Sister Josephine’s story

Unlike her famous song namesake, Sister Josephine did not found a pontoon team in her convent nor sit with her boots up on the altar screen. Instead she co-founded the English mission of the Sisters of Joseph of Annecy in the Wiltshire market town of Devizes, and went on to lead a prestigious convent and well-respected school. But a holy life and fulfilling her God’s work did not mean that everyone respected her choices, and at one point she was stoned for her efforts.

She’d been born as Elizabeth (Josephine was a name she took later on in life, when she dedicated herself to the convent), in Loughrea, County Galway in Ireland. She was born a few years before the famine, which hit rural Ireland hard in 1845, and she had a sister – Maria – born three years later. It’s unknown exactly what her father did, but he appears to have moved the family into Galway city at some point during the next few years, probably due to the famine, as a land tax record finds the family there in 1857.

Therefore, the family did not leave Ireland during the famine, but Josephine appears to have come over of her own accord at some point. Josephine moved to Chippenham in Wiltshire. She was the first godmother mentioned in the baptisms of the original St Mary’s Church in St Mary’s Place, Chippenham, which start in 1857. The church was founded in 1855, and operated as a catholic school where Josephine – at this point still called Elizabeth – must have taught. The original church is now used as the modern-day church hall, a new building having been established in the early 20th century on Station Hill.

st mary's chippenham

The original St Mary’s catholic church in Chippenham, now used as the church hall

The first census to feature her is the 1861. She appears to have come to England to become a teacher, and found a place at a convent school in Birmingham. Aged 22, she had gained the position of assistant school mistress, and was in charge of various teenage girls being educated at the convent.

Josephine, having worked in a convent for several years, decided to take the cloth herself. She went to the founding convent in Annecy, France, and became a novice in the order. It was from there, in August of 1864, that the English mission of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy was founded. Two sisters – Sr Athanase (sometimes Antoinette) Novel, who was originally French, and Sr Stanislaus Bryan, who was of Irish extraction – travelled from the sisterhood’s Indian mission in Kamptee by ox cart to the coastal port of Yanam and thence on to France, in order to found the English mission.

Mother Athanase and Sister Stanislaus

The impetus for founding the mission came from a British Army officer, Captain Dewell, who had seen the good work of the sisters in Annecy and asked them to come to his home country of Wiltshire. Since Josephine had already been teaching in Chippenham, about ten miles away from the intended site in Devizes, she was perhaps the obvious choice to accompany Sisters Athanase and Stanislaus on their endeavour. They travelled across Europe to Devizes, took up residence in the town’s Wyndham Villas – a former priests’ residence by the Kennet and Avon Canal – and founded a school in Monday Market Street, in a rented warehouse.

It was then that the trouble started. Despite the fact that the school, and the mission, were founded with the best of intentions, educated poor children for just a penny a week and gave out clothing to those in dire need, the three nuns were met with suspicion by the Devizes population. The struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism in the UK were nothing new at this point in the 19th century, and Devizes was no different though perhaps more vociferously anti-Rome than most, but Catholicism was starting to gain a foothold in England again after the Irish famine of the 1840s and the arrival of many destitute people in need of work. The moralising tone of the educated middle and upper classes, which was reported in the newspapers of the day, implies that the destitute Irish were an underclass and therefore somehow a scourge on the land and were bringing their unsavoury religion with them. And they were taking local jobs too.

A speaker at a Devizes function at the time warned of the new nuns, saying of the “necessity of avoiding the follies of Catholicism and of shunning the nuns who dappled (sic) in witchcraft.” The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette scathingly reported on the “opening” (inverted commas theirs, not mine) of the Catholic Church in 1865, describing it as plain and ugly, and that the nuns were, with one exception, foreigners. Feeling continued to run high, and in 1866 1,600 people in Devizes attended a talk on the evils of Catholicism, and how convents should be ended. Such was the hostility the three sisters – Josephine, Athanase and Stanislaus – were even stoned by local residents as they went about their work.

Catholic church devizes

Despite this, Josephine and the others persevered. They opened a school for middle- and upper-class children in Wyndham Villas, in addition to their work with the poor children, and walked the ten miles to Chippenham every Sunday to Josephine’s original church, to teach the Catechism and play harmonium for mass. They also undertook work in Westbury, several miles to the south of Devizes.

