The presence of the Handmaids in England during more than 100 years, accompanied all the changes in the history of the XX century. During this time they always tried to follow the Spirit in every moment, with a creative faithfulness to their charism.
In 1909 the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus opened their first house in England. This was to be a very significant foundation for the Institute, one step closer to fulfilling Rafaela’s deep desire that her Congregation be as “universal as the Church”.
The search for an appropriate property in London proved difficult but eventually one was found with adequate space for a chapel. The first community of Handmaids established themselves at 11 Upper Belgrave Street, London.
On the 11th February 1910, Mass was celebrated there for the first time but it took until October of that year for the chapel to be completed and open to the public. From the beginning people in the neighborhood attended the daily Eucharist. When the Sisters began having Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament people spent a lot of time in the chapel and soon a group of Adorers was formed.
The first community consisted of 15 Sisters and 4 Novices. Not all the sisters spoke English, so their first mission was to learn the language. Soon a Club was formed for Working Girls and the Sisters gave private lessons in music and Spanish and received people from Spain who came to learn English.
In 1937, after 27 years in Upper Belgrave Street they moved to Avenue Road, to a house more adequately equipped to further develop their apostolic mission. They were so happy to have a small Chapel there with an entrance from the street, which made it easy to quickly establish a relationship in the neighborhood. Part of this mission was to open a school for primary school children which they did in 1949.
As the number of pupils continued to increase, in 1960 the sisters built a new Church open to the public and a new Primary School called Saint Christina’s, beside their “Ancilla Domini” Residence for foreign students. The younger Sisters in Formation lived and studied there too.
However, the Residence had eventually to be demolished and in 1980 a new house was built in its place for the Community. The old convent on Avenue Road was sold and the Sisters moved into the new convent on St Edmund’s Terrace beside St Christina’s School, where they live to this day.
However, back in 1912, a Novitiate house had been opened in Leahoe, Hertfordshire, a quiet place in the countryside where the Formation of many young Handmaids took place.
This would eventually be closed in 1933 and the Novitiate transferred to Englefield Green, Kingswood, in the Diocese of Southwark.
ENGLEFIELD GREEN, KINGSWOOD:
A Boarding School for Girls had been set up in Englefield Green in 1921 and also a “Juniorate” and a University Residence. With the transfer of the Novitiate from Hertford, Englefield Green became the “House of Formation” for the young Sisters. Many young foreign students also came there to learn English.
However, with the Spirit ever guiding the Handmaids along new pathways another exodus was experienced in 1955 when the Convent, School and Novitiate were all transferred from Englefield to Marydale, Highcliffe-on-Sea, Hampshire, where they remained until 1970.
In 1970 the local Bishop requested that Marydale Primary and Secondary Schools merge with schools in Boscombe, Bournemouth, using the premises of the Convent of the Cross, beside the Jesuit church. The schools transferred, as did the Noviciate. Both schools were run by the Handmaids and one of the Sisters became Sacristan in Corpus Christi Church owned by the Jesuits.
Another change took place in 1980 when the Secondary school merged with St. Peter’s School, the De La Salle School and a local Secondary Modern School, to form a State Comprehensive School in Southbourne, Dorset.
The Sisters moved to Southbourne to a smaller house with fewer sisters in the community. Two continued teaching in St Peter’s school; another continued working as Sacristan in the Jesuit church while the rest of the Sisters were engaged in pastoral work.
Eventually, in 2003 the Southbourne Community moved back to Boscombe (Bournemouth), nearer the Jesuit church where they continued doing pastoral work and started the ACI Family which continues strongly to this day.
However, in 2013 the community had to suspend its activity, and the sisters returned to London. After a period of discernment and planning, the Handmaids decided to go back to Boscombe with a renewed community. Its inauguration is expected to take place on the 25th of March 2017.
Retracing our steps, somewhat, we go back to 1929. At the request of the Bishop to open a school in South London, a suitable premise was found on a farm at “West Gate” in Beckenham, Kent, where a community was then established. On December 29th 1929 the Eucharist was celebrated there for the first time in a small chapel. On May 12th, 1930, the school had 12 students.
As time went on, however, numbers increased as the ethos of the school became recognized and in 1935 a new building was erected. In 1936 it opened as a Private School for Day Pupils and Boarders from 4 to 18 years of age. A new chapel was also built to facilitate the many people who came to pray and it was officially opened by the Bishop on September 17th 1936.
St Mary’s, a nonpaying State-Aided Primary School, was later opened by the Handmaids on the same Convent grounds in 1968. However, in 1983, due to the diminishing number of sisters, the Handmaids, while continuing to own the property, handed the school over to the Diocese, and first Lay Head was appointed. Although there are no longer any Sisters teaching in the school there is a lot of contact with the Handmaids who remain the Trustees of the school and one sister is on the Board of Governors. The school continues to flourish.
In 1987 the Secondary and Boarding School in Beckenham, Foxgrove Road, closed, and in 1988 two attached houses were purchased in Village Way, Beckenham. Five Sisters formed a new community of Parish Sisters, working between the parishes of St. Edmund and St. Anthony. The Sisters facilitated daily Exposition of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Edmund’s and the Association of Adorers, which began in the old convent of Foxgrove Road, helped to maintain the Exposition all along the years up till October 2016, when the Sisters left Beckenham, after more than 80 years of presence here.
After discernment about our mission in the Planning process for the new Atlantic Europe Province, the Handmaids decided to leave Beckenham in 2016, leaving behind more than 80 years of dedication and service to the people of Beckenham.
Time and place never stand still for the Handmaids. Always open to new challenges and where the Spirit leads, they go. In 1973 a foundation was made in Rotherham, Sheffield. There the Sisters were mainly involved in Pastoral work while one taught in the local Secondary school.
Then in 1987 a foundation was made in Scotland. The sisters moved into two tenement flats in a particularly poor and deprived area of Glasgow where they served in pastoral ministry in the Parish, the local schools and the psychiatric hospital and Care Homes in the area. They assisted with Sacramental and liturgical programs in schools and facilitated prayer groups with the youth.
To date the Handmaids continue to minister in London and Bournemouth.
To know more about these communities see: “who we are”.