Neila Todd, a Tertiary of Carmel (lay Carmelite) looks at the life of the foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites as the Congregation marks another anniversary of her death.
“To know her is to love her” are words excerpted from the countless letters and telegrams which were received at the Corpus Christi Carmelite Convent, Belmont Circular Road, following the death of its Foundress, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, O Carm.
Expressions of sympathy had come from a diverse array of persons. The word ‘love’ had been her final, vocal exhortation to those who had been privileged to be at her death bed. The 71st memorial anniversary this year (January 11, 1949) triggers a reflection on the life and times of this phenomenal woman.
As a little girl, Clara ‘Queenie’ Perrins, had heard serendipitously about the Real Presence in the Eucharist which was being discussed by her Anglican father and his visitor.
It was at that instant that she would begin a journey that culminated in her transformation to Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, O Carm, Foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites and subsequently, The Servant of God, the title, which Holy Mother Church offers to those who have distinguished themselves during their sojourn here on earth and become candidates for Beatification.
Her discernable charismatic gifts are expressly wisdom and knowledge. The former gift conferred those skills, talents and abilities to present the faith effectively to the minds and hearts of the incipient believer with divine persuasiveness: to explicate the hidden mysteries and moral precepts of Christianity. The latter gift bestowed on her the inclination to receive the healing and comfort that God offers.
The combination of these two gifts succinctly describes Mother Mary Ellerker’s life on this earth. Additionally, she pursued the fledging Social Sciences which augmented her personal influence on the diverse persons with whom she would interact.
Education as a primary mission
Mother Foundress chose to fashion her pathway by going back centuries to her heritage, to her Catholic ancestor, Sir Ralph Ellerker who had served in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and it was from that perspective she would engineer her legacy.
Changes in name and religion brought family discord, but she was undaunted, for this was only the beginning. The future rested on a core function and purpose that have remained unchanged over time from the Congregation’s early beginnings in 1908, “With zeal I am zealous, for the Lord, God of Hosts”.
Mother Foundress would be a witness across cultures and educated herself by exploiting the best opportunities available for women at the time. Records of her schooling and education show the expansive curriculum that she studied.
She was inspired by the intellectual ferment of St John Newman and his cohorts, when the treasures of Catholicism were being rediscovered in Protestant England.
Clearly, she was one of the few women who were part of the scholarly circles of the time. Education would be a lifelong pursuit, not merely for personal gratification but far beyond.
Hers would be a teaching congregation with Education as a primary mission. Her very first school, Corpus Christi, proudly details holistic education to her charges.
Mother Foundress experienced the social setting and the lifestyles of socialites in the secular world of Knightsbridge, in heady London. Photographs as a young woman show her well-dressed and fashionably coiffed in the elegant styles of the period. But this, however, was not the life she would ever want.
The Servant of God was also familiar with the work of women missionaries and their accomplishments. She did not consider them as competitors, given the situation that single women were then leaving their homes in large numbers to serve as missionaries where they would have influence and control.
Mother Mary Ellerker had her own express views. She became an outstanding woman missionary committed to her goal of movement to the New World. Thus, her prayers and objectives were to fashion a religious congregation with a particular purpose within a set of well-defined rules.
Mother Foundress worked amidst long distances, travel times and bureaucratic individuals. It took an insightful and persistent individual to stay the course and be committed to the goal.
Despite advancing age, physical discomfort and the turmoil wrought by World Wars, U-boats prowling the Caribbean waters, she stuck to her goals of creating havens in America and the West Indies for the training and indoctrination of converts, for the dissimilar missions of bringing the word, deed and spirit to all.
Mother Foundress is indeed a model of the Catholic philosophy of the New Feminism which emphasises belief in an integrated complementarity of men and women.
She recognised and created the diverse roles for women in her Congregation; the formal space for their participation; convents providing the environment for their self- government, prayer and influence in Education, Administration and Service networks.
Her foundations continue through her spiritual daughters here in Trinidad and Tobago and on both sides of the Atlantic. Corpus Christi Carmelites are committed to burnish her legacy of the most diverse services which they give selflessly.