid’s Trust
Exeter Cathedral News. September 2019 – No. 689

Why was Helen Lance living at St Wilfrid's Home in Oct 1939?
Of the 29 residents, most are listed as "Sister of Mercy" and "Inmate", a few as "Visitor", whilst Helen uniquely is "Private Means" and "Inmate".

There is no indication that she became a member of the Community, although she will have been in sympathy with it: her father was an Anglo-Catholic priest, and her funeral in Feb 1974 was preceded by a Requiem Mass.

It is of interest that at the National Registration in October 1939 Helen's half-sister Margaret was also listed as resident in a religious community, the Convent of the Sisters of the Assumption (Roman Catholic) at 20 Kensington Square.

* * *

From The Call of the Cloister: Religious Communities and kindred bodies in the Anglican Communion, by Peter F Anson; London. SPCK, 1955.

Community of St Wilfrid.

St Wilfrid’s Convent, 34 Bartholomew Street, Exeter (1866).

The founder of the Community of St Wilfrid was the Reverend John Gilberd Pearse, Vicar of All Hallows-on-the-walls, Exeter. The objects set before the Sisters were: (1) a life of prayer and worship; (2) the performance of bodily and spiritual works of mercy — visiting the sick and the poor, the education of children, and the care of orphans and the aged. A house was rented in Exeter, and the new Sisterhood came into being. At that date there was no other religious community in Exeter, either Anglican or Roman Catholic, so it was only to be expected that the Sisters had to endure much prejudice and opposition. But the devoted services they rendered as nurses during a cholera epidemic at Bovey Tracey won for them the love and affection of many people of Devonshire.

The works of mercy and charity of the Community multiplied as years went on. The Sisters worked in several Exeter parishes and in Bideford. An orphanage for girls was opened at Torquay, but moved to St David’s Hill, Exeter, in 1904. At one time the Sisters ran a creche at St Nicholas’ Priory, Exeter. In 1910, after the death of their founder, the Community had reached a very low ebb as to numbers. The Mother Superior consulted Fr Maxwell, Superior-General of the Cowley Fathers, as to the future of the Sisterhood. He advised them to carry on under their own Rule and Constitution, and recommended them a chaplain, in the person of the Reverend W. F. Penruddocke, who devoted himself to the Community for seventeen years. It may be said that he re-founded it. Fr Andrew of the Society of Divine Compassion became the Chaplain-General. More and more Sisters were clothed and professed, and when Fr Penruddocke died in 1927, the Community was able to feel secure as to the future. Nevertheless in all the eighty-five years of its existence the Community of St Wilfrid has never exceeded more than two dozen Sisters. The postulancy is for six months. After a two years’ novitiate annual vows are taken for two or three years before solemn profession.

The Community can boast of no large or spacious buildings, of no beautiful grounds. Its spirit is one of humility and obscurity. The convent is situated in the heart of Exeter, with all its noise of traffic outside. However, at the back of the convent is the beautiful chapel, where outside noises do not disturb the regular recitation of The Day Office of the Church. Here is something of that atmosphere of peace which takes one back to Tractarian times. In 1928 the chapel was enlarged in memory of the late Mother and the chaplain, and two stained-glass windows were placed in it.

At the present time one or two Sisters work in Exeter parishes as visitors and Sunday-school teachers, etc. The orphanage is still in existence, but with reduced numbers. The large day-school has outgrown its existing buildings. Several of the Sisters teach in the school. Although this little community has never been able to undertake Foreign Mission work, it devotes a great deal of its time helping the Universities Mission to Central Africa. Except for an annual conducted retreat of one day for the friends of the U.M.C.A., the Community has not able to hold regular retreats for some years, but ladies are still welcomed to stay in the guest house for private retreats. Some make their permanent home here. The Chaplain-General is Fr Hemming, S.S.J.E.; the Visitor is the Bishop of Exeter.

* * *

The surviving records of the Order of St Wilfrid are held at Devon Archives and Local Studies Service (South West Heritage Trust).


Date28 Dec 2020
Linked toHelen Lance (Residence)

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