When I was asked if the Institute had had any part in the movement of religious communities from the Continent to England during the French Revolution, I had to admit that we had no house in France after 1704, when the community there returned to England on account of Jansenist activity in Paris. Upon reflection, however, I thought that we had played a minor role in the cross-channel activity and as it was quite an unusual one it might be of interest to you.
The story begins in Hammersmith. The Institute made a foundation there in 1669 but Mother Cecily Cornwallis, fearful of her isolation, took the unfortunate step, in 1703, of placing the house under the Vicar Apostolic. From then on the community, cut off from the rest of the Institute began steadily to decline numbers. By 1790 it had dwindled to three. Yet the house was a large one. it was called The Great House and had been partially rebuilt earlier in the century, so as to give it three gables and look like three houses, thereby attracting less attention. A large house inhabited by three ageing nuns - no wonder Bishop Douglass suggested that it should open its doors and offer hospitality to a community of Benedictine nuns from Dunkirk. The rest of the story is so predictable that it can be told very briefly. The Benedictines cared for these aged IBVM's, nursed them when their infirmities increased, buried them when they died (their gravestones are still to be seen) and, took over the house which had no title-deeds.
The scene now moves to York. The Bar Convent had been founded in 1686 and its community had suffered imprisonment, attack on its property and general harassment. But by 1789 active persecution was over and the nuns were ready to help those still suffering for their faith. Opportunity soon came, in the form of waves of religious refugees in flight from persecution on the Continent. The Superior, Mother Catherine Rouby made a threefold contribution to the situation. First, she gave hospitality to communities of French nuns, secondly, she aided French priests, and thirdly she accepted three young French women into the community. She was a woman of compassion and practical good sense and she organised her friends - her "spies" as she called them- to watch, the public coaches as they came into York and to detect French nuns and priests, however heavily disguised. Let me quote from our Annals: 'One autumn evening in 1794 Reverend Mother Rouby 's spies brought news that a heavy coach, containing foreign ladies very like nuns, was standing at Dringhouses, a suburb of York, about a mile from the Convent. Word was sent to the foreigners to stop at its doors, the Community meanwhile repairing to the parlour to receive them. Out of the coach stepped sweet smiling Carmelites, overjoyed to find themselves once more in a religious house. The York nuns wept to see their forlorn, poverty-stricken appearance. Their clothing consisted of whatever they had been able to beg during their flight. One wore a man's hat: another, a huge pair of priest's shoes; and, as for colours, their dresses exhibited all the hues of the rainbow. Seeing the tears of their hosts, they said "Oh! do not cry: we are very happy: we are quite contented: God's will be done". These Carmelites had been driven from their home in Brabant and they finally settled in Darlington.' their present abode.
In the following year Poor Clares from Rouen came over in parties. They took a furnished house in Somerset Street, London and then were offered the use of Sir Carnaby Haggerston's castle in Northumberland. They set out, six every day, in the public coaches, and passed through York, where each party stayed one night with the nuns at the Bar Convent "who" relates their Chronicle "were extremely kind to them". This community joined with other Poor Clares and also settled, at last, in Darlington. The same year brought to York the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, who had been driven from Liege. They also came in parties. They "drove to the Convent at the Bar, and were received with most friendly hospitality by Mistress Rouby, the Superioress of that worthy community. They slept, breakfasted and dined there the following day and the same amiable reception was experienced in turn by each party on its arrival"
The help extended by Mother Rouby to French priests is less well documented but we know that it began in 1792 and was considerable. Fr Aidan Bellenger's fascinating book tells us of the almost incredible numbers of French refugee priests who flooded into England. York, on one of the main coaching routes, took its quota, and Mother Rouby accepted Father Louis de Henne as a resident chaplain in the Convent and found posts for many others in the city, where they taught French and drawing. There is a touching story of the busy nuns sewing shirts for the priests, and having to get up even earlier than usual, in order to find time to do so. They also made carpets for the little mission churches that some of the priest were able to establish, This kindness evoked great gratitude. We do not know exactly what Mother Rouby did for Father Josseaume, but he gave her a ms. Life of St John Berchmans written in his own hand and prefaced elegandy with the words "Madam, the benefits with which you have loaded me, since divine providence, in order to soften the bitterness of exile, led me into this country, gave you too great a right to my gratitude, to allow me to refuse to comply with your wishes of my translating into English the life of the most pious John Baptist Berchmans" There follow 136 beautifully written pages.
Fr Anthony Plunkett OP, English I think by birth and parentage but a refugee from Bornheim in the Netherlands, presented the Bar Convent with the beautiful alabaster statues that still stand at the back of the Chapel. Most important of all, when Mother Rouby was dying in 1810, all the exiled priests still remaining in York gathered round her deathbed, for "they gloried in calling her their mother"
Her third contribution to the situation was to accept into the Convent noviceship three young French women who had all fled, separately from the Revolution. First came Charlotte de Bonneuil, who with her sister Voisci was brought to the Bar Convent ostensibly to learn English, but really to escape from the dangers at home. Charlotte, we are told, was a worldly Parisian, but she seems to have accepted other standards very rapidly for in 1792 she asked to be accepted into the noviceship. After four very edifying years she died a saintly death in 1795 at the age of 26. Anne Sophie du Rocher came into the Bar Convent in search of a religious life that was no longer possible in France. She also died young, in 1799, at the age of 32.
Marie Louise Guyon de Beaufort came over with her mother and sister in such a hurry that they brought no winter clothes with them. They found refuge (and winter clothes) in the Bar Convent and it was there that they heard the horrifying news of the father's death on the guillotine. Nevertheless the comtesse (who must have been a very impetuous woman,) was deluded by false news of security in France. She and one daughter returned but by this time Louise had entered the noviceship. Alas! her Mother, sister and brother were all guillotined. We have a pious little French book with Louise's name written on the title-page and I always think of her seeking comfort from it.
There is an interesting postscript to her story, which is why I have left it to the last. Unlike her compatriots she survived to give some 17 years of service to the Bar Convent.. She taught drawing and French, and during these years French became the normal language of the school. Then, in 1815, she returned to Paris at the request of Abb6 Gilbert, in order to found a religious house there. We lose sight of her but I am proud to think that in all the cross-Channel activity, the Bar Convent played a part, though a very small one, in re-establishing religious life in France.