Backing the Habit: Life as a Nun Today

English convent life has slipped out of sight. But women in holy orders still have a crucial role in an increasingly secular society

Features The Catholic Church
More than prayer: Even the closed Carmelite sisters of Quidenham, shown here harvesting their own vegetables, live surprisingly dynamic lives

In Obedience, a new novel by Jacqueline Yallop about the closing of a French convent, the remaining nuns lament their imminent separation as they eat dinner together. Little by little, details such as the “baggy peel” of an old orange, the deafness of one sister and the incontinence of another accumulate to depict with aching candour their bleak little trinity and the demise of convent life. 

But how close is fiction to the truth? Catholic nuns in Western Europe certainly seem to be in decline. In England and Wales, the Conference of Religious counts around 6,000 members across 185 women’s religious orders, but many communities are made up of just a handful of nuns. A recent study conducted by Compass found that 37 women entered holy orders in 1999. In 2009 this had fallen to just 21. By comparison, 15 men entered in 1999, rising to 26 in 2009. Of the trickle of new postulants choosing the religious life, many are not British-born but from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Nuns have played a significant but often underappreciated role in British culture and history, from preserving national artifacts to pioneering women’s education. But while Catholicism is growing, convents, it appears, are not.

Almost all convents now face real financial strain. To make ends meet, they are selling off assets, awakening their entrepreneurial spirits by creating their own order-branded produce, and opening their doors to paying guests. Indeed, the fashion for religious retreats, where stressed-out secularists can hole themselves up without BlackBerrys for distraction has even spawned an annual handbook listing over 200 programmes across the UK. Most convents now have their own websites, many with sisters’ blogs, prayer podcasts and detailed question-and-answer pages on life in their communities. Yet we still know very little about nuns, despite their vigorous attempts at self-promotion.

Sister Teresa Keswick is a member of the closed Carmelite community in Quidenham, Norfolk. A former criminal barrister, she has been a nun for 27 years. She was educated at a French boarding school where a discernible reverence for nuns was instilled in the pupils: “Despite being a cradle Catholic I was very ignorant about nuns. We were once taken on a school trip to visit a Dominican order in Paris. I had absolutely no interest in joining them, but I knew they were there. Children are not educated at school about nuns. Even many Catholics these days just don’t know we exist.”

When I visit Sister Teresa, the locally-born taxi driver has only a rough idea of where the convent is situated, although it occupies a historic Tudor house and is officially signposted. There is a guesthouse and a public chapel (the sisters themselves use a private chapel within their enclosure). To help finance life at Quidenham, the nuns sell handmade cards, and one sister also sells her own paintings. Sister Teresa undertakes needlepoint commissions. They venture into nearby Norwich only for medical appointments “or to buy decent shoes”, and the sisters have very little interaction with the lay community. In a diocese with a tiny Catholic community and a poor record of church attendance, the convent has all but sunk into the silent Norfolk countryside.

In the internet age, you might presume it would be easy for both cloistered and non-cloistered nuns alike to connect with the wider world, and many have made a fair attempt at it. One Benedictine house in Oxford has started offering online “retreats” as a way of providing spiritual succour while raising revenue for structural repairs which would allow it to provide accommodation for visitors. But while the internet may theoretically aid access to information on convents, individuals can’t search for what they don’t know is there. Advertising retreats can also inadvertently attract vulnerable people who would fare better at a mental health clinic with counselling care, rather than in an isolated and silent setting.

Educating people about their work is easier for the more visible apostolic orders. One such is the Franciscan Missionary Sisters  based in Littlehampton, West Sussex, which has just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Established originally to teach and care for orphaned children, the order provides teaching, social work and care of the elderly at five houses across the country. At the house generalate, 20 sisters live in a purpose-built 1960s block on the site of the original, rather more elegant convent, which was damaged during World War II. Behind its mundane exterior, the house bustles with convent-lay collaborations: a nearby school uses its kitchen for a regular cooking competition, Sister Anastasia runs a scripture group which is well attended by Catholics and non-Catholics of all ages, and each month sees some innovative fundraising enterprise. 

While many of the nuns are in their seventies and eighties, their zest for life and mischievous sense of humour is palpable — and contagious. Over lunch, they regale me with the story of the float they decorated and rode on for the annual local carnival. “We were right behind the belly-dancers. Sister Clare wasn’t flashing her tummy but you should have seen her wriggling around.”

“And it was terrible Sister, wasn’t it?” intones 70-year-old Sister Eugene in mock condemnation, before winking at me. 

Of course, enthusiasm alone cannot keep them going, and the convent relies on donations, legacies, fundraising and “good shopkeeping”, as Sister Anastasia puts it, to sustain itself. Business rather than charity must frequently take precedence in decisions about the convent’s running. This has involved selling off an unsustainable operation at Copthorne, and closing one of the order’s nursing homes, making more than 30 lay staff redundant. What money was left then went into establishing a new house and school in Mysore, India. “The guilt was tremendous, all those people jobless,” laments Sister Anastasia. “But being business-minded is crucial to our survival.”

