Interview: Sisters in blue, and with work to do
Interview: Sisters in blue, and with work to do
Joanna Bogle meets the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham
It sounded rather attractively medieval – a community of religious sisters spending an afternoon working on embroidery. But this was a definitely 21st-century scene. The young sisters at the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham belong to a generation that has not been brought up to do cross-stitch. They are more at home with computers and mobile phones than with making church kneelers. So they had invited an older lady to come and teach them the basics – and the result, it is planned, will be hand-stitched blue-and-white kneelers for their new chapel, set beneath the rafters of their new convent in a converted barn in Dereham, Norfolk.
The Community, as its name implies, is based at Walsingham – but for the first years following its foundation, it was centred in the diocese of Brentwood, running Abbotswick House of Prayer. The dream was always to go to Walsingham, and now they are there, running Dowry House, a retreat centre set in the heart of the village and very much part of the current surge of new activity at the Shrine.
But they also needed a separate convent of their own, with some outdoor space and community rooms for their catechetical work with families. The opportunity came to acquire a large building that they have now opened at Dereham. It began life as a barn but was later converted into a family home and then put up for sale. With an enormous and well-equipped kitchen, substantial sitting-room complete with open fireplace, and a number of small rooms leading off a cloistered grassy area centre on a pond, it now houses the Community, and friends who come to stay.
“It even has this cloister – the spaces on the walls around the pond exactly matched the wall-spaces we needed for the beautiful blue-and-white Stations of the Cross that now hang there” says Sister Camilla, the leader and foundress of the community, bustling about in the blue and white habit which the sisters wear. She is leading me into the kitchen, and getting me a cup of tea. The guest rooms are extremely comfortable – mine has an ensuite bathroom and a glorious view.
“When the barn was converted, the idea was that two families would share it – hence the huge kitchen which is a sort of double room. But in the end, the families decided to sell – and here we are.”
In October 2018, the Community welcomed friends and pilgrims from Walsingham plus local clergy from churches of various denominations, to an Open Day with cream teas. The large field beyond the barn will be turned into prayer gardens with a couple of hermitages and an orchard. Meanwhile, youth work has already begun in another barn at the other end of the property. Mass has already been celebrated there and families arrive for talks and activities centred on the Faith. Once it is converted it will house a larger chapel, conference facilities and accommodation for the consecrated men.
In teaching children, the sisters use the Montessori-based Good Shepherd catechesis with its strong contemplative style. “It’s the exact opposite of trying to be ‘cool’ – the children are prayerful, the place is holy ground” says Sister Johanna “We love doing this work. The parents are affected by the message and are very happy with this whole approach.”
In Walsingham, the Community is busy at Dowry House, which stands in the main street of the village and is an ancient building with evidence of Medieval foundations. Guests enjoy the comfortable rooms, and also the sense of history. People come for retreats, or simply to have a quiet time to reflect, pray, and visit the shrine, reached by walking along the Holy Mile. The plan for the Community is that, over the years, more and more sisters will be trained in spiritual direction, and that Dowry House will be part of the revival of devotion to Our Lady at Walsingham that began at the end of the 19th century, and has recently seen something of a renewal.
The low ceilings in some parts of Dowry House present can sometimes be a challenge: “I’m probably going to get long-term concussion from the number of times I’ve bumped my head” grins tall Sister Theresa. But the quiet atmosphere and the sense of peace is very attractive, and the house has its own chapel across a courtyard. The sisters initially had their convent in some rooms above, but the space was too cramped and allowed for no expansion.
The blue and white habit is unusual: the sisters do not wear veils but have hoods, which they raise over their heads when they pray. “It’s sort of like an enclosure, a way of gently shutting out the noise of the world to be with God – ‘hidden with Christ in God’ as St Paul says” explains Sister Gabi. The spirituality of the community is very much linked to that of Walsingham, centred on Mary’s Fiat at the Annunciation. “To live in the Divine will – living in the joy that comes from accepting, fulfilling and surrendering to God’s will – that’s something for people in every walk of life” says Sister Camilla. This is why the community as an Ecclesial Family of Consecrated Life is open to men and women in all vocations. The sisters are currently writing their Book of Life which will begin to explain their spirituality. “It will also enable those in the other branches of the community to live the charism wherever they are”.
The sisters are busy at events at the Shrine including the large summer gatherings run by Youth 2000 and New Dawn, and are playing a major role in the pilgrim journey of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham around England preparing for the consecration of the people of the country to Mary in 2020.
At Dereham, after a very good supper, we gather in the comfortable community room around the fire. Adjoining
rooms include one for craft work – the embroidery and more – and there is a good library.
The day has a set pattern and begins with Adoration in the chapel high in the roof of the former barn, where the altar stands in front of full-length clear-glass window. Stained glass would be a pity here – the sense of being open to the sky and the fields is rather wonderful. The Great Silence, begun the night before, is maintained until after Morning Prayer. A typical day’s work might include gardening – there is a lot to be done at Dereham as the whole project takes shape - but is more likely to involve travel to Walsingham and activities at Dowry House. Wednesdays are a rest-day, spent at Dereham. Each evening has a time of talk and recreation: Night Prayer in the chapel begins the silence, which in the Norfolk countryside is absolute – there was not even the faintest roar of traffic outside my window and few lights penetrated the darkness.
These are early days and it’s a young community, but there seems to be a sense of hope and certainly a great sense of trusting in God’s providence. In a worrying time for the Church – and for the future of Christianity in the West – there is a quietly joyful message here.