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  • Writer's picturePhil


Fr Jamie asked me to cover for him after Christmas, which I was happy to do.

Below is my address for the Feast of the Holy Family, inspired by a local lady, Mary Sumner. Her work with families, initially in Old Alresford, has had global impact.

The Mothers' Union has in excess of four million members.

Old Alresford Rectory on the left, Mary Sumner House (London) on the right

Mary Elizabeth Heywood was born on 31 December 1828, in Swinton, Lancashire,

the third of four children. Her father Thomas Heywood was a banker,

her mother a woman of personal piety.


The family moved to Colwall near Ledbury, Herefordshire, in 1832.

Home-educated (as were many girls) young Mary learnt to speak three foreign languages, and to sing well.  To complete her musical education,

she travelled with her mother and elder sister to Rome.


Mary Sumner as a young woman

Whilst there she met her future husband, George Sumner, the son of Charles Sumner, the Bishop of Winchester and a relative of William Wilberforce. The couple were married in Colwall on 26 July 1848, 18 months after George's ordination.

They had three children: Margaret, Louise and George; and in 1851, The Revd. George Sumner received from his father the living of Old Alresford, Hampshire, a living I received a hundred and fifty years later! Here Mary dedicated herself to raising the children and helping her husband in his ministry, providing music and Bible classes.


Years later, when her eldest daughter gave birth to Mary’s first grandchild,

she remembered how inadequate she had felt as a young mother,

with the responsibility of caring for a new life.


Saint Mary's, Old Alresford

She began to wonder if other women in the parish of Old Alresford felt the same, and quickly concluded that they did. She invited “women of all social classes” to a meeting, which was held in Old Alresford Rectory. They all came! She was so overcome by nerves that her husband had to speak for her and he invited the women to return next week. The next week she was able to put her nerves behind her, and it was established that Mary’s meetings filled a large void.


They met frequently, numbers grew each meeting, and the

“Union of Mothers” was born. Mary had printed a run of fifty cards, with practical advice for mothers, including…..


·       Never allow coarse jests, bad angry words, or low talk in your house.

Speak gently.


·       Do not allow your girls to go about the streets at night, and keep them from unsafe companions and from dangerous amusements.


·       Set your children a good example in word and deed.


·       Kneel down, and pray to God morning and evening,

and teach your children to pray.


·       Try to read a few verses of the Bible daily, and come to Church

as regularly as possible.'


Though not exactly a manifesto, the cards set forth some of the principles on which Mary Sumner founded this “Union of Mothers”. 


in 1885, she was part of the audience in the Portsmouth Church Congress, at which the first Bishop of Newcastle, Ernest Wilberforce, had been asked to address women churchgoers. He felt he had very little to say to women,  and invited Mary

to speak in his stead. Although nervous, she gave an impassioned address about national morality, and the importance of women's vocation as mothers, of being a good example to children, and keeping prayer central to the life of the family. A number of the women present went back to their parishes to found mothers' meetings on Mary Sumner's pattern. The-then Bishop of Winchester, Edward Browne, made the Mothers' Union a diocesan organisation.


It snowballed! The concept spread rapidly to the dioceses of Ely,

Exeter, Hereford, Lichfield & Newcastle 

and by 1892, 60,000 members

in 28 dioceses grew to 169,000 members at the turn of the century.


In 1897, during her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria was asked, and willingly accepted, the patronage of the Mothers’ Union, and with that encouragement branches were set up throughout the British Empire, beginning in New Zealand, then Canada and India.

 From 1900 onwards, she and the members campaigned to stop children collecting alcohol from public houses for their families, and for the age of marriage for girls to be raised from 12 to 16. At a time when unmarried girls with children were condemned and cast out, she cared for and protected her niece and illegitimate son. Mary Sumner died on 11th August, 1921, by which time the MU was a world-wide force for God and the family. It still is.

Mary Sumner Window in newly-dedicated Mary Sumner Chapel, Old Alresford

Today the Mothers Union impacts the lives of families in 83 countries

through its 4 million members and it is the largest non-political society

in the world, and membership is still growing.


The MU has its own place with full voting rights at the United Nations,

and sends delegates to all parts of the world where the UN works.

The society was the largest member of the Jubilee Debt Campaign,

and continues to work hard in campaigning to relieve third world debt.

The biggest and most successful project the MU has is the Literacy Project 

in Africa, teaching women and children to read; In Africa the Mothers` Union is active in supporting AIDS sufferers and especially their families, and the resulting thousands of orphans. And a major aim - raising the status of women, has had a markedly-positive impact world-wide, on the quality of family life for millions.

In this country, ranging from prison visiting, having MU branches in women’s prisons; Starter-Packs for those going into independent living from either prison, probation hostels or when they have been into hospital for substance abuse or similar and their families don`t want them back home.


Emergency bags for hospitals. If you were in an accident on your way home this morning, you wouldn`t have a soap/ towel/ comb/ razor if you are a man/ or anything you would need for a stay in hospital. Similar for children -and include a soft cuddly toy.


Holidays for families who cannot afford them; marriage support; bereavement care, especially amongst children, and, of course the fostering of spirituality appropriate to family life. The list of what Mothers’ Union Members do to make others’ lives better is endless.

 Mary Sumner was no “do-gooder” wanting to be seen as a beneficent middle-class Victorian lady. She put her faith into action. As a mother she had felt inadequate, as many mothers do.

 She knew what is was like to feel the pressure of Motherhood . She knew also the wrenching pain of the loss of a child; she lost a six week-old baby, and could identify with Our Lady as a similar “sword pierced her heart also”

 This Christ-inspired organisation started in our locality, in Old Alresford,

a small insignificant village outside of Winchester; initiated by a shy woman who saw need, had herself experienced need, prayed about it, and was moved to do something to aid, enhance, encourage and change the lives of those around her. From tiny beginnings in our locality, it has enabled so much that is good and beneficial to happen world-wide.


Winchester has been home to two amazing saints – St Swithun, and Mary Sumner. Both were shining examples of sharing the Light of Christ, as promised by Simeon, to enlighten those in dark places.


We at Holy Trinity are blessed to be illuminated by a Parish Priest who strives to inflame our faith in learned Word and Sacrament. Do we take his words away with us to enlighten those outside our building, to enlighten the darkness of those on our doorstep? 


Before Lockdown, bearing in mind the asset we have in our Hall, some here were looking at how we might provide space for those with dementia and their carers, or a place for the lonely to meet with others……and let’s not forget how the Trinity Centre got its name- from its initial home here. Please pray the following prayer,

Mary Sumner’s Personal Prayer, with intention for our Church, that we might touch as many lives as possible for Christ.


All this day, O Lord, let me touch as many lives as possible for thee; 

and every life I touch, do thou by thy spirit quicken, 

whether through the word I speak, 

the prayer I breathe, 

or the life I live.










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