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  • Alex Van Goethem

Celebrating Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday falls on 22nd March this year. Historically Mothering Sunday has been celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, since the 16th century. Once observed as a day on which people would return to their home, or ‘mother’, church loaded with gifts to honour the Virgin Mary, it has today become an occasion to celebrate and give thanks to all mothers.

Children and young people who had left their families to find domestic work, such as household servants, were given this day off to return to their ‘mother’ church, and soon transformed into an occasion for families to reunite. It became tradition for the children to pick wildflowers on their journey home to place in the church or to give to their mothers; eventually this grew into the secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.

The occasion was popularised further at the beginning of the 20th century, when the tradition was adopted by the Americans, and came to be known as Mother’s Day. The secular Mother’s Day’s roots lie in a memorial held by Anna Jarvis in 1907 for her mother Ann Jarvis, a peace activist who treated wounded soldiers in the American Civil War. In 1914, after a campaign for a day to honour mothers, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day a national holiday.

By this time, Mothering Sunday lacked any real popularity in the United Kingdom. This was until an English Anglican woman named Constance Adelaide Smith (1878-1938) led the reinvigoration of the holiday. Constance was both inspired and alarmed by the efforts in the United States in the early 20th century, and linked the concept of the American secular holiday to the revival of the more traditional Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent. Following the publication of her booklet The Revival of Mothering Sunday, in 1920, she established a movement to promote the day in the United Kingdom, collecting and publishing information about the day and its traditions throughout the country. During her research she rediscovered traditional Mothering Sunday customs such as the baking of a simnel cake which, like Christmas cake, is covered with pale sweet almond paste - delicious! The movement was so successful that by the time of her death in 1938 the day was said to be observed in every parish in Britain, and every corner of the British Empire.

To celebrate Mothering Sunday, this article will look at a view examples of the close bond between mother and child, found within the Jesuits in Britain archive.

We start with a series of correspondence between John Smelter, a student at the English Jesuit College of St Omer’s, and his parents, dated 1769-1773. John Smelter had been sent away from home to study in France, and these letters display the initial pain that this separation causes to both child and parent. The extract below, from a letter written by John to his mother, describes the emotions he felt during his journey to France, and the moment when he had to say his final farewells to his father in London.

(Click to enlarge) First letter written by a St Omer’s College schoolboy to his mother, 10 June 1769 (SB/8)

Part of the letter reads:

“My Papa has told you, I suppose, that, at his setting out, I could not conceal my uneasiness. When we came from Sheffield, I suppressed the emotions I felt, pretty well because I still had one parent left to be with me as a guide to my youth: but now I have none. In my losing him, I seemed to lose you both. No wonder then his departure was a little painful to me.”

(Click to enlarge) A lock 11 month old Cyril Martindale’s hair, attached in a letter sent by his grandmother to his father in 1880 (SJ/80/9/2)”] [INSERT PHOTOS ‘3’ & ‘4’ WITH CAPTION: “Cyril Martindale’s love for his grandmother – shown in an illustrated card written by him in the late 19th century (SJ/80/9/8)

Our second item, which is a little more unusual but quite common in its day, is a lock of Fr Cyril Martindale SJ’s (1879-1963) hair, cut by his grandmother. It was common superstition to keep a lock of hair from a baby’s first haircut for good luck. There are multiple locks of hair within Fr Martindale’s collection, a few of which were sent to his father. Fr Martindale obviously had a close relationship to his grandmother, demonstrated by a small illustrated card found within his collection, sent by him to his paternal grandmother Elizabeth. In it we see the squiggly handwriting of a young child who would go on to become a great and prolific writer.

Also written in the late 19th century is a series of letters written by Fr John Luck SJ (1867-1950) to his mother during his noviceship at Manresa House, Roehampton. Fr Luck SJ kept in close contact with his mother and sisters throughout his life by maintaining regular correspondence, even when stationed as a military chaplain in France and Greece during the First World War. In the letter below he wishes his mother a happy birthday and thanks her for all that she has done for him.

(Click to expand images) Fr John Luck shows his appreciation of his mother in a letter to her, dated 22 January 1890 (SJ/3/1/14)

Part of the letter reads: “Another must be to know that each of them [her children] feels quite unable ever to thank you worthily for all your self-sacrificing love for them. For we all feel that, under God, to you we owe all the blessings we now enjoy. Ever ready to forgive & forget our faults, you will I am sure think of nothing tomorrow but of the hearts’ love which we bear you now. This I say for all; but especially for your only son; for whatever faults he may have had, the want of acknowledgement of your love was never one.”

Following the above displays of affection between mothers and sons it seems appropriate to conclude this article with a photograph, which beautifully captures a moment between a mother and her son sharing a laugh together. From us all at the Jesuits in Britain Archives, we wish you a wonderful Mothering Sunday!

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