Even at Littlehampton there has only been one new postulant in the past year, Nigerian Sister Attracta. There are many factors for the lack of new British entrants, among them the changing role of women, and the fact that traditional care work, such as nursing and teaching, is no longer the preserve of nuns. “I had an aunt who wanted to be a nurse,” says Sister Teresa. “She certainly didn’t want to be a nun. But she became one in order to fulfil her nursing vocation. While during the 14th or 15th centuries, it may be true to say that convents were full of unhappy women, tucked away because they were plain or had no dowry, I don’t think women of my aunt’s era were any less committed. Instead, they were touched by convent life. But Carmel has always been a rare existence; to fill England with Carmelite nuns wouldn’t be appropriate. It is the quality of spiritual communities rather than the quantity that we should focus on.”

There are exceptions to the diminishing rule. The order of the Congregation of Jesus is transferring its previously dormant novitiate to the Bar Convent in York as it prepares to receive three new sisters. Sister Gemma Symonds, the order’s press officer, and director of the Religious Life institute at Heythrop College, University of London, believes this suggests that vocations are “very slightly on the rise again”. Indeed, the National Office for Vocation predicts that the number of postulants may even reach a ten-year high this autumn.

I ask the sisters if the debate about female priests has created discontent among Catholic women who might have once been attracted to the religious life. This, they think, is more a secularist, feminist projection than any real observation of internal church politics. 

“One of the other sisters at Littlehampton told me she would like to have been a priest,” says Sister Anastasia. “But I don’t feel called to it. Priesthood is a service not a status. I don’t want to be on a pedestal — leave me where I am. Besides, I’ve had plenty of influence without necessarily having to have put my neck on the block for it.”  Sister Teresa is similarly unconvinced: “I’ve never wanted to be a priest. I’ve never wanted to be a tightrope walker either.”

While convent life has clearly always demanded a deep spiritual commitment, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seem ever more at odds with the prevailing secular individualism of 21st-century Western society. “Money and career are now the great attractions for most young people because of the rise of individualism,” agrees Sister Anastasia. “But if people only knew the happiness they could have from my way of life, they’d come flocking.” Indeed, listening to her recount the work she has done with such unremitting joy, from transforming violent and shattered estates to providing holidays for deprived children, it is impossible not to feel anything but respect for her, and gratitude for what she and the Franciscan sisters have achieved.

As coalition cuts reshape the UK’s welfare provision, the importance of nuns becomes evident: they can help to absorb the community work that charities previously funded by the government can no longer afford to carry out, and have decades of experience in doing so. Yet so far no mention seems to have been made of how they might fit in to the Big Society. “If I had 100 sisters here I’d have work for them to do every day,” Sister Anastasia tells me. “I think that there are people in government who are very Christian-minded but so far I’ve seen no sign of them reaching out to us. David Cameron is a good man, but he says one thing and does another.”

Sister Gemma is even more forthright: “David Cameron is not reaching out to nuns in the slightest. It is deplorable to ignore them when you think of the grassroots work they do, their wealth of pastoral experience and the significant contribution they make. They are one of the great untapped resources, both in terms of David Cameron’s government, and the Church itself.”

Even if Cameron did recognise the value of religious orders, he would still need to contend with the matter of secular opposition to religious service providers, whatever their experience. In recent years, that has manifested itself in the issue of Catholic adoption agencies who were unwilling to place children with gay couples, and was highlighted only last month by the furore over the possibility of pro-life counselling for women seeking abortions. In the case of Catholic adoption agencies losing government support, Sister Gemma says: “It is absolutely frightening what has happened there. We had a consistently high success rate with finding homes for difficult-to-place children, yet because of the gay adoption issue, all our good work, all that wealth of experience, has been disregarded. It was a tragedy that we couldn’t negotiate with the government.”

I ask Sister Gemma how she thinks nuns and secular health providers could collaborate when it comes to abortion. 

“The Pope has written very clearly about how you give care and support to people who have had abortions. No Catholic religious group would want to be inveigled into a position that supported or promoted abortion. But we have been supporting vulnerable women for decades, in an aftercare and counselling capacity, not by discussing what they choose to do, but by helping them afterwards to come to terms with their decision.”

Nuns have a history of being remarkably tenacious, never needing outside approval to do what they believe is God’s will. “We don’t care about what the media thinks of us,” says Sister Anastasia. “Unless of course that is feeding back into government policy.”

“I would have loved marriage in a way, but I didn’t meet Mr Right,” declares Sister Teresa. “I was so disatissfied with life before. And being a contemplative is no cop-out. You become more yourself, not less.” 

“I’ve had a ball as a religious and don’t have a single regret,” confirms Sister Gemma, “And it remains a viable option for women. There is so much opportunity here.” 

I ask the sisters if they are optimistic about the future of convent life, despite the statistics. The impetus is not on making convent life more accessible, but in keeping it distinctive. “People enter religious orders because they are looking for a different way of living. And we no longer have a really unusual lifestyle. I passionately believe there’s a future for religious life but it will not look as it does now,” says Sister Gemma. 

Sister Anastasia is quietly confident. “I have worked with young people all my life, and I know that there are more and more of them looking for God. I believe the religious life will flourish because of that. God is still calling. It is just getting harder to hear Him.”  

The first duty of a nun will always be to her faith; but in a climate wary of religiosity, focusing on the social care nuns provide may bring them back into secular view. For centuries, the cultural contribution and the unique role nuns have played in women’s intellectual lives have been overlooked; when it comes to welfare, we surely cannot afford to do the same. Nuns are a force for good; you don’t need to believe in God to believe in that.