A steady stream of (mostly)women made pilgrimage today to a grave at Winchester Cathedral. Jane Austen’s grave? No, although plenty of photos were being taken of that grave, too, as our well-beloved author lies buried beneath a slab in the North Aisle.
No – I’m talking of the grave of Mary Sumner, who died aged 92 in 1921. Her grave, shared with her husband who predeceased her, lies outside the the Cathedral at the east end. Why should so many people be paying their respects to her today? Well today hundreds of Mothers’ Union members gathered in Winchester to celebrate 140 years of the movement – the largest worldwide women’s organisation in the Anglican Communion – which Mary Sumner started back in 1876.
Mary Elizabeth Heywood was born near Salford, Lancashire, in 1828, and met her future husband George Sumner while visiting Rome. He was the son of Charles Sumner, the Bishop of Winchester, and the couple married about 18 months after George’s own ordination. It was whilst they were living in Old Alresford, Hampshire, that Mary started gathering together mothers of all social groups to talk about the spiritual dimensions of family life and setting a good example for children. Her passion for giving children a good start in life and for the moral wellbeing of the family soon led to similar groups being set up across the country. Today’s 4 million members live in over 83 countries throughout the world, some of whom were represented at the services held in the Cathedral today. The singing of the ladies of the Zambian Mary Sumner Choir was particularly joyful and uplifting.
I am proud to have been a Mothers’ Union member for over 20 years and to have my grandmother’s MU badge. Emily George née Mitchell became a member in Croydon, I believe in the early thirties, and was a keen member all of her long life. Strangely, I have a Sumner on my Wakefield family tree: Susan Sumner married William Wakefield in Finchley in 1823. Since she came from Hertfordshire I am sure there is no connection, but it’s nice to see the name there all the same. Happy Birthday Mothers’ Union!