Evensong for the sisterhood

Britain's nuns are a dying breed. The religious orders are attracting few new recruits, writes Mary Braid, but the spirit of the sisters remains strong
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In front of the altar of a tiny convent chapel, on the edge of a Liverpool council estate, eight elderly Redemptoristine nuns, in black veils and red robes, kneel in prayer. It is a ritual they have performed together several times a day for - in most cases - more than half a century.

These eight women, and another sister currently convalescing after surgery, are all that remains of the British arm of the Redemptoristines, a contemplative, enclosed Catholic order founded in Naples 260 years ago.

Since 1960 their number has fallen by two-thirds. Despite resorting to advertising (in the Catholic Herald), it has been 30 years since the Redemptoristines attracted a novice. Sister Bernadette, the prioress, is 67 and the youngest of the sisters; the oldest is 89. They are dying off and with them is disappearing a way of life.

The Redemptoristines are not alone. The Conference of the Religious, an umbrella group for male and female orders, this month revealed that the numbers in religious life had fallen by a third in less than a decade and that communities had aged dramatically. It is a trend that has affected both the enclosed and the more outward-looking, community-based apostolic orders.

Since 1985 more than 2,500 sisters have been lost from Britain's 200 orders. Of the 8,000 nuns remaining, almost half are more than 70 years old and 70 per cent are more than 60. New blood is in short supply: only 10 per cent are aged between 30 and 50. Sister Gabriel Robin, Conference secretary, says that while other orders have not yet reached the Redemptoristines' tiny roll, a significant number have fallen below a critical mass of 30. "They are preparing for death, and death with dignity," she says.

In the Redemptoristine nuns' small but spotless parlour, Sister Bernadette, a hearty Mancunian and former draughtswoman, seems resigned. "We accept that we could be the last Redemptoristines," she smiles over mugs of coffee served from a souvenir tray from Lourdes. But, she says, the sisters are considering advertising again. They still get the odd inquiry but the candidates are not ideal. The last was a widow with a 14-year-old child. She was asked to come back when her son was no longer dependent. Sister Bernadette says the sisters take heart in the growth of the order in the developing world. There, at least, it is not dying.

Occasionally, the parlour door opens and the dense silence that fills the convent's corridors and laps around its occupants floods in and the wall clock seems to deafen. Over the years restrictions on talking have eased but idle chit-chat is still confined to short recreation periods. Whatever the worries about the future, the Redemptoristines still feel their vocation keenly and continue to live a simple, spiritual life. But the gradual whittling of their numbers has already meant dramatic changes - including the move to Liverpool from Devon in 1990, which must been a strain, particularly for the oldest and least worldly among them.

Their new home, a modern brick convent on the fringes of the inner-city Croxteth council estate, was vacated by an apostolic female order also struggling with falling numbers. It is a far cry from their old home; a grand turn-of-the-century convent near Newton Abbot. It was not just that they were rattling around in a home that had become too large: their reduced strength and ageing profile had destroyed their financial independence. Sister Bernadette describes how, one by one, the printing business, communion bread-baking and making of priests' vestments were abandoned. There is no self-pity, just acceptance. Now all of the sisters subsist on their state pensions.

It takes a little persuasion, but Sister Mary Clement, 72, handsome, humorous and wiry, finally agrees to be interviewed. Like her sisters, she is media-shy. A twin and the youngest of six children, she was raised an Anglican but converted - against her family's wishes - to Roman Catholicism in 1945. Within a year she joined the Redemptoristines. "I met a friend of a friend who was a Poor Claire [another contemplative Catholic order] and I knew immediately I wanted a similar life," she says simply.

So why at the age of 22 did she leave her teaching career for an isolated life of prayer? Even at that time it was an unconventional route. She struggles to explain: she had always been very religious; as a child she could not wait for Sundays. "What did I like about church?" she says. "Everything. I loved the feeling it gave me. At first I wanted to be a missionary but I felt if I gave my life to prayer I could cover the whole world."

For Sister Bernadette, "a cradle Catholic", marriage was also never a goal, despite a few proposals. There was a wealth of career opportunities for a clever, working-class, grammar school girl whose teachers wanted her to go to university. She had been religious but "drifted", she says, in her late teens and early twenties. A visit to Lourdes precipitated her return. Somehow the religious life, and the absolute commitment, discipline, structure and spiritual devotion that went with it, seemed perfect. "How did I know it was for me?" she asks. "How do you know married life is for you or that you want to be a doctor?"

After entering the convent, Sister Mary Clement did not see her twin for 24 years. She did not leave the convent for almost two decades until she was forced to go to the local hospital for an X-ray. Bundled up in the back of a car, an "ugly" black cloak covering the beautiful red habit of which she was so proud, she could not wait to return home. "The buildings had become high rise and the men had long hair," she laughs. "I could not tell them from the women."

On another occasion she remembers the sisters leaving the convent en masse to vote. "Oh, it was grand walking down into town just looking at everything," she remembers. But it is clear that while she was interested to have a peep outside, it was something of a side-show.

The Redemptoristines still have relatively little contact with the outside world but their enclosure has become less strict. The Devon convent had extensive grounds; not so its Liverpool counterpart. So after years of seclusion Sister Mary Clement now walks Dusty, the bitch left behind by the previous order, on nearby playing fields.

The order has never been as austere as the Poor Claires, whose ageing sisters go barefoot and still rise in the middle of the night to pray. More relaxations have been introduced, in recognition of the fact that the membership is ageing: the most infirm, for example, need no longer stick rigidly to the 6am rise.

While it is sad that so many orders are threatened, few British nuns seem to see it as a disaster. Sister Bernadette believes modern life is incompatible with life-long commitment. It is a theme picked up by Sister Gabriel Robin. "The experience of modern marriage, relationships and employment is that everything is short-lived," she says. "Put that together with the speed of technological advance and there is a sense that nothing lasts." But she adds that the fall in numbers need not be seen as negative. It reflects in part the new opportunities for women. "It is not necessarily a sign of selfishness, materialism or rampant individualism," she says.

Sister Gemma Simmonds, 39, is vocation director of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Institute was founded by Mary Ward in 1609, despite fearsome opposition from Rome over its intention that its sisters would work in the community. Then, all-female orders were enclosed; social and religious conservatism demanded it. The order's feminist tradition still attracts novices today - although they are middle- aged rather than teenaged and often disillusioned with materially successful lives. But its numbers are also falling and its sisters ageing.

"There is a real sadness when one of the older members dies; both for the personality no longer with us and for a part of history which is lost," says Sister Gemma. But she argues that while numbers have dwindled, there has also been unprecedented progress. "No group of women has grown more in its thinking and way of life in the last 30 years than the female religious. Until the 1960s even apostolic sisters could not go out unless they went in twos." Today they live independently in inner-city communities and work at the cutting edge of social projects. Like others, she believes the orders' egalitarian approach has chipped away at the Catholic Church's hierarchical structure.

New models are evolving, she says, to allow shorter periods of religious commitment. But she believes there will always be a place for women committing themselves for life.

That women no longer choose the life in great numbers does not surprise Sister Mary Clement. "I don't suppose it looks exciting to the young," she smiles. "I mean there is nothing much to show." Except, of course, for the contentedness and inner peace she radiates.