Abbess Bernadette Smeyers

Nun who led St Cecilia's Abbey through the changes of the Second Vatican Council
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The Independent Online

'Lady Abbess, if you stick to Latin and Gregorian Chant, you will get no recruits and the abbey will die out." Mother Bernadette Smeyers, Abbess of St Cecilia's Abbey on the Isle of Wight, received this advice from a venerable abbot and trusted friend, smiled graciously and took no notice. Mother Bernadette was Abbess of St Cecilia's for 34 years, from 1953 until her retirement in 1987, when she was 83. At the age of 102, she was thought to be the oldest living Benedictine abbess (emerita) in the world.

When the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s decreed that a small amount of the vernacular could replace Latin in the Roman Catholic liturgy, this was widely interpreted to mean the abolition of Latin and the replacement of the Church's traditional Gregorian Chant by existing English hymns or new compositions of varying quality. For some, the only alternative approach was to refuse to comply with any of the council's decrees. Mother Bernadette, combining her feeling for monastic and ecclesial tradition with her understanding of the theological and pastoral basis for the council's reforms, saw that the revised liturgy could be celebrated with all the mystery and beauty of the old, by the retention of Latin and the Chant.

In 1974 Pope Paul VI, in some consternation at the wholesale jettisoning of Latin and Gregorian, issued a booklet of the basic chants which all Catholic congregations should be able to sing. Mother Bernadette had her nuns make a recording of these chants. It sold 3,500 copies in six months. St Cecilia's went on to make 10 more cassettes and CDs of the Chant, the latest of which is out in October.

Mother Bernadette's other great labour was the establishment of the first monastery of Benedictine nuns in India. The initial proposal came in 1962 from Dom Bede Griffiths (C.S. Lewis's friend who became a monk of Prinknash Abbey and subsequently lived in a Christian ashram in India) and the Indian Fr Benedict Alapatt of the Abbey of St André, Bruges, who long before inculturation or empowerment of women were in vogue saw the need for Christian monastic life for women in the subcontinent. Mother Bernadette accepted into her community seven Indian girls to receive the full Benedictine formation but with a view to their eventual return to India.

While the Indians followed the novitiate course of studies, and also learnt practical skills to contribute to the future monastery's upkeep, St Cecilia's begged for funds on their behalf for the building of the monastery, and Mother Bernadette sent two of her most able nuns to India to prospect for land. Mother Bernadette quickly appreciated that, if the new community were to attract members from all over India, English would have to be the unifying language, and under her direction her nuns prepared adaptations of the Gregorian modes and translations of the Office which are still in use today.

The business of the foundation took Mother Bernadette not only to India three times but also to Rome in 1965 during the Vatican Council, where she was able to tell a delighted Pope Paul VI of the project, and to Bangkok in 1968 to the first meeting of monastic superiors of Asia. It was at this meeting that Thomas Merton died so suddenly, and Mother Bernadette joined the other monks and nuns in the monastic custom of reciting the full 150 psalms at the bedside of the dead monk.

By 1970 the monastery of Shanti Nilayam, Bangalore, had been built, the Indian sisters had taken possession and Mother Bernadette was able to withdraw her English nuns, though the English and Indian communities have remained closely united ever since, with young Indian sisters regularly spending two or three years at a time at St Cecilia's. Shanti Nilayam, now an independent abbey of more than 30 nuns, has been admired for its harmonious blend of Indian culture and Benedictine tradition.

Mother Bernadette was born Marie-Madeleine Smeyers in Louvain, Belgium, in 1903. She first came to England when her family's home in Louvain was destroyed by enemy shelling in 1914. While her father worked for the Belgian government in exile in London, she and her sisters were sent to the little school run by the Benedictine nuns of Pax Cordis Iesu at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, a community which had itself been founded by an ancient abbey in Belgium 30 years previously.

At the age of 23 she followed her older sister into the community, receiving the name Bernadette, and made final profession in 1931. By this time the nuns had moved from Ventnor to the monastery at Ryde built by the exiled nuns of Ste Cécile, Solesmes, and henceforth commonly known as St Cecilia's Abbey. They were also able to give up their school and realise the dream of a fully contemplative monastic life.

