I don’t know a great deal about the early life of Mother Hannah. I do know that she was born, Sarah Hannah Roberta Grier on October 28, 1837 in the Carrying Place, Upper Canada. She was the third daughter and sixth child to the Rev. John Grier and Eliza Lilias Geddes. Her father came from Ireland in 1823 and was ordained a deacon and priest at the Anglican Cathedral in Quebec. I don’t know a great deal about her mother but her older sister Miss Rose Grier was at one time Principal of Bishop Strachan School here in Toronto.
I wonder about the early years of Mother Hannah. Specifically I wonder what her early childhood, school days and teen age experiences were like. While I imagine that she faced the everyday challenges of growing up -— I like to believe that life with her family gave her an awareness of being rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. I expect that her parents passed on to her and her siblings their knowledge of the love of God. Perhaps it was through this knowledge -— and the foundational strength of her initial, familial loving relationship -— that she was given the courage, humor and love of life needed to carry her through her later years.
She would need the gift of courage strengthened and grounded in love to venture from her home here in Canada, leaving all that was familiar to her --- to travel to Britain with her husband Charles Horace Coome, whom she married on July 23, 1859. It was while she was in Britain that she was first drawn to the mission work of the Anglican Sisters of St Mary in Wantage. This community would be a great support to her during a lengthy illness following a terrible fall, which caused her to miscarry her one and only child. It was while she was preparing to return to them a few years later, after the death of her husband, that she first received the call to be the mother foundress of a new community of Anglican Religious in Toronto.
It was on the grounds of Bishop Strachan School in September 1881 that Mother Hannah was first introduced to the Rev. Ogden P. Ford and Mrs. Broughall. These two individuals were the first to invite her to consider establishing a religious community for woman in Canada. Mother Hannah’s older sister Rose had planned a garden party for her on the grounds of the school as a farewell, so she could say goodbye to her friends and mother before returning to England to enter the Anglican Community of St. Mary at Wantage, as a postulant. She never returned to England but instead entered the community of St. Mary at Peekskill in the United States. It was there that she received her Religious formation. On September 8, 1884, she made her profession at St. Mary’s and following that service returned to Toronto to become the Rev. Mother for the newly formed Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. To the glory of God and in support of God’s people we are still here, 130 years later.
To be rooted and grounded in the unconditional love of Christ and to share this love of Christ with all whom we come in contact with, is at the heart of our life together in community. The readings chosen for this special day reflect this truth.
In our Old Testament reading we are reminded of the great commandment, the Shema, to not only think about God and talk to God but to teach all people to love and obey God by repeating the words of God regularly and by weaving them into the routine of our daily living. We do this individually through our spiritual duties and corporately in our observance of the daily office. In this we strive to lead by example. I have grown to love the prayers we say together in ‘the daily office’. Four times a day we stop what we are doing and go to chapel. I see this as our corporate ‘check-in’ with God.
In the passage from Ephesians [3:14-21] , we hear the beautiful words of “Paul’s Prayer for the church”. This prayer reminds us that Love, unconditional love, lies at the heart of God’s nature and human love is the church’s response to it. We pray to Abba/ Amma God who has revealed the truth of the divine nature in Christ our Lord.
“For this reason I bow my knees before God from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. We pray that, according to the riches of Christ’s glory, God may grant that we be strengthened in our inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray that we may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:14-19
It is through the words found at the end of this passage that we are reminded daily at the end of each Eucharistic feast that the power of God working within us is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine. It is to God that we look for direction in our lives and for direction in the missions God would have us serve in. It is the love of God through Christ that sustains us. So what-so-ever God says unto us we strive in love, with God’s help, to do.
It never ceases to amaze me that we can read a passage of scripture over and over and over again and still discover something new that we did not see before. The gospel reading for today offers us the familiar image of Christ as the vine -- the core from which we -- the branches -- receive all we need to bear gospel fruit in this world. I admit that while I love this image, it is an image that has disturbed me. I don’t always bear good fruit. More than once I have thought that without a doubt I will be one of the branches that God eventually gets fed up with and throws into the fire, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This passage doesn’t express the latter part of this particular train of thought. It is just where my head automatically goes.
In reading this gospel passage for today I discovered these words, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes* to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed* by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. (John 15:1-4) Did you catch it? Jesus said he Abba /Amma God, removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. I forget that if we are made in the image of God and we learn and develop and grow, then God also must learn and develop and grow. While Jesus is talking to us, I believe -- in this passage -- he is also talking about himself.
While Christ was in fact both God and a human being, he came to earth as a child so he too would know what it was like to live this life so that we would know through his incarnation, life, death and resurrection that there would be no place we might go, no experience that we might have that he himself did not have before us. God’s love for us reflected in Christ’s love for us is a perfect love. Perfect love casts out all fear. Perhaps even the fear of being certain that “I” will ultimately be the one of the branches that is eventually cut off.
So what else might this passage mean? I believe it means that the things we say to ourselves, the actions we take, the messages we receive from others that are not life-giving, are what are cut off. The things that are life-giving and life-sustaining, the glimpses of Gospel truth that we take in, the experiences of God’s love revealed to us in sacred texts and through the actions of empathy and kindness offered to us by others – these are the things within us that are continually being cared for and fussed over by God. These are the branches within us that are being pruned, molded and shaped and which help us to grow into the image of Christ, so that the fruit we bear will be lif- giving and life-sustaining fruit, not only for ourselves but also for others.
I have discovered living here at the convent as a sister that unconditional love allows us to make mistakes, so that we can learn and grow from those mistakes. At the end of our gospel reading today we hear these words: 12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants* any longer, because the servant* does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’ (John 15:12-17)
The intention of this community that is found at the very beginning of our Rule says this, “The Sisters of St. John the Divine, in the spirit of their patron are called to live to the glory of God in fulfillment of the two fold law of love.” (Love of God and love of neighbour and self.)
Certainly Mother Hannah was a fine example for each one of us as a branch which bore much fruit. Although I don’t know a great deal about the early years of Mother Hannah I like to believe that the awareness she received as a child of being rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, which was foundational and formational in her life, is one of the fruits she has passed to and through the Sisters of this community.
Mother Hannah’s vision and initiative along with the vision and initiatives of the sisters working with
On this day when we give thanks for the life and ministry of our Mother foundress, it is fitting that we take this time to remember and give thanks to God. As we reflect both on the witness she provided for the people of her day and the example she continues to set for us now, we hope that we too may be rooted and grounded in love and that others may experience the unconditional acceptance and love of God through us. Amen.