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bubblebelle

Sister of Mercy: Catherine Sophia Lissa Woodley

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Whilst researching my wider family I found, Catherine Sophia Lissa Woodley, a very distant ancestor, born Brockley, Kent on 12 Dec 1870 and a probate record indicated that she died at St George's Retreat Ditchling Sussex on 5 Dec 1925, showing she left less than £10.
For some reason, I just felt I wanted to follow up her story, I am so glad I did.

Catherine's parents were Robert and Maria Woodley and my link to her came via her Great Grandparents and my 3 x G/Grandparents John and William Mary (correct) Randolph.

I followed Catherine through the census and whilst in the1891 she was unmarried and living at home. By 1901 I believed her to be Catherine Woodley at Dockhead Convent and described as a 'Sister of Mercy' her role being a teacher. I could not be 100% certain it was her as her birthplace was given as Ireland.

However in 1911, Catherine Woodley, now cited as being born in St Johns London, is found at the convent and hospital of St John and St Elizabeth at St John's Wood, her role shows her as a 'housekeeper'.

I decided to contact the Archivist attached to the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy GB, who's database indicated that this lady was very likely to be 'my' Catherine and the error related to her birthplace would be easily explained as many of the Sister's at Bermondsey were Irish.

As far as we know from the records of Bermondsey, she was a postulant (i.e. someone living in the convent wishing to become a sister, the first stage) for just over a year before being received as a novice. Then, for some reason she was transferred from Bermondsey to St John’s Wood which was the convent which ran the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth. This is a large and famous Catholic hospital that still exists today and the Bermondsey convent had been asked to provide sisters to run it in 1865 and this led to the St John’s Wood convent being founded. At this period, Sisters of Mercy tended not to move from one convent to another unless going to make a new foundation but Catherine seems to have been an exception. There’s no record of why she moved but perhaps, as the main work of the Bermondsey sisters at the time was teaching, it was thought that she might be more suited to work in the hospital. There is a record of another postulant moving from Bermondsey to St John’s Wood in that year so they might also have been ‘short staffed’ and in need of help. As she is still there in 1911, it looks like she did go on to become a professed sister but unfortunately, we don’t have the records from St John’s Wood to confirm that.

As far as I am aware, her wider family were not Catholic which would suggest that Catherine would have had to have converted to Catholicism before being accepted as a postulant.
On the Archivists advice I then contacted the Sister of Mercy archive in Birmingham. The Archivist was most helpful.

Catherine seems to have originally entered in the Bermondsey Mercy convent and then been transferred to St John's and St Elizabeth's (hereafter SSJE). There is mention in the Bermondsey annals for 1903 that "Sister M Crescentia Woodley, who had gone with Mother M Winefride to nurse her during her convalescence, obtained leave to be transferred to that Community, which was accordingly granted, & she commenced her Noviceship at St John’s Wood.” I have asked Claire Childs if she is able to find anything further on this also.
Here is what I've been able to find in relation to her religious life at SSJE:
There is a little confusion about her date of entry to the SSJE convent. As you will see from the attachments, the illuminated profession register (archive ref GB1856/0/200/8/8) has the entry date as 15th March 1901. However, according to the register for noviceship (archive ref GB1856/0/200/8/1) she was transferred from Bermondsey Convent as a novice on 16th August 1902, taking the name Sr Mary Augustine (it seems likely that the religious name changed as the convent was changed). We know that she made her first profession in the convent chapel on 15th August 1903 in the presence of Sister Mary Anastasia Kelly who was one of the Crimean veterans. In fact, when Sr Augustine was in SSJE convent there were still at least two of the Crimean Sisters there so she would no doubt have known them.
Unfortunately we do not hold an annal book for the convent of St John's & St Elizabeth's and this is the kind of record that tends to hold more individual information on the activities of the Sisters. It seems very likely, particularly with her initial transfer to nurse Sr Winefride, that Sr Augustine was a nurse in the hospital and I'll send some snippets about the hospital as attachments.
We know from the Acts of Chapter and Election book (archive ref GB1856/0/200/13/1) for the SSJE Convent that Sr Augustine was elected Bursar for the community in July 1908 and held the office at least until 1922, at which point that volume finishes. The job of Bursar was quite a significant one, and when the Sisters list the members of the community in the volume, the Bursar is underneath only the Superior and her Assistant.
St George's Retreat in Sussex was/is run by the Augustinian Sisters for those who are mentally and physically ill.


Recently, I thought I would complete the story and sent for Catherine's death certificate. Sadly she died of 'exhaustion after a 3 month period of mania' and 4 days of convulsions, a sad end to a pretty extraordinary life.

It is sad that many of these ladies, such as the Sisters of Mercy, stories will never be known as they have no direct ancestors to research them. I am so glad I followed Catherine's story through and thought I would share with any other distant cousins out there who may be related to her and for any other researchers out there that may have come across a lady in similar circumstance, I can only recommend contacting the Archives. Not only have I learnt so much about Catherine and the history of the Sisters of Mercy, I also have a beautiful copy of Catherines entry onto the SSJE register.

I hope that sharing this information will help keep Catherine's story alive.

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Comments

  1. Jill on the A272's Avatar
    One of my relations works at St George's Retreat, I will ask her if there is a nuns cemetery there.
  2. bubblebelle's Avatar
    Many thanks for this new information Jill.