Twenty-First Century Habits


York’s Bar Convent is a Grade One listed building, and boasts a museum, café, and 18 guest rooms. It is the oldest living convent in England. But behind the public façade live 23 women leading a religious life. In the community sitting room five of them chat over a cup of tea, sporting knitwear and caring smiles that can’t help but suggest friendly wisdom. These are five nuns of the twenty-first century – and they’ve watched Sister Act.

Sisters Margaret, Agatha, Louise, Cecilia and Ann have all lived at the Bar Convent for over twenty years, but they’ve had – and want – to adapt to the demands of modern living. Until thirty years ago each was involved in education, teaching across England in five convent schools: London, Shaftsbury, Ascot, Cambridge and York.

As new entrants weren’t being ordained, the 1980’s saw the running of the schools handed over to the government and lay management. Without their educational responsibilities, the nuns were forced to retrain and re-evaluate their lives. Their individual talents and capabilities now determine their work. For some, retraining meant shattering the stereotypes of what a nun ‘does’.

Sister Louise was Headmistress of the Shaftsbury school. After its closure, she studied Theology at Heythrop College. She then worked at an alcohol and drug addiction treatment centre in Cambridge. “I just saw people, one by one, whether they wanted help for their addiction or whether they wanted ‘spiritual counsel’.” However incongruous it might seem for a nun to be working with recovering addicts, this is where Louise’s religious life led her.

The convent’s founder, Mary Ward, died in Heworth in 1645. Her founding members were young women, and due to the persecution of Catholics in England during 1609, Mary Ward had to go abroad to found the Congregation of Jesus. “I think her passion was not to be locked up,” says Sister Cecilia.

“She wanted people to be ordinary, to live among the ordinary people and do what was needed. Her drive was, in those days, to educate women and the poor. She founded the school, and that’s how we got into education.

“They also had Sisters living alone doing catechesis and helping priests. From the beginning there was a diversity of work.” A living testament to the fact, Sister Bodana is visiting the Bar Convent to learn English with a purpose. She’s part of the Slovakian Congregation of Jesus, working to help young women who have been victims of trafficking.

I­­t has taken greater self-discipline and strength to align religion with the pace of the twenty-first century

Faced with popular preconceptions about what nuns do, and should do, the Congregation’s ethos is to adapt with the needs of the time. The community sitting room banishes outdated assumptions itself, furnished not only with a historic painting of Mary Ward, but with a television and a hefty supply of books. There’s not a bare wall in sight, nor is it cold, and there’s certainly no shortage of lunchtime sandwich triangles.

‘Doing good’ has actually made it more complicated for the Sisters to establish their place in twenty-first century society. After speaking to the Census Office during this year’s survey, Sister Ann describes: “we just didn’t fit into any of the categories at all, and the woman at the office couldn’t believe what was going on here. People have just such weird ideas.”

Involved in the handover of the schools to lay management, Ann didn’t leave Shaftsbury until 1997 when she took a sabbatical year to her home country, Ireland. She then worked in London before returning to York, giving breakfasts to the homeless.

Geographically, the five Sisters’ lives have been nomadic. Yet they speak as if they have known each other since childhood. Their understanding of one another, and their open-minded nature, stems entirely from their religious belief.

The nuns undertake about eight years of ‘formation’, a process by which they begin to realise what life as a nun will be like. They take vows for two or three years until certain of their choice – and go into apostolic work. Ten years after their final vows, the Sisters take a year of spiritual renewal. “I think that was my turning point,” muses Sister Cecilia. “Having been plunged into apostolic work, I think it’s quite good just to stop and think, ‘Well, what am I here for?’”

From that period of reflection, Cecilia went on to work in a crisis centre for alcoholics and drug addicts, as well as a homeless centre in London.

The group are well aware of what others might think of their lives. “The ordinary person has a stereotyped idea of what a nun is,” explains Louise. “First of all, she spends most of her day in prayer, in chapel, cut off from the world – in what we would call a very monastic life.

“But when Mary Ward was led by God to something completely different, it took some time for us to be accepted. A missionary spirit took root on the continent, persecuted and underground. 1829 was the first time since 1686 when we could first be in the open.”

When the five Sisters entered the Congregation, they all wore the monastic widow’s dress of 1609. But the revaluation of Mary Ward’s words actually meant wearing ordinary clothes instead. It took a while to accept such revolutionary change; Sister Agatha didn’t change her style of widow’s dress until 1985. In Korea, the nuns of the Congregation wear a plain grey dress and veil because it’s suitable for their work. At home in Slovakia, Sister Bodana would ordinarily wear a habit.

Tradition has not been lost in England, though. Two symbols still set the Sisters apart: a silver wedding ring on the wedding finger – “it corrodes when you swim” – and a cross worn around the neck. The cross is from the nave of Ripon Cathedral where the Ward family coat of arms lies. It distinguishes the group, but it’s not compulsory; the Sisters choose to wear the symbols which identify their faith.

