Country matters: The merry nuns of Gloucestershire

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The Independent Culture
YOU MIGHT imagine that Christmas in a nunnery would be a low-key affair. But I am prepared to bet that yesterday's celebrations in the Convent of Poor Clares at Woodchester, near Stroud, were as merry as any in the land. Of course, I did not take part, for the convent is a closed order, and outsiders are not admitted to its inner sanctum; but a briefing from the Mother Abbess, Sister Mary Anthony, earlier in the week, left me in no doubt about her community's high spirits.

Our talk took place in the guest parlour, and for an hour the small, plain room rang with peals of laughter as she and Sister Mary Therese, in their black veils and dark-brown habits, described their life. Most of their time is spent in silence, because this is their way of "being with God". There is normally no conversation at meals, during which one of the company reads - from the scriptures, from the martyrology, from a book of travel or education.

So what were they planning for Christmas? The festival began with an early midnight Mass, starting at 8pm on Christmas Eve, to which parishioners were invited. According to the Mother Abbess, these outsiders always pack into the extern chapel, which is registered for public worship, separate from the nuns' chapel, and "sing their hearts out".

On ordinary mornings the nuns get up at 5am and prostrate themselves on the wooden floors of their cells, renewing the dedication of their lives to God. But on Christmas Day they had a lie-in until 7am. Then came the Office of Readings and morning prayer, another Mass at 8.30am, then midday prayer, then Christmas lunch. And what did they eat? "Turkey and Christmas pudding, of course!" And wine? "Oh yes!" The turkey had been given by "good people", relations of a sister long deceased, and the wine by another benefactor. Not that any of the nuns over-indulged: having no suitable glasses, they drank from tiny china cups, which they believe are of Flemish origin.

In the afternoon they said the Rosary together, at 4.15pm had Vespers, and in the evening held a party in a big room upstairs, decorated with pretty papers and candles. Two sisters in fancy dress brought in the accumulated presents, some delivered by well-wishers, others brought practical gifts like wool or writing paper bought by the nuns themselves.

They also - treat of treats - had television. Although the convent sports an aerial, the nuns have no television set, but at Christmas and Easter they borrow one and watch carefully chosen programmes, together with any videos (also given) that are deemed suitable.

Their order, named after Saint Clare of Assisi, was founded on the Continent in 1621, when the Catholic religion was still banned in England, and the epithet "poor" reflects their determination to follow the frugal existence led by their mentor, Saint Francis. The convent at Woodchester was built in the 1860s; at its zenith, after the Second World War, it housed 30 nuns, but now the community is down to 12, and the average age is high. The Mother Abbess has been there for 52 years, and her ace reader, Sister Frances Agnes, is 89.

The building - in Gothic style, and finely built of Cotswold stone - is a formidable size, stretching for more than 100 yards along the side of a steep valley. Eight acres of land go with it; when the community was larger and younger, the sisters kept cows, which gave them their own milk and butter. Until a fox killed the lot, they had chickens, and, until last summer, bees: Sister Frances Agnes, the resident apiarist, was dismayed when she found that her colony had flown away. She is still a dab hand at growing artichokes, and most of the sisters lend a hand in the vegetable garden and orchard.

Their main work, and principal source of income, is the production of altar breads, which they sell not only in the diocese but as far afield as the Channel Islands and Germany. The ingredients - flour and water - could not be simpler, but to achieve the right texture demands skill and experience.

The dough comes out of the bakery in sheets, which have to be damped before they can be cut by machine. The pieces are then sorted, counted and packed in purpose-made boxes, before being wrapped, addressed and stamped, all by hand. Many of the orders are large - Swindon's is for 8,000 a month, and double that at Christmas and Easter - and the sisters' annual output is about five million pieces, which earns them pounds 25,000 a year.

As the Mother Abbess merrily admits, "We don't pay any wages." So that income goes a good distance. But the nuns are not allowed to hold any capital, and for major repairs to the building, or large improvements such as a new boiler to heat the chapel, they survive on gifts or legacies. "We depend on divine providence," she says. "It sounds extraordinary, but when we really need something, the Lord does provide." Every six weeks she and the cook go off in a borrowed van to the cash-and-carry in Stroud, to stock up with essential food (they eat meat twice a week, and fish once). But otherwise the nuns rarely venture into the outside world, except to visit the sick.

This does not mean they are out of touch with world events. "That dreadful bombing of Iraq!" exclaimed the Mother Abbess with a shudder. "Saddam's so awful to his own family and his people. I'm praying for his conversion."

Even a short time spent in her company was extraordinarily cheering. I had expected to find faith and dedication, but not such high spirits, not half such a sense of fun.

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