Back to the top of this page
A Brief History of the Servants of Mary of London (Servite Sisters)
Fr. Nicholas Chantôme is appointed parish priest at Cuves, in the diocese of Langres, in eastern France. It is his dream to start a school for girls. He shares his dream with Mlle. Brocard, a wealthy woman of nearby Langres, who provides funds to purchase property and to build a hermitage. The hermitage consists of three small rooms, a kitchen, a large classroom, and a dormitory. Two young lay teachers, Barbe Marie Guyot and Francoise Clotilde Plique, agree to live in the hermitage and take on the work. By 1844 there are 35 pupils attending the school, 20 of whom are boarders.
In June 1845, three of the five women now teaching at the school begin a novitiate year with the goal of forming a missionary congregation called the Sisters of Calvary. The three women are Barbe Marie Guyot – Sister Marie of Calvary; Françoise Clotilde Plique – Sister Elizabeth; Anna Garnier – Sister Louise. The rule they follow is based on that of the Third Order of the Servites. At the end of the novitiate year, the three “sisters” do not feel ready to make any commitment by vows. They are received as Third Order Secular Servites and agree to continue with the work.
On June 26, 1849, at the age of 28, Sister Marie Guyot died. There are by this date about 40 “sisters” in preparation. Sr. Elizabeth Garnier leaves in the months following Sr. Marie’s death, and with the appointment of a new superior, Mother Jean Vannier, and the loss of the best teacher, a crisis occurs in the community and the school. When Fr. Nicholas Chantôme, the original inspiration of the congregation, is excommunicated for his revolutionary activities in support of the 1848 French Revolution, many of the “sisters” leave and the school begins to empty.
In 1851, two sisters are sent to London to learn English in order to take up missionary work. Later that same year, four more sisters join them – they are all living in St. Giles (a slum area) of London, in rooms rented from the Oratorian Fathers. By September of 1852, all of the remaining sisters in Cuves leave to settle in London and learn English.
Over the next four years, these sisters begin to teach in a “Ragged School” (for the poorest of St. Giles’ poor) newly opened by the Oratorian Fathers. There are 500 pupils, mostly poor Irish immigrants, being taught in the Ragged School located in a disused factory in Dunn’s Passage. The sisters also begin an orphanage, St. Ann’s Home, for girls; an Industrial School for girls – St. Philip’s Home; and St. Martha’s Home for women and girls “who had lost their character or were in danger,” that is prostitutes.
In 1857, with the permission of Cardinal Manning of the Westminster Diocese, Fr. Faber, Superior of the Oratory, receives the first vows of the sisters. The name of the congregation was changed to “Sisters of Compassion.” In 1860, the sisters move to their first convent – St. Wilfrid’s, Cale Street, London.
Mother Jean Vannier resigns as superior of the congregation in 1861 and the sisters elect Sr. M. Philomena Morel as superior. Three years later, the Sisters of Compassion are aggregated to the Order of the Servants of Mary (Servites) and again change their name to become Mantellate of the Third Order of Servants of Mary. Twenty-four sisters and nine novices receive the Servite habit, becoming an autonomous religious congregation. Two Servite priests, Fr. Oppi and Fr. Morini, from Italy, arrive in London, England to become chaplains to the Servite Sisters.
On June 4, 1867, four sisters are sent to Le Raincy, France, to begin an orphanage called Maison St. Joseph. Misunderstandings with the benefactors of St. Wilfrid’s in 1868 cause the sisters left in London to move to West Grinstead, in the Southwark diocese. In 1871, the sisters are able to buy a suitable house in Stamford Hill, North London, and the motherhouse is moved back to London to St. Mary’s Priory.
In 1871, six sisters are sent to Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA, to teach in the school of the Servite Fathers. This foundation is closed in 1874 and most of the sisters return to England.
In 1875, the sisters gathered for a General Chapter in London, decide to buy back the original convent of the Hermitage in Cuves, France. Ten years later, in 1885, Maison St. Marie, the boarding school built at Cuves is purchased in order to open again the boarding school.
A second attempt is made in 1892 to establish the Servite Sisters in the USA, first at St. Michael’s in Wisconsin, and in 1893 at Mt. Vernon, Indiana. The community in Mt. Vernon, IN, becomes the seed of the present American Province.
Mother M. Philomena Morel, the first Prioress General of the Servite Sisters, dies on March 28, 1894. Mother M. Antonia Loughnan is elected Prioress General in August of that year. In the meantime, the sisters open an orphanage in Gratzen, Bohemia, at the invitation of the Servite Fathers.
Anti-religious laws in France, passed in 1903, cause the closure of the three convents there. Some sisters go to Uccle, Belgium and begin a school. Others go to England. In 1910, Maison St. Marie, Cuves, France, is sold.
At the outbreak of World War I, three sisters return to France to work in a hospital at Dieulefit. Refugees from Belgium are given hospitality at St. Mary’s Priory, London. In 1920, the Servite Sisters from France return to Montmorency but are not allowed to teach. However, the community and school at Uccle, Belgium, continue.
In 1938, the congregation has grown large enough that three provinces are established – the English, American, and Franco-Belgian provinces. With the outbreak of World War II, communications between the provinces is severely limited.
Five sisters leave London to make a foundation in Browns Town, Jamaica, in 1952 where they open a boarding school. The following year, four sisters from the French Province set sail for Canada to open a school at Brook Island.
Thirty-four professed sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of Dolours from Brussels and Wezembeek, Belgium, are received into our congregation by amalgamation in 1962, and become part of the Franco-Belgian Province.
From 1967-1971, three Canadian sisters begin, and close, a mission in Guatemala. In 1967, Servite Sisters of the English Province accept the first foundation in Wales at Chirk. That same year, twenty-six sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of Compassion (St. Denis, France) all living in England, are received into the English Province of the Congregation. In 1970, the first convent in Scotland opens at North Berwick.
From 1972-1977, three Canadian sisters again attempt to establish a mission in Central America, this time in Peru. As with Guatemala, the mission lasts only for a short period of time.
In 1985, the English Province establishes a foundation in Benburb, Ireland. And, in 1990, three sisters from France leave for Butembo, Congo (Zaire) to make a foundation with the poor.
The Congregation of Our Lady of Compassion, the Servite Sisters of Jolimont, Belgium, join our congregation in 1995 and become a region under the Generalate. In 2004, Sr. Rose Chang of Jamaica is elected the ninth Prioress General.