In the past, the early morning hours meant that the Sisters would meditate in the chapel before going to the same Eucharist. Now they have adapted their way of living to suit the demands of modernity in their own daily routine.

“We are free to meditate and do our spiritual reading when our own personal timetables can fit it.” The Sisters use their bedrooms to pray, and have the Eucharist four times a week. “If we are able, we are always present at it. But sometimes we can’t be because of the nature of our work.”

In many ways, it has taken greater self-discipline and strength to align religion with the pace of the twenty-first century. But they’ve been successful: at face value the five women are indeed ‘ordinary’. They enjoy a cup of tea, and are not detached from the ‘outside world’ in any way. In fact, there is no ‘outside world’ – the Sisters are fully part of it.

The convent doesn’t have Sky services, so Ann goes to a local pub to watch her nephew play professional rugby. “One evening all these men came in and I think they were a bit mesmerised by an elderly woman sitting on her own. First of all they said: ‘Where’s your husband?’ I said: ‘I don’t have a husband’. ‘Who are you then?’ ‘I’m a nun.’ They couldn’t believe it – the chap beside me wanted to have a religious conversation. I just replied: ‘Well actually, I’ve come to watch a rugby match!’”

Whoopi Goldberg’s portrayal of Sister Mary Clarence in the 1992 film Sister Act failed to impress the group. “We have to laugh about it,” says Margaret. “In a sense, our lives our pretty ordinary, so it wouldn’t make very good television.”

Sister Margaret leads the life most similar to the stereotypical preconception of a ‘nun’. After the schools closed, she trained for parish work. It’s far from just coffee and lunches; Margaret is also one of the chaplains for York’s hospital. One of a team of 30, she makes regular weekly visits to patients who are often in critical condition.

Margaret’s work demonstrates the most front facing aspect of a nun’s life. What the rest of the world doesn’t see is the strength of religious belief behind it, which reveals a life less than ‘ordinary’. The three vows that the nuns abide by are crucial to their lifestyle.

Poverty means that the nuns must be ordinary and live simply. All the money they earn is collected as common profit amongst the community at the convent. The vow of celibacy means that none of the nuns are married, or have been but are no longer. “It keeps God as first and foremost our greatest love.”

“Today I think the vows are seen as to be for giving us a freedom for greater life in God’s kingdom. They’re not negative, they enable us to live as generous a life as possible in the ways that we’re asked to.”

Yet Cecilia describes obedience as the most difficult vow to keep. “We have a big variety of activities. We might be doing very valuable work that we love, but we might be asked to leave it and go somewhere else. We’re not free to run our own lives.”

The nuns lead hectic lives that would rival high-powered businesswomen. Sister Agatha relates to the difficulties of being too busy in marriage and losing the romantic spark. “You can be in danger of losing it if you don’t really do your bit to bring yourselves in union. Because you feel you’ve been so absorbed in everything – you’ve got to do something about keeping these things alive.

“You can be so busy and have so many demands on you that the centre of our lives must be between ourselves and God. If that isn’t the centre it’s very difficult to be happy in this way of life.”

Agatha is in charge of the elderly Sisters residing at the convent. Her experience of the Bar Convent is different: she was one of the architect’s behind its transformation in the 1980’s.

Despite the Bar Convent being a Grade One listed building, the Sisters genuinely did not want “the part that costs the earth.” They used their million pounds from the listing to construct the museum, shop, and café. The opportunities it has brought are endless.

The Congregation run their own centre which holds conferences for voluntary groups and charities. Cecilia is the Director, overseeing its workings. Education is still second nature to the Sisters. They run two-year courses for those who want to go on to accompany others spiritually. “That pays, as it were, our roof and our bread and butter.”

There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for any of the Sisters’ work – nor do they have any desire to stop. “Nuns never retire. It’s just like the Queen.”

The worldwide Congregation of Jesus community has spread to approximately 2,500 strong. When Agatha led world prayer during the Chilean mining crisis, she “only had to look through what our 55 Sisters working in Chile do, and say this is what is going on there, through our Sisters.”

“Our prayer life is the absolute heart of it, and you really have to take personal responsibility for preserving it,” explains Louise. “There is variety in our life, but we all follow the same the constitution which dates right back to Saint Ignatius. We do not say the Divine Office except privately if we wish to – people can get a bit shocked by that.

“They ask, ‘when are you praying?’ They’ve got this idea that the chapel bell rings and you go – but not here in England. We’re very privileged.”

Adapting to the needs of the time has revolutionised the Sisters’ work and daily routine, but the strength of their faith remains untouched. “Our way of life doesn’t make any sense without the spiritual; it’d drive us all mad. But if the reason for our life is God, then anything is possible.”

Images – sp!ros, Henrik Berger Jørgensen