Most religious communities begin with an individual’s resolute belief that they have been singularly called by God to establish one. Such was not the case with the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine: Canada’s first Anglican community of sisters sprang to life when a church committee cornered a reluctant widow who was trying to leave the country.
Of course, there was much more to it than that. The Sisterhood’s beginning is the story of a great need being answered by a woman whose experience and circumstances ultimately led her to respond unselfishly. It is a story that illustrates how the mission of the community was shaped, and it is a story that mirrors the experience of many of the community’s members, who were as reticent and as surprised as their foundress to be called to the convent.
The sixth child and third daughter of John Grier and Eliza Lilias Geddes, Sarah Hannah Roberta Grier was born October 28, 1837, at Carrying Place, Ontario, part of a former portage route between the Bay of Quinte and Lake Ontario. By the time Hannah was in her teens, the family had moved to the larger and more bustling town of Belleville, where her father served as rector of St. Thomas’ Church.
John Grier was an Irish-born, Scottish Presbyterian graduate of Glasgow University. He joined the Anglican missionary organization known as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and was dispatched to Canada in 1823 where he was ordained deacon, then priest, and posted to Carrying Place, considered at that time to be the Ontario outback. He married Eliza Geddes, an army surgeon’s daughter, in 1827.
The Griers were a large, boisterous family brimming with fun and Irish humour. A blind woman who worked in the Grier household remarked aloud one day: “I was working at the Griers’ on Monday, and they are such a wild, noisy lot of young ones — boys and girls laughing and rushing up and down stairs, chasing one another about the house. I thought that when their pa came in surely now there would be some peace and quietness — but no! he was as bad as any of them and there was more racket than ever.” The blind woman realized too late that she had made her remarks to the Griers themselves. That she was able to keep her job says something about her employers’ easy-going nature and mischievous sense of humour. One can imagine the Griers bursting to share the anecdote with family and friends.
It is not surprising, then, that Hannah was naturally predisposed to practical jokes and possessed a quick wit. She most certainly was not the type of girl who showed signs of early saintliness, nor was she pegged by local busybodies as having a great future in the church. One Sunday, at the age of six, Hannah begged to be excused from attending church, pleading an imaginary headache. She and her brother then proceeded to spend their time cutting up pillows from a spare bedroom so that Hannah could use the feathers to decorate her dolls’ bonnets. As was expected in Victorian times, the children were punished, but one gets the sense that their parents appreciated the frivolity of the event. In later years, Hannah valued the lessons learned from loving parents who could delight in children’s creative behaviour while also instilling values of truth and obedience.
Hannah’s father was busy in the parish and her mother worked to raise awareness and funds for various charitable ventures. This service-focused upbringing informed Hannah’s character and her life’s calling. Even as a young woman she was drawn to helping the poor and the sick in her father’s parish.
The Griers’ rectory became a popular spot for the young Englishmen who were employed to build the Grand Trunk Railway between Belleville and Kingston. Between intervals of work they congregated at the Grier home to dance, play croquet, and generally enjoy the company of the young women of the neighbouring towns. It was during this time that Hannah caught the eye of one of the young men, Charles Horace Coome, a talented British engineer who had apprenticed on the construction of London’s Crystal Palace. Hannah and Charles became engaged when she was nineteen, and they married two years later, on July 23, 1859. The newlyweds made their home in Kingston for several years before Charles was recalled to London, England.
It was a good marriage. The couple was well off and well liked, and their unstuffy, fun-loving nature endeared them to everyone. But their happiness was marred by the miscarriage of their only child, and it plunged Hannah into a long and painful convalescence and depression, exacerbated. The couple’s devastation at learning that they would never be able to have children.
When Hannah regained her health, she found herself drawn to the community of St. Mary the Virgin, Wantage, which ran a mission for the poor not far from the southeast London district of Kennington where the Coomes resided. Hannah threw herself into parish work, helping those on the fringes of society who needed both care and an advocate. She made friends with the sisters and forged what would be a lifelong bond with them.
In the early 1870s, Charles and Hannah moved from London to Wrexham, in north Wales, where they indulged their love of nature by hiking the undulating trails of the Welsh countryside and coastline. Around this time, Charles’ health began to fail and although he continued to work and accept commissions, his lack of energy was worryingly noticeable. On a business trip back to southern Ontario in 1877, Charles became so ill that he and Hannah diverted their journey and headed immediately to the Chicago home of Charles’ relatives. There, he was diagnosed with advanced cancer.
