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‘Little Mother’ during war and pandemic

By Neila Todd

Holy Mother Church declared Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites, a Servant of God, in the closing years of the last century.

She is the first person so recognised in the region in this inaugural step towards beatification and canonisation, a rigorous and scrupulous process demanded for recognition of clearly stated heroic virtues during the candidate’s lifetime.

The present daunting situation in the world has captured the time and imagination of everyone, across the entire planet. However, this unique situation invites those persons who are cognisant of the life and subsequent achievement of Mother Foundress to review her life, one which chronologically laid the foundations for international growth on both sides of the Atlantic during a chaotic period not so long ago.

Clearly, ‘Little Mother’ as she was lovingly called, was fuelled by her single-minded devotion towards Catholicity and its source and summit, the Holy Eucharist.

She had chanced to hear some words about the mystery of transubstantiation as a little girl born into the Church of England and its doctrines of Protestantism. The words spoken by a visitor in her parents’ living room would irrevocably and henceforth alter her life and the lives of others.

She would evolve from Clara Perrins to Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament O Carm. The biographical information about her reveals a phenomenal journey of self-actualisation. She would convert to Catholicism; change her surname from Perrins to that of her Catholic ancestor, Sir Ralph Ellerker, hero of inter-religious war, the Pilgrimage of Grace, centuries prior.

She would seek higher education at a time when a miniscule number of women were so inclined, and opportunities also limited. She would journey to France to fulfil her vocation as a religious, only to return home to Birmingham, England, because that charism did not satisfy her yearnings.

She sought to expand her thinking of social doctrine particularly through the synergy of learning and teaching.

Her experiences of war, pandemic and epidemic would propel her to sharpen her foundations and in the true style of the English, the belief that a crisis ought not to be wasted.

She lived in London, England during the time when it was the largest city in the world, its port the largest as well. London was the heart of international finance and trade. This was the heyday of the British Empire and immigrant people of all races came to swell its workforce and overcrowded housing.

Mother Mary Ellerker would have the opportunity to observe immigrant Jews, Italians, Africans, South Sea islanders and Chinese. She would also experience the effects of urbanisation.

She would encounter human trafficking and servitude; unclean water; inadequate sewerage disposal causing the diseases of dysentery, typhoid fever, cholera as well as tuberculosis.

These diseases claimed the lives of thousands, including that of St Therese of Lisieux, whose example of the holy life would help fashion our Corpus Christi Carmelite charism.

Human misery in Europe would be compounded by the pandemic of the Spanish flu, its grim figures still a source of dissent. And there were the World Wars, One and Two, the latter being touted as the war to end all wars.

Travel by sea across the Atlantic, the only way then, was particularly perilous, but she sailed and had her Sisters do the same.

Mother Mary Ellerker lived and thrived through these times. She would be heartened by the reality of the intellectual and spiritual nourishment that became available to her.

She imbibed the counsel of former Anglican clergyman John Newman who would convert to Catholicism and be declared a saint in this century. His Oxford Society would bring Catholicism from the periphery of the English religious social setting. The scholarly approach to evangelisation and social doctrine would inspire her to further her belief that the human person is at the heart of God’s plan of love. Consequently, knowledge in all its branches must enrich and permeate society.

Mother Mary Ellerker would therefore chart the beginning of a new pathway, one which offered equal dignity for all persons. She would seek to achieve this milestone by emphasising the social nature of human beings.

The rich combination of knowledge, skills and abilities would enable her to seek new places across the Atlantic. She would establish her foundations in America, the Caribbean and South America. Liberia in Africa would also be added as her spiritual daughters conscientiously promote her legacy.

Trinidad is particularly privileged that she chose this, the last island on the archipelagic chain to be the pivotal place of her undertakings. This country, through her, would be the first in the region to achieve a Pontifical Institute with its Mother House situated here. Social work at its most expansive is concretely and tangibly evident, the diverse brand of the Congregation.

As the Corpus Christi Carmelites commemorate the anniversary of her death (January 11, 1947), we express our gratitude to God for the life and vision of the Servant of God, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament whose mortal remains lie in the Corpus Christi Carmelite Congregation’s Cemetery at Mount St Benedict.

Neila Todd is a Corpus Christi Lay Carmelite.