In 1866, however, the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy opened a new convent and school in Chippenham’s Marshfield Road, and needed a mother superior. Josephine came back to Chippenham from Devizes and took over that role. Situated in Suffolk Villas, the 1871 census has her with two female scholars, neither of whom were born locally, and two other nuns, running the convent and the education of the school, and providing space for a religious visitor to live. Stanislaus and Athanase remained in Devizes.

There does not appear to have been the local opposition to the establishment of the convent in Chippenham that was experienced in Devizes. There are no reports of witchcraft or stones being thrown. It is probable that the establishment of St Mary’s in the 1850s probably paved the way, and the townspeople were more accepting of the Catholics and foreigners. However, newspapers of the time have virtually nothing about Catholic activities in the town, so it’s likely that much of Josephine’s activity flew under the radar.

Ten years later, however, the convent did not have any pupils, and perhaps could not be called a school in the strictest sense of the word. Josephine was still mother superior, with four other nuns serving in the institution, and they had three other women boarders or visitors. Convents would often house Catholic widows as they were trying to get back on their feet after their husband’s death, and St Joseph’s Convent in Chippenham was clearly no exception. The convent would have offered a calm and serene atmosphere, with a structured timetable and considerable prayer.

The lack of pupils probably played a part in the ending of the Chippenham convent in 1884, when the house moved to new St Joseph of Annecy premises in Malmesbury – about six miles to the north of Chippenham but still in Wiltshire. There was no further convent in Chippenham until the 1930s, when St Margaret’s established on Rowden Hill.

There had been a foundation in Malmesbury since 1867, when Friar Larive – part of the male portion of the order – had left Devizes to establish a base there. Josephine, after her period as mother superior in Chippenham, also took on this role in Malmesbury. In 1881 there were four other nuns besides her, in addition to several boarders and three domestic staff – meaning that Josephine could devote herself to more spiritual matters than running a household. This would have been a step up for her.

By the turn of the twentieth century Josephine had crossed the River Severn, and was established as mother superior at the Stow Hill Convent and School in Newport, South Wales. This establishment had been founded from Devizes in 1873 (using money from the dowry of Sister Mary Joseph, who had been educated there), and Mother Athanase had gone from there to be the first mother superior taking most of her household with her. Only two sisters and a postulant were then left in Devizes, Westbury’s work ended in 1875, and the focus of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy became this new school and convent in Newport. By 1901 Mother Athanase was getting on in years, and had stepped down as mother superior, leaving the UK for the Sisters’ base in Annecy, where she spent her dotage. Josephine, at this point in her early 60s, became the head of operations in Newport.

newport school

The Newport Convent

The Newport school was a huge undertaking. Josephine had fourteen teachers underneath her, teaching art, music, needlework, French, German and basic elementary subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic. There was a full complement of domestic staff – including ladies’ maids – boarding pupils aged between 12 and 17, and a host of young women in their early twenties who are referred to on the census as resident students but are probably novices in training to become nuns. There is even a resident artist. Many of the teachers, like Josephine, are Irish-born, but the cooks are both French. The students, in contrast, are mostly drawn from the local area – except one who was born in India.

This convent and school appears to have thrived. Josephine was still mother superior in 1911, but by now in her early 70s she had taken a step backwards from the day-to-day life of the school. Her jurisdiction was over the novitiates and teachers, of which there were many, but only five boarding pupils were in her household. The convent and school, however, spread over four houses, and with many teachers employed most pupils would have attended just in the daytime. The school and convent eventually outgrew its premises in the 1940s, and was moved to Llantarnam Abbey a few miles north.

As for Josephine? She lived to be 97. At some point she would have given up being mother superior, and would have been cared for by her household at the convent. She died in 1933, and is buried in Newport.

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Troy’s story

In the sixth of our grandmother pieces, Marina’s Romanian granny was officially a war widow, but the political situation meant she was always waiting for her husband to return.

