Mary Sumner

Founder of the Mothers’ Union

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Mary Sumner
Founder of the Mothers’ Union

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Mary Heywood was educated at home and married George Sumner in 1848. After a year in Crawley they moved to the rectory at Alresford, Hampshire. They had three children and entered fully into village life. Her own happy family life was significant for her idea of a Mothers’ Union. The19th century was an era of societies, and the Sumners began several organisations in Alresford for the improvement of society. In 1876 Mary gathered together young women from the village for weekly classes in the rectory. She was determined to gather women from different social backgrounds, many of whom were unaware of the significance of baptism and were experiencing difficulties in teaching their children the Christian faith. Those attending the first meeting were invited to sign a card outlining a commitment to Christian parenthood.

Within the next 10 years, branches of the Mothers’ Union were springing up throughout the Winchester Diocese. Prayer cards were written, and teaching within the groups stressed the importance of a Christian family background.

In 1885 George Sumner was appointed archdeacon of Winchester (and in 1888 bishop of Guildford within the Diocese of Winchester), so he and Mary moved there. That year, they also attended the Church Congress at Portsmouth. At a women’s meeting during the congress, Bishop Ernest Wilberforce suddenly asked Mary Sumner to talk about her work at Alresford. It was unusual for a woman to speak publicly, but Mary overcame her nervousness, and her speech made a great impact.

The Mothers’ Union rapidly grew. Queen Victoria became the first royal patron. During her lifetime, Mary Sumner saw the Mothers’ Union grow into a world-wide organisation, working in 68 home dioceses and 138 dioceses overseas, with a membership of over 400,000.

Mary had a constant round of speaking engagements and letter writing. Her own strong faith underlay her commitment to the cause of women and family life. Although she was a product of her age in her attitudes to the nation, and her comfortable life as a bishop’s wife protected her from the harsh side of Victorian life, the Mothers’ Union could not have come into existence without her vision and drive. She finally gave up active involvement in 1916 at the age of 88.

It was in 1886, only one year after the Mothers’ Union had become organised on a diocesan basis in Winchester, England, that the Mothers’ Union in New Zealand began in the parish of Avonside, Christchurch. The vicar, Canon W. Pascoe, encouraged his wife to call a meeting of women to form a branch, the first formed outside England. By 1893 the Mothers’ Union was firmly established in New Zealand.

BORN: 31 December 1828, Swinton, United Kingdom

DIED: 9 August 1921, Winchester, United Kingdom