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Harriet Monsell Day - 26th March

21st February 2023

The Clewer Initiative

Harriet Monsell’s story provides ongoing inspiration to The Clewer Initiative. She is an amazing example of a Christian response to a complex and seemingly intractable issue such as modern slavery.

Harriet Monsell was the first leader of the religious community formed in the parish of Clewer to respond to the huge local issue of sex slavery. She lived from 1811 – 25 March 1883 and is remembered in the Church of England’s calendar of saints on 26 March.

In the mid-1800s, the parish of Clewer contained large numbers of military, and labourers engaged in railway construction and building projects. A huge industry developed to provide sexual services. The parish priest, Thomas T Carter, and some of his congregation recognised the suffering and desperate plight of many of these women and girls. They began to offer pastoral care and comfort, and subsequently set up a house to provide a home for rescued victims. The demand soon threatened to overwhelm these typically local and ad hoc efforts of Christian concern. This was when Harriet arrived, newly widowed, to stay with some relatives in the parish.

She became drawn into the work, and helped establish the structures, and systems to make it secure and viable for the future. Other women were recruited and formed into a religious order. Harriet’s longing was to empower the women and girls who came seeking help, by teaching them skills so that they would no longer be dependent on others, especially on men and their resources.

Harriet Monsell

Her story provides ongoing inspiration to The Clewer Initiative and is an interesting template for a Christian response to a vast, complex and seemingly intractable issue such as modern slavery. Three elements shine through – prayer, practical action and partnership.

1. The foundation of her work was prayer – articulating concerns and hopes amidst so much exploitation and suffering.

2. The second strand was responding practically – the purchase of property, fundraising, forming a Council which included Mr Gladstone and other significant people, and gaining the support of the Bishop of Oxford – Samuel Wilberforce – son of William Wilberforce the great abolitionist.

3. The third characteristic of the ministry was that of partnership – between the helpers as sisters in a praying community; between helpers and those seeking help in a wider community which shared the same home/property; between the project and local church; between the aspirations to make an effective response and significant policy makers and influencers in both church and civil society.

How does The Clewer Initiative follow Harriet Monsell's example?

At The Clewer Initiative, we seek to underpin our efforts in prayer. We have drafted a number of prayers for congregations and communities to use.

We encourage people to move beyond awareness to practical action. We often refer to our work with communities as the 'Clewer Journey' and our goal is to, like Harriet, find activists with a passion for engaging with the problem; build collaboration and partnerships between church, community and statutory agencies and together devise a bespoke plan of action that will work in a specific community.

The Community of St. John Baptist (CSJB)

The ministry continued to adjust to meet the needs of the day, and by 1901, the Community of St. John Baptist (CSJB) had expanded to more than 45 branch houses and 3,000 members. At CSJB’s height in the early 20th century, the reach of the ministry extended to England, Wales, India, and the United States and included schools, orphanages, mission houses and hospitals. Today the remaining sisters are in retirement but there is a branch of the order still thriving in New York.

Mother Harriet shows how prayerful concern can join individuals, local communities, public authorities and eventually people in other cultures and countries, in a common endeavour to bring light to the shadows. Her starting point was always to pray for the renewal of a right spirit within herself and within others, “create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me.”

To find out more about the life of Harriet Monsell, download the Clewer Initiative’s Women in the Shadows resource where her incredible story is woven throughout the sessions or read Bishop Alastair Redfern's book Slavery and Salvation.

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