Sermon preached at Evensong on the Feast of Simon and Jude (28 October 2018) by the Revd James Milne, Sacrist
In the final sermon of our October preaching series 'For Whom the Bells Toll' the Sacrist reflects on the life of Maria Mary Fussell.
This series remembers the great and the good in the Crypt of St Paul’s in a series of addresses on the lives and achievements of men and women whose memorials are found there.
St Simon and St Jude, whose life and witness we celebrate today, were disciples of Jesus, and yet we know very little about them. The Gospels name Simon as a Zealot, suggesting that he belonged to a movement resisting the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. Tradition has it that he proclaimed the Gospel in Egypt and was martyred in what is now Iran, alongside Jude, who is described in our second reading as “the brother of James”, possibly James the son of Alpheus, whose life we celebrate, together with that of St Philip, on 1May.
St Jude has suffered in ages past for sharing a name with Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus. So toxic was this association that past Christians were loath to invoke his name in their prayers, choosing to do so only when all seemed lost and there was no one else to turn to. It is for this reason that Jude became known as the patron saint for desperate situations and lost causes.
It is curiously appropriate that we should also choose to remember today the Victorian philanthropist, Maria Mary Fussell as part of our autumn sermon series reflecting on those memorialised in our crypt, for Maria was woman whom the Bishop of London described (in an address given at the unveiling of her memorial) as unknown beyond her own immediate circle of friends, and whose life was, in many respects desperate and tragic.
Maria was born in 1834 into a wealthy manufacturing family. She grew up in Nunney Court, near Frome in Somerset close to a series of ironworks owned by her father John. He died in 1853 leaving Maria a legacy of £40,000, equivalent to some five million pounds today.
On coming of age, Maria travelled to Europe accompanied by two of her closest friends, but strenuously sought to conceal her true wealth. Alas, her confidence was betrayed by one of her servants, and a fellow traveller, Pierre Phillipe de Gendre, a bodyguard to the King of Naples, sought to befriend her. They were married in 1858 but from the very start their marriage was unhappy. Pierre was unfaithful and abusive and quickly squandered the £10,000 given to him by her trustees. When this money was gone he demanded that he be given a share of monies she had subsequently received following the deaths of her mother and sister.
Such was the abuse that Pierre inflicted upon Maria that she developed a tumour in her breast necessitating invasive surgery. Unable to endure him any longer she left the marital home to live with friends, only to be abducted by him and forcibly returned.
Maria escaped him for a second time, returned to her friends, and in 1871 began divorce proceedings, during which every salacious detail of her disastrous marriage was reported in the press. A divorce was granted and Pierre’s adultery and abuse was exposed. But the damage he had inflicted on her was to prove fatal. Ten years later she died from breast cancer and was buried, following a very simple funeral, near to her family home.
Maria left an estate valued at some fifteen million pounds today, the bulk of which she bequeathed to the London Diocesan Home Mission, which had been founded in 1857 by Archibald Tait, Bishop of London, to build new churches for his rapidly expanding diocese. In the years following her death, Maria’s extraordinary legacy, the largest of its kind, funded thirty-three new parishes.
Though Maria endured unimaginable suffering and degradation, she, like the saints of old, whose lives we celebrate today, looked beyond her own needs to those of her compatriots, establishing a foundation by which future generations might hear the good news of Jesus Christ and receive the care and nurture of a loving Church.
I had never heard of Maria Mary Fussell until coming to St Paul’s and finding for myself the memorial erected to her by her great friend Sophia Crosland in 1904. It was a great surprise to discover not merely the facts of her life but to learn from my Mother that Maria was my second cousin, four times removed.
Figures from our past are constantly breaking into our present in remarkable and unexpected ways. Indeed, we celebrate the lives of the saints and memorialise our ancestors, however unknown or obscure they may be, because their achievements in the face of great adversity can save us from the tyranny of present trials and tribulations, inspiring us to do extraordinary things for our friends and our neighbours.
As we celebrate the life and witness of St Simon and St Jude and give thanks for the extraordinary generosity of Maria Mary Fussell and people like
her, may we have the courage, the strength and the imagination to do in our age what they did in theirs. Amen.
Great thanks is given to Vivien Kermath, Cathedral Guide, whose research and article in the Dome Magazine (Autumn/Winter 2015) proved invaluable in writing this sermon.