Tuesday 4 May 2021

Lady Mary Arundell and the Italian Convent at Loughborough

By Sally-Anne Shearn

In June 1845, The Morning Post reported that the residents of Loughborough had been witness to an ‘imposing spectacle’ of a funeral, ‘amid rites and observances of a nature so unusual as to well merit the fullest notice’. The deceased was Lady Mary Anne Arundell, the widow of James, 10th Baron Arundell of Wardour Castle, and the observances were Roman Catholic, presided over by the Italian Father Pagani, Superior of nearby Ratcliffe College.  

The funeral, and the rather saintly qualities of Lady Arundell, was reported on in great detail in The Tablet, a Catholic paper, as well as The Morning Post, but another source of information about the life and death of Lady Arundell, and her contributions to Loughborough, exists at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, thanks to the survival of the letters of her ‘most attached’ friend Henrietta Crewe.  Henrietta’s letters to her sister and confidante Annabel Crewe, later Annabel Milnes, wife of Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton, provide a window into the life and personality of Lady Arundell, her decision to move to Loughborough, and the events that followed when she set out to bring an Italian convent and school to a small Leicestershire town.

Lady Mary Anne Nugent-Temple-Grenville was born in 1787, the only daughter of the 1st Marquess of Buckingham and a granddaughter of George Grenville, Prime Minister between 1763 and 1765.  Although her father, the Marquess, was a Protestant, an 1886 Life of Antonio Rosmini Serbati, Catholic priest, theologian, and founder of the Institute of Charity, claims that her mother, Mary Nugent, the daughter of the Irish Viscount Clare, was Catholic and that it was by her example that the young Lady Mary was first introduced to the faith.  

Lady Mary Anne Nugent-Temple-Grenville by John Hoppner (19th century) Wikimedia Commons 

She converted formally to Roman Catholicism in 1810 and in 1811 she married the Catholic James Arundell, then heir to the 9th Baron of Wardour.  He succeeded as the 10th Baron in 1817.  Lady Arundell and her husband travelled widely on the continent, and it was in Italy in the early 1830s that they made the acquaintance of Rosmini himself and were first introduced to his Institute of Charity.  The institute was then still in its infancy, having been founded in 1828.  It was dedicated to charitable work in all its forms but focused particularly on pastoral and spiritual care, education, and care for the sick, poor, and marginalised, work that greatly appealed to Lady Arundell.  The Institute was approved formally as a religious congregation by Pope Gregory XVI in 1838.

Rosmini wrote to Lady Arundell personally in 1834 when Lord Arundell died unexpectedly at Rome, leaving her a widow at the age of only 47.  She returned to England alone, and at some point in the next few years moved to Bath to take up residence at Prior Park, the Roman Catholic college established by Bishop Peter Augustine Baines in 1828.  There too, she found the influence of Rosmini, who had sent members of his Institute to teach at the college at Baines’ request.  The first was Father Luigi Gentili, followed later by Dr Pagani.  A novice from Ampleforth Abbey who studied at Prior Park, Moses Furlong, would also later join the Institute and become spiritual advisor to Lady Arundell.

Francesco Hayez, Ritratto di Antonio Rosmini (1853) Wikimedia Commons

It seems to have been at Prior Park that Lady Arundell met and became friends with Henrietta Crewe.  Despite their differences in age (Henrietta was 21 years her junior), the two women had much in common.  Like Lady Arundell, Henrietta was born to a wealthy and well-connected Protestant family, she was the granddaughter of the 1st Baron Crewe and his wife Frances Anne Greville, and she was also a convert to the Catholic faith.  Between 1829 and 1836 she had lived at Liège in Belgium with her estranged father, the 2nd Baron Crewe, and it was here that her interest in the Catholic faith led her not only to convert but also to make plans to join a convent - an ambition which was ultimately forbidden by her family.

