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Liverpool's Nuns On The Move

Laura Brown wonders if urban life is making religious life difficult

Published on August 18th 2011.

Liverpool's Nuns On The Move

IS URBAN life making religious life impossible? As a 100 year old Carmelite Monastery prepares to close in West Derby with its inhabitants moving to a new, even larger site in Allerton, do we do enough to protect those who seclude themselves from society?

“We represent that ‘hidden’ part of life. Life is very much being lived here, very strongly, right at the heart of life."

I am led into a small room invited to sit on one of three high backed armchairs. To my right is a small portable fireplace. Under my feet a mushroom coloured rug covers a polished wooden floor. I muse it could be a sitting room of any granny in Liverpool. Except that ahead of me is a large black painted metal grill splitting the room in two. Behind the grill is a large curtain. Beyond it I can hear rustling, a door being closed, footsteps. The curtain is drawn. Sister Mary, the Prioress of the Carmelite Monastery in West Derby is all smiles and welcomes as she takes the seat behind her.

The grill is open but ever-present. The line between secular and religious life, which in this small Liverpool suburb has come into startling clarity over the past years. No cushions and soft furnishings on the other side of the room behind Sister Mary. A bench,  a single chair and a sign on the wall that read 'That Alone is long which is Eternal'.

This time next year Sister Mary will be preparing to move inhabitants of this monastery, many of which are elderly, to a new home - Maryton Grange. What has been dubbed Europe’s largest new monastery is being built between Allerton golf course and Calderstones Park. Carmelites from across the country are expected to move there. Modern facilities, as green as possible and a wing to care for the infirm.

The final decision for the sisters to move came last year. Expansion of both Cardinal Heenan and Broughton Hall Schools, supported wholeheartedly by the sisters, was another signal of the encroachment of urban life. That encroachment has brought noise, anti-social behaviour and an interruption of the contemplative life. The private lane which leads from the main road to the monastery, and has been maintained by the latter, will have a bridge built over it for Sixth Formers moving between the two sites. It was, in reality, the final straw.

The Private Lane Which Links The Monastery To The Main Road, On Either Side Are Two SchoolsThe Private Lane Which Links The Monastery To The Main Road, On Either Side Are Two Schools


“There is nothing wrong with having a bridge built,” Sister Mary says, “it is very important for the schools. But it means the schools are a much larger complex now than they were. Most people would find it difficult if their neighbours on either side built a link bridge over their driveway.”

Hundreds of schoolchildren on the lane, along with adult classes on the site until 10pm, gave the monastery a sense it was 'retreating' from retreat a little bit.

This may seem surprising. Isn’t the point of a monastery to be cut off?

“This particular form of religious life, a contemplative way of life, means we are not involved in active apostulate work in the Church. Our work for the Church is prayer, we work hard to support ourselves. We need a garden to grow vegetables, to find some space, to be alone and pray. We don’t go out unless it’s necessary”.

That garden and contemplative way of life has been under threat. When reports first came into the newspapers about the nuns deciding to move arrows were fired over the high wall that surrounds the monastery. Cars in the courtyard had their windscreens broken.

I am suddenly aware that this 100 year old building is home to around 16 older women, in some cases elderly, not all in the best health. Slightly exposed, although hidden. Do they feel safe?

“We feel safe in the sense that we are very well protected with a high wall. We feel able to walk down the lane in the daytime in our habits but certainly not at night. I wouldn’t recommend anyone walk down this lane at night…This could be very lonely at night. We’ve only had the green fence up in the last ten years (around the boundary of the monastery grounds between it and the school buildings) because we felt very exposed.”

No blame is directed towards the schools, there is no suggestion that the schools or its pupils are to blame. And yet if a sheltered accommodation or care home was subjected to rocks and bricks hurtled over its wall, relatives would, quite rightly, be outraged.

Peter Brack, a chartered surveyor, has worked with the monastery for a number of years and has provided advice on their move to Allerton.

“It was only a matter of time before they had to leave. They need peace and solitude. Most wouldn’t understand. They need to feel secure with no intrusion.”

Sister Mary does not believe religious life is incompatible with urban life. The sisters have withdrawn from active life although they are still very much part of their community in West Derby, who visit regularly for morning Mass. They pray for people, sell cards and calendars, as well as altar bread. It is just, she says, that there are certain conditions needed to live a contemplative life within the precincts of a city like Liverpool. Their day is a combination of prayer and work, hard work and devout prayer.

“We represent that ‘hidden’ part of life. Life is very much being lived here, very strongly, right at the heart of life, so to speak. We are not withdrawn, but outwardly separated”.

Does it seem anathema to separate yourself? Urban life is so fast, so fast. A contemplative life. Do some think so little of it, hold it in such low regard, that they will fling stones over walls, try to force their urbanisation on those who have so obviously removed themselves from it?

If the sisters are moved by next autumn, Sister Mary will regard it as lucky. The new monastery will provide a refuge not just for other Carmelite sisters but for those wanting to retreat for a few days. More and more, Sister Mary says, are wanting to join them to be in that atmosphere, experience the pace of life so different from our own even if it is for a short time.

The old monastery, it is imagined, will be sold. The money made, invested into the new monastery.

They are not receiving financial help from anyone else, not even the Archdiocese, to pay for it. Part of me thinks this, formidable, Prioress has done what many business people have failed to do. The Council allowed the schools to expand and then bent over backwards to help the sisters move finding a spectacular new site. She has negotiated for her monastery a future, a home and security. And then we fall with a bump back to more earthly worries.

“This is a beautiful building but in this economic situation it won’t bring in anything like it's worth. That is in God’s hands”.

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AnonymousAugust 19th 2011.

What are nuns doing in a monastery? Where are the monks?

HHHHHAugust 19th 2011.

Lord knows but it's called the Carmelite monastery

AnonymousFebruary 16th 2012.

we need them. . god help us!

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