The young Sister Bernadette worked on the poultry farm, taught philosophy to the community, was an expert calligrapher and for a time was prioress or second in command to Abbess Ambrosia Cousin. She also served as Abbess Ambrosia's secretary and in this capacity was her chief collaborator in persuading the Solesmes Benedictine Congregation to aggregate St Cecilia's to the Congregation, the only outsider community ever thus admitted.

In March 1953, on the death of Abbess Ambrosia, Sister Bernadette was elected to replace her. While the rest of the community sang the Te Deum at the election result, Abbess Bernadette sat on the abbatial throne with tears pouring down her cheeks at the loss of the simple monastic life she loved. Nevertheless she threw herself into her new role, committing herself to fostering the community's life of prayer and the happiness and unity of the nuns. Her sense of tradition which made her see the value of Latin and the Chant she combined with an openness to new things and an ability to distinguish between the ephemeral and the eternal.

Some aficionados of Gregorian Chant refused to contemplate any change in interpretation of the musical signs after the work of Dom Mocquereau in the 1930s; Mother Bernadette, on the other hand, sent her nuns to France to imbibe the teaching of Dom Cardine, and welcomed the new chant books produced by Solesmes.

The years of change following the Vatican Council were not painful for St Cecilia's since Mother Bernadette had ensured that her nuns had all the theological formation necessary to embrace useful developments while not hankering for passing fads. With regard to the status of lay sisters, for example, she recognised that from now on all recruits would want to partake fully in the singing in choir, and yet she was sensitive to the desire of the existing lay sisters to retain the vocation which they had chosen on entering the community.

The prediction that her community would perish was not fulfilled. Though numbers of recruits diminished, as they did in all religious communities in Western Europe, she saw a steady flow of novices who persevered and prospered. From a rather sheltered and pious background herself, she could be remarkable in her appreciation of more unusual vocations, such as the 50-year-old provincial of an active congregation or a shaven-headed punk: both of these she helped develop into excellent Benedictine nuns.

In February 1987, Abbess Bernadette resigned her office. She rejoiced to see her nuns elect someone half her age, and henceforth lived quietly as a much-loved grandmother to the community, joining in the manual work and attending classes taught by the younger nuns.

She lived so long she seemed to be a living history book of 20th-century monasticism. Blessed Columba Marmion, the spiritual writer, she remembered for the gales of laughter echoing from the room where he gave talks to the nuns at Ventnor. The great Chant scholar Dom Mocquereau gave her chant lessons as a girl. The Abbey of Solesmes had four abbots in the 20th century - she was personally acquainted with them all.

For a habitually recollected and prayerful person, she rather revelled in monastic friendships and in hearing new ideas. She was in her nineties when a monk giving the annual retreat remarked on how the young now used adjectives like "wicked" as terms of praise. At the end of the retreat she said, "Thank you so much. It was hellish."

In 2003, as Mother Bernadette's 100th birthday approached, the nuns complained that surprises had to be arranged by a sort of conspiracy (" Read this note quickly and pass it on") as the heroine was still present at nearly all recreations and carefully read all notice-boards. When she was told that the Belgian ambassador had asked to be present to convey a message from the King and Queen she was astonished - "I don't know him, do I?" - but, with her usual sense of occasion and propriety, she added, "We must have the Brabançonne [the Belgian national anthem]! " All messages, whether from the Pope, the Queen of her adopted country, Thomas Merton's fellow monks (who sent her a fruitcake) or the youngest novice in the community, received a gracious reply.

In spring 2005, though by now rather deaf, she attended all the rehearsals for the recording of the new Chant CD, Corpus Christi, and regretted that she could not stand for long enough to take part in the recording itself. She was still, however, genuflecting and walking without a stick, and joining in both the Divine Office and community recreation until the very last day.

On Friday night she had a fall, but made light of it, telling the nuns who helped her up, "I was just doing some gymnastics." On Saturday morning she had a stroke and died in hospital a few hours later. The nuns had just been singing at Mass for the feast of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen: "Your youth shall be renewed like the eagle's" and "You have made known to me the path of life: you will fill me with joy before your face".

Eustochium Lee OSB