Harriet O'Brien Monsell, Mother Superior, Community of St. John the Baptist

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Harriet Monsell (O'Brien)

Death: 1883 (71-72)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Sir Edward O'Brien, 4th Baronet and Charlotte O'Brien
Wife of Canon Charles Henry Monsell
Sister of Lucius O'Brien, 13th Baron Inchiquin; William Smith O'Brien; Robert O'Brien; Henry O'Brien; Edward O'Brien and 3 others

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About Harriet O'Brien Monsell, Mother Superior, Community of St. John the Baptist


Harriet Monsell (1811-1883) founded the Community of St. John Baptist, an order of Augustinian nuns in the Church of England dedicated to social service, which by her death had expended to numerous houses, including in India and the Americas. She is now remembered in the Calendar of saints in some parts of the Anglican Communion on March 26.


Harriet O'Brien, born in 1811, was the third daughter and next-to-youngest of nine children born to one of Ireland's oldest families. Her father, Edward O'Brien of Dromoland, continued family tradition by representing his county Clare in Parliament until 1826, when he relinquished the seat to his son for health reasons. Upon his death in 1837, his devoutly Anglican widow and daughters moved to London, then Dublin and other places. Ultimately, three of the four daughters (including Harriet) married Anglican clergymen. One brother later became Lord Inchiquin, inheriting a barony from his uncle, the Marquis of Thomond. Harriet married Charles Monsell in 1839 while he was studying and receiving medical treatment at the University of Dublin, and they moved to Oxford the following year to complete his studies. He was the third son of the Archdeacon of Derry, and upon ordination was licensed to his father's curacy and later received a prebendary with the Limerick Cathedral. Due to his continued delicate health, much of their later married life was spent in Europe, including Naples.


After her husband died in 1850, Harriet Monsell continued her affiliation with the Oxford Movement. She began working in the railroad and army village of Clewer among former prostitutes and unwed mothers at a House of Mercy. Mrs. Mariquita Tennant, a Spanish refugee and convert to Anglicanism (and clergyman's widow) had founded it several years earlier, but ill health had forced her to retire to nearby Windsor, where she soon died. Harriet Monsell moved to the village with her sister and husband, Rev. Charles Amynd Harris, future bishop of Gibralter.

After Rev. Harris moved on to another parish in 1852, the local vicar and Oxford canon Thomas Thellusson Carter was promoted to rector at Clewer and warden of the House of Mercy. Soon, Harriet Monsell professed religious vows with two other women, and became Mother Superior of one of the first Anglican religious orders since Catholicism's disestablishment centuries earlier. The women lived according to a rule attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo and were initially called the Sisters of Mercy, but later changed their name to reflect their inspiration from John the Baptist's call to penitence. During the new order's first five years, it expanded from assisting about thirty marginalized women to dedicating a building to serve about eighty. As the Community of St John Baptist, guided by Mother Harriet's (she was never ever known as 'Mother Monsell') energy, extensive correspondence and humor, the nuns extended their original mission to running about forty institutions, including mission houses in various parishes, as well as orphanages, schools and hospitals.

Mother Harriet retired to Folkestone in 1875 for health reasons, although she was occasionally able to visit the communities she founded. Biographers state she died on the morning of March 25th 1883, which was Easter Sunday that year. Since it is also the Feast of the Annunciation, her Feast Day is always celebrated the following day and occupies that date in the Calendar of the Church of England.[5] By Rev. Carter's death in 1901, the Community of St John Baptist had more than 300 members in Great Britain, India and the United States. It continues today, having moved its Oxford convent to a former Servite priory in Begbroke in 2001. Another affiliated community is in Mendham, New Jersey.

However, the main religious organization today helping victims of human trafficking is Roman Catholic--the Sisters of Adoration, Slaves of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity, founded by St. Maria Michaela of the Blessed Sacrament, a contemporary of Mrs. Mariquita Tennant, who inspired Mother Harriet. Also, in the United States, the National Florence Crittenton Mission was co-founded by Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, whose husband, the rector of Aquia Church died in 1896. Dr. Barrett continued to lead that organization and became one of the most prominent women in the United States before her death in 1925. The Florence Crittenden organization expanded its scope over the years to help homeless mothers and disabled veterans, and its approach to adoptions became controversial by the 1970s, although its two offshoots remain active today.

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