Janet Erskine Stuart (1857-1914)
Janet Erskine Stuart is one of the great spiritual and educational leaders of the Society of the Sacred Heart. She was the sixth Superior General of the Society and has continued to have a profound impact on both the spiritual character of the Society and the schools and Colleges it established. Whilst in some ways quite traditional, Janet Stuart was at the same time a highly innovative and seminal thinker whose educational philosophy was focused on the development of the whole person.
Janet Stuart, was an unlikely individual to become a Catholic nun. She was the daughter of the Anglican rector of Cottesmore, the youngest of his thirteen children and suffered the death of her mother shortly before she turned three. She was much loved within her family particularly by her father and her much older sister Dody who acted in every way as mother to the small girl. But she lived in an England deeply divided along religious lines.
One gets a sense of a highly intelligent, spiritual and precocious child from the story she tells of herself “I remember thinking seriously on the subject of death at three years old. My brother Douglas, aged six, who was my great resource for theological questions, had explained to me what death meant and exhorted me to prepare for it.” By the age of six herself, Janet was well acquainted with Bible stories and particularly loved the tale of Lazarus. Believing in miracles Janet ran one day to the graveyard where her mother was buried and called out “Mama, come forth!” There is great poignancy in the image of a small solitary girl left standing in that graveyard. She wrote much later “The disappointment was very great and left a seed of doubt in my mind that bore fruit later.” At a very early age Janet was embarked on a life long journey which held faith and questioning in a dynamic and creative tension, which considered in every situation the deep reason for existence.
It was in the natural world surrounding her home in rural Rutland that Janet found much delight and learning. She had acute powers of observation and hearing which led her to a deep love of flora and fauna and an ability to find solace in the beauty of her environment. Her intelligent sensitivity led her also to be an outstanding horse-woman and it was these engagements outdoors, together with time spent with her Rutlandshire cousins near, which kept her grounded when her second great loss happened during her adolescence, - the death of her surrogate mother Dody.
Her cousins had been converted to Catholicism and Janet came to know the Green catechism from them. Shortly after Dody’s death she was sent to London on a holiday and it was whilst in London that her religious questing became the central pursuit of her life. At twenty one she wrote of herself “I reached a point that was more agnosticism than anything else.”
Hers was both a strongly intellectual and deeply prayerful exploration which was influenced by both people and life events. A Jesuit priest Fr. Galloway became her spiritual mentor and friend but she noted in her journal “Events are sacraments of the will of God.” The urgency to be in right relationship with her God led Janet Stuart on a very tough journey. As she became increasingly convinced that it was the Catholic church which would allow the most natural expression of her spirituality, she ached at what making that decision would involve. Her relationship with her father was strong and loving and to turn away from the Church of England would cost her that relationship. Her father even put her in touch with the eminent politican Lord Gladstone who warned Janet that to turn her back on the faith of her birth would be the “grave sin of moral suicide.”
One can only glimpse the emotional anguish Janet must have undergone over many months. Yet she did convert to Catholicism in March of 1879 and bid goodbye to Cottesmore, her siblings and father. She never stayed at the rectory again, and we have no record of what passed between Janet and her father, only her comment that “There was no anger, only cruel sorrow.”
It was three more years before Janet entered the Society of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton, years in which she travelled and opened herself up at close range to the social injustices and problems of her society, taught Sunday school and advocated for poor tenant farmers. This movement outward beyond the containment of her early life was sustained by an ever searching faith, supported by wise guidance from Fr Galloway who described Janet Stuart at 25 as “the most complete person I have ever known.”
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