In Chicago, Hannah nursed her husband, and during the interludes of care she resolved that after his death she would return to England and commit her energy and talent to God’s service with the community of St. Mary the Virgin, Wantage. Back in their London days, Charles had often joked that Hannah spent so much time with the sisters that he fully expected to arrive home from work one day to find that she had joined the community. At the age of forty-one, as she faced the prospect of her husband’s death, the religious life became a viable alternative to widowhood.
When Charles died, Hannah did not return to England immediately but stayed on with his relatives in Chicago. She made friends among that city’s artistic and ecclesiastical circles and put her formidable talent for church embroidery to use at the city’s cathedral, where she made altar frontals and hangings. The quality of her work was so impressive that she was offered (but politely declined) the job of director at the Chicago School of Decorative Art.
Hannah was, in fact, rather accomplished in a number of areas besides embroidery. She would have learned about the Bible, church history, theology, and the devotional life from her father, as well as the practicalities of mission work in the parish. From her mother she would have learned a great deal about household management. Like other accomplished women in Victorian times, she knew the sisterhoods were a place where women’s talents and training could be well used. By 1881, Hannah was ready to return to England. The sisters at St. Mary, Wantage, had accepted her request to join their community and she was eager to start her life with them. En route to England, she stopped off in Toronto to say goodbye to her family. It was a side trip that would alter the course of her life.
During these same years, a cauldron of change was bubbling in the Church of England in response to the Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which had revived public interest in monasticism. What began as a reaction against the British government’s proposal to restructure the Church’s hierarchy and make changes to the leasing of Church land had turned into a mobilized group decrying the watering down of Church tradition. The disappearance of rich medieval practices and pageantry and the loss of monasteries, convents, friaries, and priories during Henry VIII’s Reformation began to trouble the Victorian psyche. There were calls for a return to some of the Catholic traditions, leading to a rise in Anglo-Catholicism, and the founding of religious orders for men and women in the Church of England. Its charismatic leader was John Henry Newman, an Oxford priest, but at the height of the movement — and to the stunned amazement of all — Newman left the Church of England and was received into the Roman Catholic Church (he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010). The torch of the Oxford Movement passed to fellow Oxfordite Edward Pusey, a priest and an academic.
In addition to to the renewed interest in liturgy and religious orders, many followers of the Oxford Movement were deeply concerned for and involved in works of social justice. Revitalizing the Church meant, for many, following more closely in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, with his love for the poor and the needy.
By the late-nineteenth century, the Oxford Movement had reached Canada, where the idea of reviving some of the ancient church practices and traditions began to percolate in the minds of Canadian Anglicans. Many saw the spiritual and practical benefits that religious communities could provide in a growing country like Canada.
By the 1880s, a committee of Toronto Anglicans had spent the better part of the previous decade in search of a British or American professed sister who could establish an order of Anglican sisters in Canada. Unfortunately, they could not find a suitable candidate.
This was the environment into which Hannah arrived when she returned to Toronto in September of 1881. She was looking forward to spending a bit of time with her sister Rose Grier, who was headmistress of Bishop Strachan School, a girls’ boarding school established for the daughters of Anglican clergy. Rose Grier also happened to be a member of the committee working to establish a sisterhood in Canada. When she knew Hannah was going to be in Toronto, she organized a garden party. It is not known whether Rose had an ulterior motive in mind or whether it was all sheer coincidence, but when the committee members were introduced to Hannah at the garden party they immediately saw in her the answer to their prayers.
Hannah, however, wasn’t so sure. She was preparing to enter an established community with built-in companionship, ready-made buildings and chapel, music, routines, traditions, mission, and Rule of Life. Furthermore, she wasn’t even a sister; and yet here she was being courted to start a religious order. From scratch!
Hannah consulted her friends and spiritual advisors on both sides of the Atlantic. All agreed that this was a distinct calling — a vocation within a vocation — that she should not pass up. They also urged her to undertake her religious training in the United States rather than in England because the religious and social conventions in the United States were more like those in Canada.
