Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Chichester Carmel: In memoriam

Staying at Minster Abbey has stirred memories in me which I have buried, somewhat, as one does secret griefs. When I was a seminarian, I spent some weeks in the parish of St Richard in Chichester; this was to prove a significant time for me, for, amongst many other good things, I became acquainted with the Carmelite Convent that lay in the fields just outside the Chichester ring-road.
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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Father, for mentioning the 'Dialogues des Carmelites'. I was given a copy of this play by Bernanos by a French friend for my 21st birthday many years ago and it is a long time since I re-read it - I shall make it a priority read this week. When I first rceived it I had no idea it was based on real events.

How amazing that the nuns' wimples found their way over here. It must have been a moving moment for you to see them. I am surprised you describe your work as an archivist as 'boring' however. I have a good friend who is an archivist with a religious congregation in Paris and whenever I am in her offfice surrounded by evidence of the great history of the missionary order, I realise that I would have loved to have been an archivist!

Anonymous said...

Having just followed your link, it was lovely to see that the nuns still wore the same habit as Ste Therese.

Pastor in Monte said...

As for the Archives, Pelerin, it would indeed be fascinating to be the archivist of a really ancient diocese, but Arundel and Brighton was founded in 1965. There are some old parishes, but the majority of the work is just filing uninteresting papers. Yawn.

Anonymous said...

Your post has lead me to looking up various sites on this subject. One site leads to another and I was particularly interested to find details of the Carmelites who died in the Revolution on the web-site of a church in the 12th arr. of Paris. I had not realised that the nuns had been beatified in 1906 and in 2006 parishioners went on pilgrimage to Compiegne - the reverse direction to the nuns.

It appears that after being guillotined in what is now the Place de la Nation in Paris, the nuns were stripped of their habits and thrown naked into two pits in what is now the Picpus cemetery. The wimples you saw were obviously saved and preserved by devout onlookers.

On one website the nuns are named - their ages ranged from late twenties to late seventies if I remember rightly. However the character of Blanche from Bernanos' play was invented.

When the 14th July is celebrated each year in France, the persecution of the Church during the Revolution tends to be forgotten in the festivities.

Anonymous said...

Quite understand, Father. Did not mean to be critical! Was it really as long ago as 1965?! I attended the ceremonies in Arundel cathedral the day the new Bishop was inaugurated (?) - I remember queuing for some time to get in that day. Within a very short time I had gone from being received into the Church in the diocese of Southwark to being in the new diocese of A and B.

Pastor in Monte said...

Don't worry; I never thought you were being critical, Pelerin. Your observation was perfectly fair, and I undertook the job in the first place thinking that it was going to be a great deal more interesting than it turned out to be. Such is life!

Pastor in Monte said...

And I should have mentioned that the wimples were being sent to the present-day Carmel at Compiégne as a gift; I've added this to the text of the post now.

Anonymous said...

I was very pleased to learn that the wimples were returned to the Carmel at Compiegne where they are obviously treasured today. Nice to know they were well looked after in England in the meantime and fascinating to learn that you had a part in their return.

Rubricarius said...

How very sad and moving. The photographs of the nuns on the link show such honest, warm and devoted people.

A paragraph from the end of 'Brideshead' struck me as pertinent: 'Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame - a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.'

Perhaps other stones, that the good Carmelites laid will, in God's plan, be used to rebuild something else?

Adrienne said...

That is such a sad story. I don't even know the sisters as you do, and it makes me feel so bad that they had to sell their convent.

Jane said...


I've read the play and heard recordings of the opera and don't think I could bear actually going to an opera house performance. It was bad enough hearing those voices suddenly stopped, one by one.

Re your remark 'I still believe that the closure need never have happend had others ....etc'

Cf. Stanbrook. Ditto. I read some time ago that the library was to be included in the sale. Have they and the EBC taken leave of their senses.!!!

I've a google alert on Stanbrook but nothing recently. Does anyone know if Stanbrook has been sold?

Grieved for the community when St Scholastica's in Teignmouth closed but relieved to discover that some of the beautiful vestments they made, found their way to St Michael's Abbey Farnborough.

I'll post a link later (if I can find it) of Abbot Cuthbert wearing some of them.

Thanks for your blog. (I thought you were never coming back!)

Assurance of prayers,


Jane said...

PS. I was archivist at the Tablet for two years. The collection goes back to the very early days. Now THAT was interesting! How are the mighty fallen!!!!!!


Jane said...

Re: St. Scholastica's/now St Michael's vestments, go to:

Joee Blogs - A Catholic Londoner


The Cardinal said...

The latest news was that Stanbrook had still not managed to find a buyer. And yet they are pressing ahead with their new monastery in Yorkshire, which must surely mean they have a hefty bridging loan. I hope they do not run into trouble over this, since banks are not generous with their interest rates these days.

The original problem for Stanbrook was that the buildings are listed. The draconian English Heritage would not allow them to make necessary internal alterations in order to make life tolerable for the older members of the community (e.g. installing a lift). So they decided to move. Now the same listing is still an albatross around their necks: the chapel must not be touched by the new purchaser. This apparently was the reason why a hotel chain backed out. (I suspect leaving the library intact refers to the fittings, not to the books themselves.) Then there was a church music trust. They were unable to raise the purchase price (rumoured to be £6 million, which actually is not a lot when you consider how much land is attached to the monastery).

And so the community is in a sort of limbo, it seems.

I too grieved for the community at Teignmouth, and for the Chichester Carmel which was notable for its holy and joyful community, and for the Augustinian Canonesses at Sayers Common, recently decamped from their amazing priory to a bungalow outside Lewes.

In fact many of these communities contain wonderful people, and it is a great sadness when they close, or move, or are dispersed. Truly we are a Church of pilgrim people.

PJA said...

I moved to this part of the world at about the same time the convent was closing. The closure of any religious house is distressing, but to see, day after day, this building standing alone and empty was very upsetting.

I became friendly with a former sister whose name in religion, I do not remember; in the outside world, she was called Olive Ryan. She liked to joke that she talked too much for community life.