The Grail Community, based in Winchester in the south of England, in a large house called The Hermitage is part of the larger Grail Society and is a Secular Institute, a form of consecrated life for lay Christian faithful living in the world.
Originally called ‘The Women of Nazareth’, their origins can be traced back to Holland between the wars. A Jesuit priest, Fr James van Ginneken (1877-1949) founded a movement for young Catholic lay women. He had been organising retreats for Catholic women and felt that they should be able to do it for themselves. The early members were trained as retreat-givers. While not religious they did wear a colourful and flamboyant uniform – an article in The Tablet in 1935 refers to the ladies as ‘picturesquely attired.’ The vision of the founder was to enable women to participate fully in civil and Church life. He gave it the name ‘Grail’ with its suggestion of a heroic quest and the pursuit of high ideals.
Members of the Grail attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 and as a result of this became known in England. Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster invited them to London. They were led by the Dutch woman, Baroness Yvonne Bosch van Drakestein. They lived in a property in Sloane Street, and recruited women to join them there.
During the war they formed the Women’s Auxiliary Grail Service which ran a club in London for women engaged in war work, providing them with a bath, a meal, and a good night’s sleep. They helped too with officer training programmes, and offered support to Polish refugees.
After the war, the Grail movement in England became formally separated from that in Holland. Each continued to grow independently. Branches of the Grail movement are to be found in almost thirty countries including USA, South Africa, Australia, Uganda, Mexico, Nigeria and Tanzania.
The English community moved to Pinner in Middlesex, where they were to remain for over sixty years. The property was known as Waxwell,gifted to the Grail by an anonymous donor and had a large house and extensive grounds, with outbuildings which were used as hermitages both by the residents and by visitors. Since Waxwell provided residential accommodation the Grail were able to run weekends on prayer, liturgy and training for pastoral workers.
One of the things which made the Grail a household name in the Church is The Grail Translation of the Psalms which has had a major impact on the Catholic liturgy in English speaking countries. Their translation was first published in 1963. It arose from a collaboration with Fr Joseph Gelineau, a French Jesuit, who had worked on the original French Jerusalem Bible. His aim was to get back to ancient Hebrew patterns of poetic rhythm and produce a version for singing. The Grail facilitated the work of several scholars, Fr Hubert Richards, Dom Gregory Murray OSB and two Cistercians, Rev Gall Schuon and Dom Albert Derzelle. Grail member Philippa Craig was responsible for “Englishing” of the translation. The work was an outstanding success and is still in use for the English liturgy today.
The time of Vatican II was a very exciting period for the members of the Grail. They found the attitude of openness and enthusiasm very much in line with their own spirit. Vatican II recognised the importance of the laity to Church life. An important part of their work at that time was in the promotion of the teachings of Vatican II. They published many works including simplified versions of Vatican documents, with study guides. The National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool in 1980 was one of the highlights of Catholic life in the UK at this time and they were much involved. Their expertise, developed over many years, of producing large scale Catholic pageants and musical presentations again came to the fore.
In recent years, as is the case with many groups, they found that with declining numbers and increasing age, Waxwell was too big for the needs of the community. After a long search they found their present property in Winchester and moved in about three years ago. They are happy that the Waxwell property has now become a centre for youth ministry for the Diocese of Westminster.
The Grail Community in Winchester is the nucleus of a larger group which includes, Grail Companions - single women who live in their own homes, and Grail Partners – forty married couples who live with their own families, but who cooperate in the work of the Grail. There are also Grail Associates.
Members of the Grail today find encouragement in the coming of Pope Francis and his simple ways. They continue to be involved in small scale, practical projects helping others to grow, always aiming to meet people ‘where they are at’. They continue to reach out to the larger community. Their simple philosophy ‘To help one person to grow is to help to build the world’ continues to give meaning to their work.
Reprinted from Africa Magazine with the kind permission of Fr Tim Redmond.
Thanks very much