Obituary: Dame Elizabeth Sumner

Click to follow
THE RULE of Saint Benedict is, after the scriptures, one of the most formative documents in the story of Christian culture. At its heart is a description of "what kind of person the abbot ought to be". So Christ- like is this picture that no abbot or abbess has ever fully measured up to it. But some have come near. One such was Dame Elizabeth Sumner, Abbess of Stanbrook Abbey from 1953 to 1983. Without ever seeking the limelight or believing that she had any outstanding qualities, she profoundly influenced her own community and touched the lives of many others, of various faiths or none.

Elizabeth Sumner was born in Johannesburg in 1911, of an old English Catholic family. She was educated at the Johannesburg Roedean and later in Switzerland. In 1934 Elizabeth entered Stanbrook Abbey, near Worcester, together with her younger sister Ruth; their elder brother was already a monk at Downside. Another young woman entered at the same time, and all three were clothed in the monastic habit on 30 April 1935.

The community they joined had had a long history, not always tranquil. After the dissolution of the English monasteries under Henry VIII, Benedictine life for women disappeared from this country, though some Englishwomen made their way to the Continent and entered French monasteries. In the early years of the 17th century Englishmen and Welshmen who had become monks in Continental monasteries refounded the almost (but not quite) extinct English Benedictine Congregation; thus were born the monks' communities of St Gregory (now at Downside), of St Laurence (now at Ampleforth) and of St Edmund (now at Douai, near Reading).

These monks wanted to found a house for women as well, and in 1623 nine young Englishwomen pioneered a foundation at Cambrai, then in the Spanish Netherlands. Prominent among them was the lively Helen More, great-great-granddaughter of St Thomas More. Helen's father, Cresacre More, had put up the capital for the house. These nine were clothed in the monastic habit on 31 December 1623, and began their novitiate.

Halfway through their first year one of the monks was sent to them as spiritual guide; this was the well-known Father Augustine Baker, who had been Recorder of Abergavenny until his dramatic conversion to the Catholic Church in 1600. He had been a moving spirit in the re-establishment of the English Benedictine Congregation, and had a still greater influence in the perpetuation of the English medieval contemplative tradition into the post-Reformation world. He educated the young nuns at Cambrai in the inner search for God through training of mind and heart, and significantly influenced the community until he was moved to other duties in 1632. Meanwhile the original nine had made their vows on 1 January 1625. In 1629 one of them, Catherine Gascoigne, was elected abbess.

The community continued to live an austere, contemplative life for about 170 years without notable incident, in touch with and recruiting from England. But political changes had by that time made Cambrai part of France. In 1793 the nuns were ejected from their house at less than half an hour's notice, and imprisoned at Compiegne until the fall of Robespierre in 1795. In great poverty they then returned to England, where they were welcomed with much kindness. They undertook the running of a small school, first at Woolton, Liverpool (1795-1807), then at Abbots Salford, Warwickshire (1807-38). Finally they moved to Stanbrook, near Worcester, in 1838. After the First World War the school was discontinued.

By the time Elizabeth and her companions arrived, the community numbered 80, a peak never equalled before or since. They embarked on their novitiate, a period of training and study, during which they grew into the monastic life of liturgical and personal prayer, silence, pondering on the scriptures, community, manual work and ordinary daily tasks. The double inheritance from the early days was strongly alive: Thomas More's love of learning and hospitality, and Baker's commitment to the inner search for God in contemplative prayer. (The abbey was the home too of a private press, the Stanbrook Abbey Press, founded in 1876. Under the guidance of Dame Hildelith Cumming, printer from 1956 to 1991, the press gained a world- wide reputation.) On 1 May 1936 Elizabeth made her first vows, binding for three years; and on 1 May 1939, her time of formation over, she made her solemn vows.