Henrietta had already made several visits to Prior Park in the early 1830s during her regular trips back to England, but in 1836, following the death of her father, she returned to England for good and took up residence at The Priory, a house in the grounds.  In these decades Prior Park would seem to have been something of a haven for a small circle of well-bred Catholic ladies who were regular visitors, staying either in Bath or at the college itself, and deeply devoted to the colourful and charismatic Bishop Baines.  Some, like Henrietta, even invested money in the enterprise, although few saw a return on their investments.  It is not clear from Henrietta’s letters when she and Lady Arundell first met.  In a letter of 1841 Henrietta mentions Lady Arundell’s visit of two years previously ‘before she had been quite able to settle about returning.’  

Evidently, she had made up her mind by May 1840 when Henrietta writes of her familiarly as a fellow resident and close friend.  The accounts of Lady Arundell’s funeral describe her as a ‘rigid Catholic’, living a life of ‘extraordinary self-denial and charity’, but it is clear from Henrietta’s letters to her sister that she was far more than this rather pious epithet suggests.  Attempting to sum up her ‘darling friend’ in 1843, Henrietta writes of the ‘freshness, & originality, & fun, & supremely delightful nonsense of her’, recalling ‘happy Monday evenings’ spent together reading aloud from the latest serialised novel by Charles Dickens, long conversations that ‘she always contrived to render merry’, and regular lively visits from her younger brother Lord Nugent and his family to whom Lady Arundell was very close.  ‘There never was such an attachment,’ Henrietta had written in an earlier letter, ‘as between that brother & sister’. 

But Lady Arundell could not be fully content with her life at Bath, busy and enjoyable as it was.  As she revealed to Henrietta, she had long cherished hopes of founding a convent in England and perhaps even joining it herself.  She had talked of it with her husband during their marriage and they had both agreed that whoever should survive the other would embrace a religious life, she as a nun of some sort and he as a Jesuit.  Her plan was initially to establish a convent near Bath, where the sisters could run a school for the poor, but finding an affordable house proved difficult and her choice of religious order unexpectedly contentious.  Bishop Baines, according to Henrietta, favoured the Sisters of Charity or Sisters of Mercy, but Lady Arundell had her heart set upon the Italian ‘Suore della Providenza’ or Sisters of Providence of Rosmini’s own Institute of Charity, commonly known as the Rosminian Sisters of Providence.  

It is likely there was more to Baines’ opposition than Henrietta knew or wished to reveal to Annabel, who had a persistent suspicion of all things Catholic.  By 1840 the relationship between Baines and Rosmini was strained.  Baines’ biographer Pamela J. Gilbert characterises Baines as something of a flawed genius, a brilliant educationalist but obstinate, antagonistic, and as likely to create enemies as loyal followers like Henrietta.  It was certainly so with Rosmini and his followers at Prior Park.  When admission numbers began to fall in the 1830s Baines blamed the strict regime introduced by Father Gentili and set about limiting his authority and finally removing him from the college altogether.  In 1838 he sent him to a convent at Stapehill and then to another at Spettisbury near Blandford.  Rosmini was forced to appoint the relative newcomer, Dr Pagani, as Superior of the Institute at Prior Park in his place and withdraw Gentili back to Italy.   After a brief period there however, Rosmini sent Gentili to England to take up residence as chaplain to Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps, a Roman Catholic convert, disliked by Baines, who was active in the Catholic revival movement in England.  From Phillipps’ home at Grace Dieu manor, near Loughborough, Gentili ran a hugely successful Catholic mission and was credited with converting several hundred people to the faith.  In August 1842 Rosmini took the decision to withdraw all remaining Rosminian brethren from Prior Park and to establish a new foundation in Leicestershire in the Midland District.  Fathers Pagani and Furlong left Prior Park later that month and joined Father Gentili in Loughborough at the first house of the Institute of Charity in England.  

Letter 243 from Henrietta Crewe to Annabel Crewe, Milnes Coates Archive

It is perhaps unsurprising then that when Lady Arundell’s plans for a Bath foundation were abandoned she would turn her attention instead to Loughborough, now the centre of Rosminian work in England.  In March 1843 Henrietta was finally able to write to her sister to reveal all, for ‘the embargo has been taken off and my lips unsealed - Before...I was under both orders and a promise not to mention it to any one.’  Lady Arundell had indeed settled upon ‘the little stocking-weaving Town’ of Loughborough for her convent.  The presiding Bishop, Bishop Walsh, had no objection to Lady Arundell’s choice of religious sisters, Rosmini himself approved, and a house was found ‘in every respect adapted to the purpose’ and evidently cheaper, ‘financial difficulties’ being ‘not so great in that neighbourhood’.  

