A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
Sister Frances Agnes Onslow writing from Woodchester Convent:
‘I looked up Martin Gillett and found the reference to Taunton etc (romantically styled!) He must be referring to the Princenhoff Statue, now at Arundel. It is made of Montaigu (or Sichem) wood and perhaps an inch taller than the one you saw here (which belonged from C17th to the School Infirmary, brought here Woodchester by the last Headmistress of the ancient school.) A third one was sent here to Woodchester and is in the Porte.
So I suppose ‘Our Lady of Taunton’ (see Gillett) is that little statue now at Arundel. We called it “Our Lady of Princenhoff”. I do not remember where it was kept – perhaps in Mother Abbess’s Room? May Processions? Yes but banner not the little wooden statue.’
This little statue was a gift to me from the Poor Clares at Woodchester shortly after the death of my friend Sister Francis-Agnes Onslow. It had belonged to her and was one of three that were carved from Scherpenheuvel (Sichem) wood. On the top of the hill (Scherpenheuvel – Sharp hill – Montaigu in French) a mighty, solitary oak tree was visible for a wide area. This tree seems to have been a centre of superstitious practices until a wooden figure of Our Lady was affixed to the tree during the 14th century. This came to be venerated in a famous but quiet local shrine.
A shepherd found the statue down on the ground and intended to take it home. He remained transfixed until the little statue was put back in the niche (1514). In 1602 a little wooden chapel was built which was replaced with a larger and better chapel two years later. The following year (1605) Archduke Albrecht and the Infanta Isabella launched the building of the present sanctuary.
The shrine became a centre of devotion for recusant priests such as the Franciscan Henry Heath who visited there before 1638 (‘Quick, Quick, Quick’) and prayed for a martyrs death in England (‘Jesus, forgive my sins; Jesus, convert England.’). Little statues were carved and given away by the Infanta after the tree died. The three statues belonging to the Franciscan Sisters were examples of these little carvings.
This particular statue belonged from the C17th to the School Infirmary until it was brought here to Woodchester by the last Headmistress of the ancient school (ie Sr Francis-Agnes herself).
This nineteenth statue was probably given by an old girl, Mary MacDernott, (at the School 1873-6). She married J. Munster and her father included Fr Wm Munster of the London Oratory and Sr. M. Philip, a nun of Taunton. Mary MacDernott died in 1940. This statue later went to Arundel where it fell to pieces.
Notes from ‘The History of the Convent in Taunton’ by Rosemary Berry 1987
‘In 1872 an ancient wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child was brought from a shipyard in Falmouth to the Convent. It had once been a ship’s figurehead and was carved out of solid lime wood. It had been given by the Pike family, and possibly dates back to the time of the Armada. A tall stone niche was built for it in the Shrubbery garden and it was much loved by both nuns and pupils, remaining here until 1978, when it was removed to Kibby’s in Staplegrove. It has recently been restored by local woodcarver Tom Praetor’
Tom Praetor carved the striking Stations of the Cross in St George’s Church, Taunton
Kibby’s was the Convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy until it closed in 1998
Since 1998 the statue has been at St Catharine’s Church, Chipping Campden, and work has been carried out on it by Howell and Bellion of Saffron Walden. Since 1998 the statue has been indoors in the Priest’s House whereas beforehand it was situated in a garden grotto. There were plans to erect it in the Church.
Sister Frances Agnes: ‘About that statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, designed by Pugin’s son and formerly in the cloister at Taunton, it seems to be the one you saw in the garage at Kibby’s. We are not asking for it, especially not if anyone else wants it. But if a home is wanted for it, we would welcome it for the Chapel Hall here (you would remember access to stairs and side chapel?) It would be cared for and would replace a not-so-much-valued big Guardian Angel.’