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My grandmother Dumitra (known throughout her life by her nickname Troy) was born in 1913 in a small village in the hilly sub-Carpathian region of Romania, in a fertile valley full of orchards. The area is particularly well-known for its plums, with many different varieties, some used to produce the local brandy.
Mamaie Troy (mamaie is an affection term for grandmother in Romanian, rather like Nana in English) was a bit of a tomboy, the youngest in a family of mainly boys. Not only was she a daredevil, riding horses bareback, walking through the forest by herself, but she was also very bright. She only went to school for a few years, her father didn’t have the money or the conviction for education for girls, but she was able to read and write and enjoyed reading throughout her life. This was by no means common for women of her generation who grew up in the countryside. My grandmother on my father’s side, for instance, was illiterate and had to have the letters from my father read out to her by the village priest.
Troy married in the late 1930s, when she was 25-26, quite late for the standards of the time. (Perhaps her tomboyish nature put men off? That, and the lack of dowry.) She married the village shoemaker and had, in quick succession, two sons and a daughter (my mother). The second son died as an infant, but we only know him from a picture, she never talked about him.
Unfortunately, the war came and Romania was originally allied to the Germans. My grandfather got sent to the Russian front in 1940. He did come back at least once, as my mother vaguely remembers him making a pair of red shoes for her when she was about 2, and how proud she was of them. She was the only girl in the village who had shoes at the time.
Then the military dictatorship was replaced and Romania switched allegiance in 1944, but my grandfather never returned. He was officially missing in action, although soldiers who later returned from the war to the village said he had been taken to a Siberian labour camp during the period when the Romanians were fighting the Soviets.
Mamaie Troy waited for him all her life. She didn’t believe he was dead and thought that he might be released one day. Indeed, after Stalin’s death, in the 1950s, some POWs were released, but not him.
Although she was officially a war widow, her husband had died on the ‘wrong front’, and after Romania became Communist in 1947, she was never given any widow’s pension. She tried to keep the farm going single-handedly, with two small children to feed and clothe, but the land was forcibly nationalised and she had to work on the state farms instead.
She was left with just a small patch of land, enough for 3-4 sheep, a pig, chicken, a goat or two and a cow, a tiny orchard and a vegetable patch. She looked after all of these on top of a full day’s work at the state farm, and while looking after the two children.
She spoilt her animals rotten – I remember the pig would follow her everywhere like a dog, even resting at her feet when she was sewing or knitting. Yet she had no qualms whatsoever about slaughtering him for Christmas (traditionally, we have fresh pork for Christmas in Romania).
She had her share of marriage proposals, but she never wanted to bring in a ‘strange man’ into the house, to mistreat her children, potentially. Or so she said. Perhaps she was still hoping for my grandfather to return. Or maybe she’d had enough of men telling her what she could or couldn’t do.
The son (my uncle) was a bit of a troublemaker, so she was constantly having to sort him out, but my mother inherited Troy’s brains and was sent off to secondary school in a neighbouring town. (One good thing about Communism: education was free, and she was given a merit scholarship for her accommodation and food.) But that did mean that Mamaie Troy was left alone from the mid-1950s to tend to her land.
She never complained and never wanted to move to the city, even after my mother went to university, married a diplomat and lived abroad for a while and offered to take her in.
However, she did once visit us in Vienna, where we were living at the time, and struck up friendships with the elderly Austrian caretaker of our block of flats, although neither of them could speak each other’s language. She also learnt a lot about agriculture and vineyards in the area surrounding the Vienna woods – she was always open and curious about other cultures.
I spent many a happy summer at her house with my cousins. She made us work hard – the animals needed to be looked after, we had to bring buckets of water from the well which was 200 metres down the path from the house – but there were still moments when we could go wandering through the forest, eat fruit directly from the trees and read books in the summer breeze.
I distinctly remember reading Anna Karenina up in the cherry tree, stopping every now and then to pick some cherries and coming down with a stained mouth and T shirt. The conditions were primitive – the toilet was in the outhouse, there was no electricity or running water, but Mamaie Troy was very house-proud and was endlessly sweeping and tidying.
Alas, as she grew older, her eyesight started failing (glaucoma) and her limbs stiffening and she was no longer able to keep things clean. It was difficult to convince her to allow us to do a thorough clean though, so we started avoiding eating in her house.
She didn’t want to leave the countryside until she was bedridden. Then she had to move to Bucharest into my parents’ flat and allow herself to be looked after by my mother. It was very hard on them both.
My grandmother couldn’t read anymore, couldn’t even go to the toilet by herself without help, all she could do was lie in bed and listen to the radio. After a while, her hearing got worse as well, so all she wanted to do was talk, but my mother was not able to sit with her all day to listen. Her mind was sharp right until the end and she hated herself being so helpless. She would complain that ‘God had forgotten her on this earth.’
She was always radiant when she saw me, however, and worried about how I was settling in when I went to the UK to study. ‘Isn’t the weather horrible there, my love? Are they treating you well?’
She was the one who consoled my mother when I decided not to return to Romania after completing my studies. ‘She’s got to make her own way in life, she’s not going to hang around for us.’
She was so modern and indomitable in spirit, so ahead of her time. We had a very special bond and I was happy that she lived long enough to know that her great-grandchild was going to be born soon.
Grandmother Troy
Goats bring sticks to the porch.
Her hair harbours leaves.
Brother Pig snouts at the damp patch
beneath the hearth
where she – once more –  spilled the ciorba,
bread chunks softened for three remaining teeth.
She warms her swollen knuckles
against the earthen pot:
all she can hear are the mild-greedy snuffles
of her companion sheep.
Soot caresses the damp wool
of jumpers hung to dry.
Grey hair in its plait, she doesn’t care
if mulberries stain her thumbs or clothes,
fingers in knots, eyes milky clouds,
she no longer mops the muck she cannot see.
Go for a visit: she can still slash her way
through nonsense with a crackle of joints.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Sophia C’s story

