The last sighs of the larch
This is the story of the foundation of The Convent of our Lady of Compassion, Acocks Green. It was written by one of the Sisters at the Convent. The original was written in French and this is a translation.
Foundation of Acocks Green
The Last Sighs of the Larch (by Mere SteTherese)
Listen my friends, do you think 80 is old for a tree of my sort? I still feel young and vigorous and have no desire to die yet!
I have been a part of the landscape for so long. I have seen trees die and have watched mortals pass by! I remember a time when there were hardly any houses in the Warwick Road; only a few humble cottages covered with ivy and climbing roses, the old "Dolphin" and the "Spread Eagle", old picturesque Inns that the brick palaces of Mitchell and Butler can never replace.
From this corner of the earth where I have spent my life, I have learned many things. I remember when I was very small, not higher than that, hearing the villagers say of passers-by: "Those are Catholics, they are going to hear mass at the Inn on the corner of Broad Street - you know the place where Doctor Bradford who was a friend of the Compassion for so long, built his house".
Later on the Catholics went in the opposite direction, to Olton, to Mass.
One fine day, about 75 years ago, two humans came to visit our heights. They carefully examined the wooded parts where my brother and I had so long lived in peace with the squirrels, the rabbits and the birds. Alas! Times were about to change... those two went over the whole meadow which stretched out behind us and as they went past me on their way back to Warwick Road they spoke words which went through my heart like a dagger. "By cutting down the trees we could build a brewery there, then our house, and one or two others which we could sell or let. At the back we could transform the meadow into gardens".
Alas! Soon scythes, hatchets and cords did their devastating work.... I saw nearly all my brothers fall, one after the other...Why was I spared?...Well, one of the new proprietors said to the other as they passed near me: "That young larch will look very well at the corner of the drive".
Soon three white houses were built. They were admired by the villagers and passers-by and were soon occupied by rich merchants from Birmingham. I have seen so many families come and go in those three houses - I have watched the children grow and disappear.... One day in 1903 I heard a rumour. It was said that Olton Court had been bought by French nuns. In fact after that I often saw those peaceful happy women in black veils passing by. They often looked our way, I expect those three white houses reminded them a little bit of France.
Two years later, one spring morning, there was a new surprise! Two nuns from Olton came by carriage to Wilton House where they were met by an architect, Mr Corser. One, who was elderly and very dignified had a countenance which spoke of heavy responsibility. The other young and alert, seemed full of activity. I remember the remark made by the young sister as they got down at Wilton House. "Ma Mere, why did the people who inhabit those houses put up all those shutters inside? They must have been owls!" I did not hear the Superior's reply, only the indignant exclamation of my old friend the owl, wakened from his siesta in the thick foliage of the Chestnut tree.
This visit was soon followed by many others and the house which had been abandoned for two years came to life again. It was announced that mass was going to be said in a large room on the ground floor. In fact on Sunday, 13th August 1905, a clergyman whom I got to know very well afterwards, the Reverend John Gibbons, came to offer the Holy Sacrifice for 3 religious and about 30 of the faithful from roundabout.
The Convent was founded to the great sorrow of my owner who said she would not live in such a neighbourhood! She was right, for her house was destined by Providence to become in its turn the Convent later on. On August 14th three nuns came to live at Wilton House and on the Feast of the Assumption, Our Lord came to reside in His new Tabernacle.
On August 16th Mother Superior arrived from France. Young, capable and supernatural, she was destined for two years to establish the work on strong supernatural foundations. On September 16th, to my great joy, I saw several little girls and a small boy, going up the drive of Wilton House. There were seven of them, a lucky number for the Religious of the Compassion. Gladys, two Dorothys, two Winnies, Ella and Charlie, advance guard of the crowd of pupils who were to follow them for the next 32 years. How I waved my branches in welcome! But the dear little ones were too occupied in examining their new school to notice my signs of friendship. In order to make room for them the Chapel had been transferred to a wooden hut adjoining the greenhouse in the garden. For two years this was Acocks Green Church.
What animation, what movement, what gaiety! What a spirit of friendship there was between mistresses and pupils in this new school.
It grew rapidly. 30 names were on the register at the end of the year, 60 the next year. Mere Ste Julienne left the work well on its way when Mere Aimee de Jesus took over the direction in 1907. Under her guidance the School continued to prosper spiritually and materially. The cordial union between the mistresses, their devotedness and the good spirit of the pupils which were the cachet of the house at its foundation, always remained its distinctive characteristics.
In the midst of the perils and anxieties of the Great War, there came a day when "The Hollies", now for sale, became an annexe to the Convent, but unhappily, the children still came in by Wilton House and didn't pass very near me. However, in April 1919 my wish was realised, and the joyous band took complete possession of the house. My little friends now passed under my branches. How happy and how numerous they were! So numerous that in Autumn the school was transferred to Malvern House, vacant in its turn and more adaptable to present needs. The Hollies became definitely the Convent. How closely I followed the life of this dear House. How many joys and sorrows I have witnessed in the last 19 years.
In January 1920 a little chapel was arranged in the Convent. Our Lord came to live in the midst of His children. Since then how many echoes of their prayers and hymns I have listened to! I have watched processions pass and first Communions take place. I have seen old girls coming back to confide their joys and sorrows to their mistresses. I have seen young married couples come back to ask for a kiss and a blessing at the dawn of a new life, or one of the small boys returning as a priest to say mass in the little Chapel. I have seen parents bringing a dearly loved daughter to give her to Our Lord.
I have alas! also witnessed funerals. Those of Mere St Paul and Mere St Felix, cut off in the flower of youth. I have seen the soul of this house, its Superior and beloved mother go to receive the reward of a noble life of which the last twenty years were spent, without thought of self, in giving with both hands to her dear school the treasures of her piety and long experience. I have understood the general sorrow at the death of nuns who were venerated and esteemed. Mere St Anne, Mere St Athanase and Mere St Victor who was so fond of this house and one of whose last actions was to give the necessary permission for important extensions of the buildings. I have also seen the successive ameliorations in the school equipment, enlargement of class rooms, installation of a laboratory and a library, rooms reserved for mistresses, laying down of a hard court and recently the improvement of the playground.
I have witnessed other changes in these latter years when the health of Mere St Antoine exhausted in the service of the school necessitated her being recalled to the Mother House. I have seen her who devoted herself unceasingly since the beginning of this house, Mere Marie de la Presentation, come back from France, her head bowed beneath the weight of a responsibility which God was soon to exchange for a heavier one. I know that she too, in the midst of her grave anxieties, often thinks regretfully of her companion of so many happy years, our present Superior who shares all her feelings and affections for the dear House, will I am sure regret me too.
For now it is my turn to go. In the name of progress and civilisation all the gardens of Warwick Road with their crown of verdure and beauty must disappear. I have seen renewed about me the devastations of my youth.
The nuns, my faithful friends have done all they could to prolong my life, only yesterday one of them placing her hand on me caressingly said: "Can you not spare this beautiful Larch tree?" It was quite useless. I am condemned to die like my brothers, sacrificed for the common good, and to the queer cult of modern mortals for the straight line.
Nevertheless I beseech you not to deplore my loss. Having been a praise to my Creator for my beauty, I wish to glorify Him still by my submission to the decrees of Providence which are an infallible guide to the events of my life.
And now, Farewell! May my successors, larches and other trees grow vigorous and sturdy in order to rejoice the eye and elevate the minds of future generations in this house which is so blessed by God!
Your old friend, the Larch