Lady Arundell left Bath on the 22nd of February and Gilbert writes that Baines felt Lady Arundell’s defection from the college sorely, although Henrietta describes how the Bishop appeared at the door of Prior Park at the last moment to give her his blessing.  Her leaving was evidently a painful subject for Henrietta, and for Lady Arundell too who wrote that no words could express what she felt and always should feel on the matter.  ‘I, who have so few friends! at leaving one who I feel is one of the best!’ 

After a stay of several weeks with the Phillipps’ family at Grace Dieu, Lady Arundell finally took possession of her new home in Loughborough.  She wrote to Henrietta soon after her arrival and regularly thereafter.  Her first weeks were spent ‘shopping- furniture-buying, & arranging’ the house, in what she unfortunately calls the ‘worst & roughest paved town in England’.  She was accompanied there by her butler and cook, a Mr and Mrs Doughty who had been in her service for more than thirty years.  The house was called Paget’s House and was situated on Woodgate.  After her first visit later in 1843 Henrietta described it to Annabel.  It was a half modern, half Elizabethan house with ample accommodation for a community of six or eight Sisters of Charity, besides Lady Arundell’s own apartment, and a room which had been converted into a chapel for daily mass.  Lady Arundell’s drawing room and bedroom looked out over the ‘quiet shady garden’ at the rear of the house ‘where the Sisters will be able to breathe a little fresh air and recreate from their labours being unlooked’.  At present the garden was only a lawn but Lady Arundell had plans to plant some flower beds in the autumn.  The garden door opened on to a road leading into the country and the country thereabouts was, to Henrietta’s unflattering surprise, ‘extremely pretty - the whole district of Charnwood Forest forming a sort of oasis in the otherwise ugly county of Leicestershire’.  

By Henrietta’s second visit Lady Arundell had made a few additional alterations, particularly to her drawing room where she had created a little greenhouse ‘full of flowers and birds’ with the ‘prettiest effect imaginable’ by adding a second sheet of glass in front of the lower half of the large window.  The addition was practical as well as pretty for Henrietta reports that the rest of the house was noticeably cold, with no carpets due to ‘Conventual simplicity’. 

Henrietta greatly enjoyed her first visit to Loughborough in September 1843.  As well as seeing the new house, she visited Grace Dieu and met the ‘cheerful’ and welcoming Phillipps family, dined with Lady Arundell and Father Gentili (‘a very superior person’ as she wrote to Annabel) and saw the new Catholic church at Shepshed, designed by Augustus Pugin.  She also drove out to the recently founded Cistercian monastery at Mount St Bernard, whose permanent buildings were also designed by Pugin.  It was a place she had long wished to see, and she professed herself even more gratified than she had expected at the sight of the flourishing farm amidst the ‘smiling landscape’ and the charitable works of the brothers, a much needed alternative, in her eyes, to the grudging aid offered by the union workhouses.

The Milnes Coates Crewe correspondence

She was disappointed however, on this occasion, not to meet any of the Sisters of Providence who were to labour alongside Lady Arundell.  The two ‘ladies from Milan’ chosen by Rosmini to begin the convent and run the school, Sister Maria Francesca Parea and Sister Maria Anastasia Samonini, were still ‘waiting for a boat’ and would reach Loughborough the following month after a journey of twelve days.  It was in mid-October then that two Roman Catholic nuns appeared on the streets of Loughborough for the first time in their black habits and stiff white veils, to the outrage of many of the town’s Protestant residents.  ‘Already they have been obliged to have black poke bonnets and veils concocted for going out of doors’, Henrietta wrote just a few months later, ‘as the three times that they ventured forth in their white head gear, they were regularly mobbed.’  The last time was ‘the worst of all, and the poor little things were a little frightened as well as incommoded by the crowd’ that the change of clothing was deemed a necessity.  