Born into a seafaring family, Sophia C’s life reflects the Victorian globe-trotting that was possible for women with access to a great deal of money and good connections.

She was born in the 1820s in Valparaiso, a seaside port not too far from Santiago in Chile. Her father was a captain and a mariner, and came from a well-established long-heritage community in Massachusetts, while her mother was Irish. It’s likely that her mother accompanied her father on certain journeys, hence Sophia’s American citizen status but exotic birth, as the rest of her siblings were born in Massachusetts. The family were back in Massachusetts by the end of the 1820s, as her younger brother was born there, but the voyage back to the northern part of the USA from Chile would have been long and involved traveling through the Strait of Magellan.

In the 1840s, Sophia married another seafaring man – one who had started his career on the whaling boats of Massachusetts and was gradually working his way up the mariner ranks. Several years her senior, he came from another well-established Massachusetts family, and had ancestry from the Mayflower.

They settled in the state for a time, but her husband’s career grew in a different direction. He became a shipping agent, and the couple moved across the Atlantic to be based in Glasgow, Scotland. He commanded packet ships for an American company, and ran a large shipping and commission business. They rented a house in a fashionable area of the city for a few years, and were well known in local society – her husband also held a fair amount of property in the area. A female student from Prussia (now Germany) lived with them for a while, as she studied in the city, and Sophia’s brothers and their wives appeared to be frequent visitors.

There appear not to have been any children from her marriage, and Sophia was provided well for by servants, so her life would have been comfortable with a degree of leisure, and probably centred around functions and good works.

Later on, when her husband retired, they moved down the country to London. They lived in a smaller but-no-less-fashionable property with Sophia’s widowed mother, and a servant.

Her husband died on a visit to coastal France, at the age of 64, leaving Sophia a widow at the age of 51. She remained in the UK for a few years, having settled her husband’s affairs and inherited a great deal of money, living on her own on a private income. She then returned to the US.

In later life, she went travelling for pleasure – firstly to Berlin and Leipzig, coming back through the UK, and then on to Switzerland. She describes her role in life as a “matron and housewife”. She eventually went home to Massachusetts “for my health”.

She died back at home in Massachusetts at the end of the first world war, aged 94.

Zita W’s story

Witnessing Kristallnacht in the heart of Nazi Germany wasn’t in the original plan for Zita W.

A tailor’s daughter from New Zealand, she got a severe case of itchy feet in her late twenties and decided to throw in a career working for an architect for the thrill of solo foreign travel – an unusual prospect for a single woman in the 1930s. After months at sea she arrived in Germany where she taught English at a language school, and was involved in attempts to help threatened Jews to escape the country. She was in Berlin for events like Kristallnacht, but was unable to tell family what she’d seen and experienced until much later when she’d left the country.

Spending WWII in the UK, she undertook a variety of jobs before joining the WAAF. Despite standing five foot nothing in her stocking feet she convinced them to let her drive large lorries around the country, reputedly by standing on tiptoe when she was measured to meet the height requirement, and could barely see over the steering wheel.

She met her husband at the tail end of the war, when he came home on leave from India – he had been a soldier and then managed a tea plantation – and knew she was on to a good thing so married him and spent two years living in India at the end of the British Raj.

Indian independence and partition and her pregnancy with her first daughter occurred concurrently, and she left the turbulence of India on a boat bound for New Zealand, where she gave birth to a premature baby at the late (for the time) age of 35. Two further daughters followed when the family reunited in North London, and she settled into post-war English life to raise her family.

Even in her late 80s she was still cycling around her local area and attending evening classes to further her knowledge. Her letters from 1938 until 1945 now rest with the Imperial War Museum.

Find out more about the women in your family, contact Once Upon A Family Tree.