Years of faithful and obscure prayer and useful work followed. Particularly memorable were her service as infirmarian (1943-48), and her tailoring skills. Besides making habits for the community she and her sister wove liturgical vestments, and in the early 1950s contrived to make the picturesque robes of the Knights of Malta for a ceremonial occasion (probably the Queen's coronation). Elizabeth was highly domesticated and believed in doing things meticulously well. She was very tall and dignified, with blue-grey eyes and a slow, deliberate way of moving. Her straight back never altered, even in old age.

In 1953 Abbess Laurentia McLachlan died. She had been an expert on Gregorian chant; but she is chiefly remembered today as the friend of George Bernard Shaw and Sir Sydney Cockerell, since Hugh Whitemore's play The Best of Friends. On 31 August 1953, Elizabeth was elected to succeed her, as the 23rd abbess since the community's foundation.

Renewal was already in the air, but was soon to be given powerful impetus by the Second Vatican Council, and a time of upheaval and change in the Catholic Church coincided with Dame Elizabeth's years in office. She was open-minded, but chary of any doctrinaire approach to renewal. She listened, prayed, waited on the Spirit for guidance, and then acted as the circumstances and possibilities of the available human material seemed to require. She was prudent, in the best and most positive sense of that often-misunderstood word. God's will and the good of actual human persons were the paramount considerations. If rules had to be bent a little, they were.

Elizabeth sometimes intimidated people at first, and her early style was a touch autocratic, but she mellowed as she grew into her difficult job. Those who lived under her benign rule for 30 years experienced her gentleness, wisdom, and profound humility. Her strongest gift was compassion, and she used it constantly, for her own nuns and many guests. She studied the needs of each, the strengths, weaknesses, concerns and enthusiasms of every person she loved, and she loved each one uniquely. She trusted people, and gave them space to grow. The need of every human being for healing - healing at every level - was habitually present to her, and she would go to any lengths to meet the need as far as she could. A humane and widely human attitude made her accessible, and people found they could talk to her about anything that mattered, sure of being understood. She had a warm smile, a sense of humour, and an unaffected, kindly graciousness. She loved the beauty of the Worcestershire countryside and its bird life.

Conservative by temperament, Dame Elizabeth set aside her own preferences and steered the community through the changes in the post-Vatican II Church with very little fuss. Perhaps she would not have felt comfortable in today's South Africa; she had grown up in a very different country. But it was people she cared about, and had she been living in the Rainbow Nation today she would have accepted it, as she peacefully accepted the changes in the Church and in monasticism.

Elizabeth never sought excuses to absent herself; but, as her wisdom and integrity became more widely known, demands multiplied. From 1969 she was active not only within the English Benedictine Congregation, but also on the Commission for Nuns established by the then Abbot Primate in Rome. She worked within the Free Association of nuns following the Rule of Saint Benedict in the British Isles, and with the Union of Monastic Superiors from 1973. In 1972 she was invited by the Abbot President of the Brazilian Congregation to attend a meeting of monks and nuns of Latin America in Rio de Janeiro; after this meeting she stayed on in Brazil for a short time to help with the launching of a new monastery at Itapecerica. In 1979 she responded to a request from an existing community at Still River, Massachusetts, visiting them herself and organising a programme of continuing help from Stanbrook; this community now flourishes at a new site, Petersham, Massachusetts. From 1980 she arranged for long-term help to an African community at Tororo, Uganda.

It was not easy for her to step down from a position she had held with self-sacrificing love for 30 years, but she did so in the belief that her resignation would bring new life to the community, which then numbered 51. After a few weeks' rest in another community, Dame Elizabeth helped for a short time at Still River, and then as temporary superior to a community in Scotland. By 1985 she was back at Stanbrook, where she served as guide and friend to the community's numerous lay oblates and associates. She also worked as sacristan, but her health was failing, and after considerable suffering she retired to the monastic infirmary, from which she delighted to look out over the grounds through a low window. There, two weeks ago, she died.

Elizabeth Melville Sumner, nun: born Johannesburg 28 January 1911; entered the Benedictine Order, Stanbrook Abbey 1934, clothed in monastic habit 1935, took solemn vows 1939; Abbess of Stanbrook 1953-83; died Callow End, Worcestershire 29 May 1999.