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Female pioneer: Mary Ward and some of the first seven Companions set sail for Flanders in 1609 (taken from the "Painted Life of Mary Ward")

The announcement that a Catholic convent is to close raises few eyebrows these days. In the West, such an event is not a rarity. Yet the closure of the convent of Our Lady of Syon in South Brent, Devon, is particularly poignant.

Home to a community of Bridgettine nuns, the convent holds a unique claim in English history: it is the only English community of religious to have remained in continuous existence from before the Reformation. All other Catholic religious communities, both male and female, had to be started afresh after the English Church's break with Rome.

Founded in 1415 by Henry V, Syon Abbey was initially based at Twickenham but soon moved to huge premises, rivalling Westminster Abbey, at Isleworth. There it stood until Henry VIII's order of dispersal. The community secretly lived on in private houses, re-forming under Mary I, before going into exile upon Elizabeth I's accession to the throne. After a spell in Rouen, the community's itinerant life on the continent ended when it eventually settled at Lisbon. In 1861, the community returned to these shores, settling at its current location. With the number of sisters dwindling to three and poor health affecting them, the decision has been taken to dissolve the nearly 600-year-old religious community.

That this has warranted little attention, even within Britain's Catholic community, is not that surprising. Whereas people have a passing knowledge of the activities of Catholic male religious following the Reformation — such as the Jesuit Edmund Campion, dubbed the flower of England by Elizabeth I before his conversion to Catholicism and subsequent execution — little attention has been paid to the activities of Catholic women religious at this time. Men could head to the likes of the English College in Rome, the oldest English institution abroad, but what about women who wished to lead a religious life denied to them in England? What if families desired that, as well as their sons, their daughters too should be educated within the Catholic faith? 

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