Yes, it was the Carmelite Convent—they spurned the nomenclature of 'Monastery' as a modern new-fangled thing (at least in their context), for these sisters had a serious history. They were founded in the Low Countries, at Hoogstraet, as a Carmel for English women during the penal days, and were driven back to Britain by the Napoleonic wars, which posed a worse threat to their contemplative life than the Protestant people of England. They managed to smuggle many treasures out with them—under their habits, the tradition goes. That must have been an extraordinary sight, for there was a remarkable Flemish tabernacle in ebony and silver, at least three feet high and two broad.
The sisters settled eventually in Chichester and built themselves a convent there, where they flourished like the green bay tree. They were, of course, delighted at the canonization of St Thérèse of Lisieux, but it brought a lot of trouble in its wake, for a number of Carmels were set up in Britain at this time, on the crest of the wave of enthusiasm, I suppose. The sisters told me that some French sister was responsible for about half of them. A Carmel is not really supposed to exceed twelve sisters (though it often did), or, exceptionally, twenty-four in a double Carmel, so as more young women wanted to join, they simply built more Carmels. That was great at the time, but it meant that once the enthusiasm had passed, it was harder to keep the number of communities going. Many merged; Chichester indeed, absorbed the former Carmel of Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire—in the process, two blood-sisters, the Prioresses of each community, met each other for the first time since their professions and were thereafter reunited.
In this way, Chichester kept its head above water, but in the early 1990s it began to feel stressed by the presence of many elderly sisters, and few vocations coming in. They looked at this and that possibility, but decided, in the event, to disperse and close.
They faced their future with typical courage and detachment. Their collection of precious things, smuggled out from the Low Countries, were sold at auction. Vestments were found homes here and there—some to St Richard's parish in Chichester, others to the Sacred Heart parish in Hove—the prodigious collection of relics together with the choir grille found their way to the Oxford Oratory where they can be seen to this day. The beautiful tabernacle mentioned above found its way to the Teresianum in Rome, I believe. The sisters themselves dispersed to the Carmels in Scotland, to Sclerder in Cornwall (near Looe) and two or three even to Terre Haute in Indiana, which Carmel also descended vaguely from Hoogstraet.
One special relic I must mention. At the time I am writing of—it must be 1994 or 5—I was the Diocesan Archivist (the most boring job I have ever held, but for this one event). I had to go to the Carmel with the assistant, now Fr Jonathan Martin, on my last visit, to authenticate some relics—which is to say, to supervise the opening of an old reliquary, transfer the contents into a new one, seal it up, and sign the certificates. The relics concerned were the wimples taken off by the Carmelite nuns of Compiégne as they mounted the scaffold for the guillotine during the French Revolution. Somehow they had ended up in the care of the Sisters of Hoogstraet/Chichester. These nuns were the ones that inspired Poulenc's famous opera Dialogue des Carmelites, and who famously processed one by one to the guillotine, having received the blessing of the Prioress, singing the Salve Regina. Finally the prioress ascended the scaffold and went to God when all her sisters had been seen safely home. It is one of those moments in one's life that one never forgets. The wimples, by the way, were being sent to the present-day Carmel at Compiégne as a very special gift.
To this day I still bitterly regret the closure of the Chichester Carmel. Those sisters had helped me take my first steps in prayer, and I miss them like a limb. I still honestly believe that the closure need never have happened had others taken an interest and helped. There could have been another solution. There were enough young and able sisters to keep it going, even if their older ones had to be found homes elsewhere, perhaps in places where they could be nursed. But even their dispersal and closure was, perhaps, a lesson to me in detachment. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
I haven't got any pictures of the Carmel, but the illustration above is the calligraphy they did for me on my ordination in 1989, a quotation from Blessed Robert Southwell. It stands opposite my bed, and I often think of the sisters and say a prayer for them. I don't know how many sisters are still alive now. Perhaps they all are. I hope so, and that they continue to help others find our Lord.
If you happen to be reading this, sisters, thank you and 'God reward you'.
After having written the above, I came across this web page. It made me very sad. All the old faces are there.