So, the unlikely widow with plans to slip quietly into religious life in England with the community of St. Mary the Virgin, found herself the following June in Peekskill, New York, with a different community of Saint Mary, accepted into its novitiate for two years of training in the spiritual and practical life of a religious.
In the meantime, the committee of clergy and lay Church leaders who had enticed Hannah to take on this challenging vocation began meeting in earnest, to gain support for the project and most importantly to raise funds. Sister Eleanora, the author of Hannah Grier Coome: A Memoir, which chronicles the early days of the Sisterhood, tells of this committee’s interesting work. A
seminal meeting was held of 250 supporters from Toronto and distant cities such as Hamilton and Kingston at St. George’s Schoolhouse
on April 17, 1882. Many leaders of the Church, both in Canada and in the United States (where women’s religious communities had already been established), spoke passionately in favour of the project.
The Reverend J.D. Cayley, rector of St. George’s Church, spoke convincingly in favour of women’s communities and the importance not only of the work they could do, but the quality of a life of prayer and what that could mean for the Church: “There is one branch of work which in this Diocese and Country has not yet received a proper share of attention. I mean the association of women, not only in the outward work of the church, but in the Life of Devotion, the aiding, strengthening, and sanctifying of that work.”
At the same meeting, the Reverend Provost Body spoke even more powerfully on behalf of women’s leadership in the Church:
I think that on the whole, we may congratulate ourselves on one
characteristic of the times we live in, namely, that the work of women in every department of life is coming to the fore. In these days we hear a great deal about the higher education of women and of the influence which they are to wield in the political and social world, and I think we need to be reminded, and it makes one ashamed to remember, that in such an old-fashioned book as the New Testament, we find the work of women set forth as one of the foremost means of strength in the first days of the Church. We need to be reminded that the modern movement, for winning back for woman the place that rightly belongs to her, is only restoring to us what we, in our Branch of the Catholic Church have, in a great measure, lost, namely the peculiar and distinctive work of women. We do not need to be reminded of the women who ministered to Our Lord, or of the Deaconesses, a distinctive Order in the Primitive Church.
At another meeting, as recounted later by Sister Eleanora, Mrs. Georgina Broughall, got straight to the point about
the great help sisters would give by their work in this place; [she] spoke of the work and continuance of bands of devoted women from the days of the early church until the Reformation … [and] concluded by urging that as women just devoting themselves to work give up all for Christ, they are entitled to the support afforded by a small endowment fund which it is needful to raise, namely $25,000.”
That day forty-five people agreed to serve on a fundraising committee, most from Toronto, some from other places in southern Ontario, and one from Michigan.
With the support of this remarkable group of dedicated men and women, Hannah could confidently pursue her training for her unique vocation as the foundress of the first sisterhood in Canada.
She took to religious life as if she had been born to it. Upon her arrival at St. Mary’s in June 1882, she was dismayed to discover that she was being put in charge of all the housekeeping while the sister responsible was temporarily away — an overwhelming task for a newcomer — but she soldiered on. She honed her skills in needlework, served as sacristan and housemistress, worked with delinquent girls, and received professional nurse’s training. She didn’t lose any of her spirited personality and was apparently a unique and rare specimen prompting her Novice Mistress to wonder “why she was sent to me to be trained.” A fellow novice recalled that “our beloved Novice Mistress held her up to us as an example many times” and “wondered what training could she need for she was a model of recollection and dignity … charity and sweetness … a soul living in the remembrance of the indwelling Christ.”
Sister Eleanora noted:
the Novice Mistress was a remarkably saintly and spiritual woman, but without the keen sense of humour which marked both the Reverend Mother at Peekskill and our own Mother, so that the witty sayings of the latter were not always appreciated, and her buoyant spirit was thought to need some discipline. This seems to have been the only fault to find, however, and her laborious Novitiate was a remarkably happy one, and all too short.
Two years later, on September 8, 1884, Hannah made her profession vows at Peekskill in the presence of the Bishop of Toronto. She earned the distinction of being one of the few women in history to be professed as a sister and simultaneously become the Mother Superior of a community.
Mother Hannah was very clear about the ideals for her community:
The Life of Prayer and Devotion must come first, or the community will soon sink down into a society of persons living together for the work they can do, instead of a...