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Mother Cecile
1862 to 1906
Anglican
South Africa

Nothing helps one so much as to fix one's mind on Christ and let Him teach one how, from the Manger to the Cross, Incarnate Love gave to the uttermost. If we look long enough at that great fact, the nails may still be iron, but there comes the grace and strength not to wish to come down from our own cross. --Mother Cecile
Sister Cecile, at age twenty-one, became the first member of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection, which was established in Grahamstown, South Africa. The nuns created a training college for teachers and assisted in parochial, educational, and social ministries. They also ran an orphanage, schools for colored children, St. Francis Xavier Mission for the Chinese community, an industrial training school for African girls, a hostel, and similar institutions in what is now Zimbabwe.

The impetus for such missionary activity came from a woman born to a privileged English home, Annie Cecelia Isherwood, daughter of Captain and Mrs. Isherwood of Hillingdon Lodge, Uxbridge, a family that traced its lineage to a signer of the Magna Charta. Cecelia's loving home was torn asunder by the death of her mother when Cecelia was only eight, and that of her father five years later. She was then raised by her brother and devoted family friends, General Sir James and Lady Browne. She attended the fashionable London parish of St. Peter's, Eaton Square, where conversations with a sensitive and supportive rector led to her confirmation, a life of parish work, and her being set apart as a deaconess. Invited by Bishop Webb of Grahamstown, South Africa, to join him in that diocese, she became part of the effort to expand the Anglican Church there.

After arriving in South Africa, she witnessed the striking need for prison reform. Adults and children were herded together, and stray children were locked in cells with hardened offenders. The young social reformer's intense lobbying led to a parliamentary commission being named to investigate the problem. Meanwhile, she founded an orphanage in Grahamstown and a home for unwed mothers in Port Elizabeth. At the request of Bishop Webb, she agreed to become the first member of the Community of the Resurrection of Our Lord, the second Anglican sisterhood to take root in South Africa. Ceceile became a life-professed nun at age twenty-five in 1887. While the community found an attractive property, Eden Grove, near the Grahamstown Botanical Gardens, the nuns lived barely at a subsistence level to pay the mortgage. In the early years, they possessed only one cloak and pair of shoes for wear in bad weather, and only one lamp for communal use at night. An indigenous priest gave a small donation to the nuns, "the ladies with their heads tied up."

By all accounts, her chief work was the Grahamstown Training College, which prepared European women to work with Africans. Not only did she raise private funds for it, but arranged for state support as well. Both English and Dutch girls were admitted. (Admission of African young was not a possibility in the late nineteenth century) She died in 1906 of a painful and incurable illness. Her testimony was:
We must never forget that Our Blessed Lord Himself first looked out in human form upon this world of ours in the face of a little child; and we want to nurture and train his children for Him, that their life and their work here on earth may be a steadfast looking up to the Face of Our Lord Jesus Christ. -- Mother Cecile [1]

Frederick Quinn



Notes:

1. "Mother Cecile," in Davies, Great South African Christians, 160-168.


This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.