Frances Dickinson (1755-1830) was born in London, her father, George Dickinson; her mother’s family name Halford. She had brothers, at least one sister and was educated by the Ursulines in Paris. It is likely she came from a well-off family since in 1772 when she joined the Carmelites in Antwerp, her father George gave 100 pounds sterling for her dowry. She was clothed in the Carmelite habit in 1772 at age 17 and professed as Clare Joseph of the Sacred Heart on June 3, 1773. At thirty-five she left as a missionary for Maryland, never again to see family or friends.
Her legacy includes a diary of the three-month ocean voyage from the Netherlands made by the four founding Carmelites and two ex-Jesuits in 1790. Impressive for its honesty, sense of humor and lack of drama in the face of extreme conditions, the diary does not hide the disdain which she and her cultured companions felt for the captain’s mean, revolting behavior. It reveals an overwhelming sense of God’s intervention in ordinary events and deep desires for frequent communion familiar to Teresian and Ignatian spirituality but frowned upon by Jansenists and the more rigorous French spirituality.
Clare Joseph Dickinson held important leadership roles in her lifetime. She was sub-prioress when she left Antwerp. In Maryland she was sub-prioress and mistress of novices, and in 1800 became prioress of Port Tobacco until her death in 1830. This leadership role for her was apparently agreed upon when she was selected by Father Charles Neale for the new foundation, a situation Bishop John Carroll had considerable difficulty with when Bernardina Matthews died. Clare Joseph was said to have governed with ‘extraordinary prudence, wisdom and maternal affection’ and became known as a second founder of the Port Tobacco monastery. Life was poor and simple for the daughters of the Maryland gentry who joined the founders at the end of the eighteenth century and beyond and there were real financial difficulties in maintaining an expanding community. Still Clare Joseph initiated numerous building works including the construction of the new chapel.
During the three decades she was prioress, the first Carmel in the U.S. was a growing community. By 1818, there were twenty-three in the community, and by the time of Dickinson’s death in 1830, twenty-nine Carmelites had been professed, ten of these during Bernardina’s lifetime.
Like her predecessor, Bernardina Matthews, Clare Joseph transmitted to the first American Carmelites the positive value of freedom of conscience, reinforcing it in her last illness. Oral tradition indicates she helped to compile the Pious Guide To Prayer and Devotion, published in 1792 by the Georgetown Jesuits and designed in part to refute the Jansenist criticism of the Sacred Heart devotion. While this and other of her writings place her spirituality within the moderate humanistic school of the Lowland Jesuits, she also left numerous spiritual writings indicative of a tendency toward a more rigoristic tradition found in French continental spirituality which resulted in a certain stifling of the passionate language of sixteenth century Spanish mysticism found in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. This is something she shared with Charles Neale, her chief collaborator in the guidance of the community. He lived at Port Tobacco until his death. Not even his Jesuit superiors could persuade him to leave Mount Carmel to fill the leadership roles assigned to him when the Society of Jesus was re-established and he made his first vows as a Jesuit on August 18, 1805. Neither could these superiors persuade the nuns to let him go. It remains difficult even today to analyze Neale’s lifelong ministry to the nuns or the motivation that prompted it but one cannot overestimate the influence of his partnership with Clare Joseph on the development of Carmelite life and spirituality in Port Tobacco.
When all the facets of the life of this British missionary woman are brought together, a legacy critical for contemporary spirituality is evident. Within the genuine Clare Joseph’s relationships with the first US bishops, John Carroll, Leonard Neale, Simon Brute, Benedict Flaget, Ambrose Marechal, and all the early Jesuits, including Benedict Fenwick, underline the value she placed on friendship in contemplative prayer ministry. This is a notable part of her legacy.
For a more extended treatment of Clare Joseph Dickinson, see the Introduction to The Carmelite Adventure, Clare Joseph’s Journal of A Trip to America.