By the time Henrietta met the nuns in person in early 1844, they were settling into their new life.  Henrietta reports that the elder of the two, Superiora, was still struggling with the language, but the younger, Suor Anastasia, was making better progress.  They already had two English postulants, a widow and a young girl, who would soon commence their novitiate.  The first postulant took the habit on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1844 and the small community began its life with Suor Maria Francesca as Superior and Suor Anastasia as Mistress of Novices.

The nuns formally took charge of the school in March 1844, becoming the first religious sisters to run a Catholic day school in England in the nineteenth century.  An article in the Catholic Herald in 1985 provides some details as to the layout of the school.  Lady Arundell had adapted the stables of the house for an infants’ school and made the loft above the coach house into a classroom for the older girls.  Before the nuns took charge, lessons were being given by a Mrs Moon, a ‘kind mistress’ who Henrietta notes had ‘the best that Loughbro’ could supply, but very far from what is requisite’, and Lady Arundell herself who devoted an hour or two each day to it.  Now the nuns would begin to teach the school ‘according to their own method’, although given the language barriers Henrietta writes that they accepted there might be a few ‘spropositi’ (an Italian word for blunders) along the way.

Whatever spropositi there might have been, the school and convent continued to grow and to thrive, particularly after the arrival of Mary Barbara Amherst as a postulant in 1845.  The sister of the Bishop of Northampton, as Mary Agnes Amherst she would become the first English Superior of the Sisters of Providence and a central figure in the growth of the order’s work in England.  

Sadly, Lady Arundell would not live long enough to see these developments.  She died in June 1845, only two years after her arrival in the town and before she had seen her dream of erecting a proper convent building realised.  On hearing of her friend being suddenly taken ill, Henrietta immediately set out for Loughborough but arrived too late.  ‘You did not, could not know how very dearly I loved her’ she wrote to Annabel that night, from her room at the convent, ‘or how immense a loss it is to me’.  She describes the arrival of Lord Nugent, whose ‘voice and manner’ she would never forget, and the long and arduous day of her funeral when she resolved to follow her ‘darling Mimi’ with her prayers to her last resting place. She couldn’t help but note that the route along the streets to the little Catholic chapel was the same one they had so often trodden together to attend prayers.   Lady Arundell left money to continue her work in Loughborough and instructions to be buried at the nearby Ratcliffe College, recently established by Rosmini and Father Gentili.

After Lady Arundell’s death Henrietta mentions Loughborough only rarely, but it is clear she kept up with the progress of her friend’s work there and in 1848 she made another visit.  Writing afterwards from her brother’s grand home at Crewe Hall in Cheshire she calls the busy house party there her ‘little penance after the delights of dear Loughboro’.  In answer to Annabel’s concern, she assures her that ‘it is scarcely sad to go there, my dearest, I cannot explain to you what it is - I only know that it is luxury. I feel as if I had her still when I am in those darling scenes where we have so often prayed together - where we last parted - where she still lives in all these good works which it has pleased God to bless in so very wonderful a manner’.  To Henrietta’s delight ‘her Nuns’ had increased in number from 3 to 17 and a ‘charming convent building’ was being built just out of the town, on the Park Road.  

Our Lady’s Convent School would open in 1850 and today, more than 170 years on, the work begun by Lady Arundell and the Italian sisters lives on as Loughborough Amherst School.


Milnes Coates Archive, Borthwick Institute for Archives

‘Importing the Rosminians’, in The Catholic Herald, 25 October 1985

Sister Maria Bruna Ferretti, The Rosminian Sisters of Providence, ed. J. Anthony Dewhirst (2000)

Pamela J. Gilbert, This Restless Prelate: Bishop Peter Baines 1786-1843 (2006)

William Lockhart, Life of Antonio Rosmini Serbati, Founder of the Institute of Charity, Volume II (1886)

John Morris, A Selection from the Ascetical Letters of Antonio Rosmini, Volume II 1832-1836 (1995)

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