The Beginning - Cambrai
In October 1651, a priest and three Sisters set off from the English Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Consolation to look for a new home. The Abbey had been founded in 1623 at Cambrai in the Spanish-ruled Netherlands. At that time, persecution made it impossible for women to become nuns in England, so they went into exile. By 1645, the Cambrai community under Abbess Catherine Gascoigne had increased to 50 nuns, and was suffering the greatest poverty. The English Benedictine monks had to advise them:
Endeavours should be used to get admission for some of our nuns into French monasteries, till such time as our house might be more capable of affording them a sufficient maintenance.
The nuns replied:
We were unwilling to suffer any of our Religious to be dispersed in French convents, resolving rather to undergo the greatest exigencies together, than suffer a separation among ourselves, that were so firmly united by the strictest bonds of religious affection, charitable love and true Benedictine spirit of contemplation.
The nuns proposed instead to send some of their number to begin a daughter house in Paris. There they hoped to receive support from Queen Henrietta Maria, widow of King Charles I, and her English court in exile. Dame Clementia Cary, before she became a nun, had been a maid of honour to the Queen. She now wrote to Abbot Montagu, the Queen's chaplain, about the community's plan.
My Lord Abbot returned his opinion to these proposals, that it was an attempt wholly impossible, and that the Queen and English nobility were at that time in such circumstances, as rendered them incapable of affording any other assistance than their hearty wishes. And besides, in that juncture of affairs the city of Paris was in a very unsettled condition, and great appearance of further troubles & civil wars.
Travel to Paris
However the financial situation at Cambrai was so poor that they did set out, in October 1651: Dame Clementia, her sister Dame Mary, Sister Scholastica Hodson, and Father Serenus Cressy.
Their journey took them days, probably by public transport and wearing secular dress:
Sister Scholastica Hodson, being very discreet and prudent, was a great help to our Reverend Dear Mother Clementia who was very sickly, by most carefully attending and continually assisting her in their journey and lodgings, procuring for her the best accomodations and solaces she could, without any regard to her own sufferances and inconveniences, which are incident to happen in such occasions. She also was very tender and infirm.
The distance from Cambrai to Paris is 170 km, just over 100 miles. This route is based on a journey by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1775. He took four days, travelling as a tourist.
Arriving in Paris
They reached Paris about 1st November, the Feast of All Saints, and stayed with a community of English Augustinian nuns. Dame Clementia was warmly welcomed by Queen Henrietta Maria and other benefactors. The outlook was so hopeful that she asked for more Sisters, and rented a house in the rue St. Dominique, south of the river Seine.
Four more choir nuns and another lay sister were sent in February 1652 from Cambrai.
Upon the arrival of these Religious, all went to live in their little hired house.
This was the true beginning of the monastery, on 6th February 1652, when they began to live in community and there were enough choir nuns to say together the Divine Office.
List of nuns on 20th February 1652
( in order of seniority)
Reverend Mother Bridget More, Prioress, age 42, professed 22
Dame Elizabeth Brent, age 45, professed 23
Dame Mary Cary, age 31, professed 12
Dame Justina Gascoigne, age 28, professed 12
Dame Clementia Cary, age 37, professed 12
Dame Marina Appleton, age 28, professed 6
Sister Scholastica Hodson, age 31, professed 10
Sister Gertrude Hodson, age 26, professed 2