Donal O’Keeffe


Hosts, healing... and heating with the Cistercian nuns

These devout Cistercian nuns usually don’t covet the limelight but needs must, says Donal O’Keeffe

Hosts, healing... and heating with the Cistercian nuns

“Our life is devoted to prayer, to God,” says Mother Marie Fahy, Abbess of St Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, Co Waterford, Ireland’s only Cistercian monastery for women. “Seeking God, seeking to know who God is, who we are, how we are in relationship with Him and allowing the richness of the relationship to shape our lives.”

The Abbey is located at the end of a long, gently-winding avenue and its grounds are bordered by woods overlooking the Blackwater River. A centuries-old evergreen oak tree stands guard by the church. This is, as soon as you arrive, an obviously very tranquil place.

Mother Marie notes this was monastic land back to the sixth century. “So we’re on sacred ground.” Today is busier than normal, as builders work at extensive renovations but usually the sounds you’ll most likely hear are birdsong or hymns.

Founded in 1932 with 14 nuns, the congregation grew to its largest in the late 1960s and early 1970s with 45. “Since then we have been around the thirty mark, maybe thirty-four,” Mother Marie says, “but we’ve had a lot of deaths in the last couple of years.

“Since I became Abbess ( 15 years ago) I’ve buried 20 sisters — all in their golden years — but that is a lot! We’ve had a number of new entrants too so that helps to keep the numbers reasonably high. It’s okay. Around the thirty mark suits us.”

Life in the Abbey revolves around liturgical prayer in the church, seven times a day, starting at 4am. “We spend a lot of time reading and studying, especially the scriptures. And then we work to earn our living and to have something to share with the poor.

Sister Fiachra working in the room where the Eucharist bread, the host, is made.
Sister Fiachra working in the room where the Eucharist bread, the host, is made.

“We have various works,” Mother Marie says. “We have card production, memorial cards, birthday cards, wedding invitations and all that. And we make the hosts for Mass and send them to parishes, monasteries and retreat houses around the country.” The nuns make three million hosts a year and — as Mother Marie notes — most Catholics never even wonder where they come from.

“A lot of religious communities used to make hosts — the Carmelites, the Good Shepherds — but now a lot of companies do. We’re having a bit of rivalry from imported hosts from Poland, so we’re trying to encourage the clergy to use home-made hosts.” With the awareness of someone who knows how feature writers work, she laughs: “That’ll be a nice little paragraph for you.”

These are unusual times for St Mary’s Abbey. Although they are an enclosed order and would not normally seek publicity, the nuns have had to embark on a huge programme of rebuilding and the only way they can pay for that is through fundraising. The monastery hasn’t been renovated since it was founded and the hope is that — by future-proofing — they can ensure there is still a St Mary’s Abbey a century hence.

Apart from the renovations, one of the biggest changes in the Abbey has been the recent introduction to the grounds of elephant grass, or Miscanthus. It’s a high-yield, bamboo-like crop which grows to about three metres in height and doesn’t need to be replanted. By installing an industrial burner, the nuns now heat the entire monastery on a cold winter’s day with a single bale of Miscanthus.

As Sister Fiachra Nutty confides, “Time was we were spending over thirty grand a year to heat the place and we were frozen. Now heating costs us much less, and we’re toasty and environmentally-friendly to boot!”

Sister Fiachra is in her fifties and had run a successful horticulture business before she took her vows. “Silence is something our society is afraid of,” she says. “There’s this frenetic thing going on all the time and we’re just not comfortable in ourselves. And the tragedy of that is it blocks out that so small voice of God.”

At a beautiful arch in a stone wall, Sister Fiachra passes through an old iron gate and surveys cheerily the Abbey garden. “When I first came, we had a tomato house. I was growing seven varieties of tomato. Gone. I would love to restore it. Now I’m growing blackberries, gooseberries, loganberries, spuds.

“Originally, when the sisters came here, if you didn’t grow or produce it, you didn’t eat. So you grew it and then you ate it. So you had cheese, butter, milk and veg and there’s your diet.”

Sister Sarah, Mother Marie and Sister Michelle in the section of the new convent building.
Sister Sarah, Mother Marie and Sister Michelle in the section of the new convent building.

Indicating a field covering several acres, Sister Fiachra says this was the original size of the garden. Now it’s much smaller. At the bottom of the field, mingling with the sheep, two donkeys graze, guests on loan from the Donkey Sanctuary.

In the glasshouse, which Sister Fiachra says is falling down, three vines grow. “And we grow grapes! We’re also growing peaches here. And we’re growing nectarines. And a few strawberries. This is where I like to spend my time. This is my oasis.” Outside, yellow roses bloom.

In a concession to modernity, St Mary’s Abbey has both a website and a Facebook page and some potential new members make contact through the internet.

The Abbey hosts regular open-door vocation weekends and women who think they may have a vocation to monastic life are invited to stay in the on-site guesthouse. (The guesthouse is normally open to the public and visitors stay there for a donation.) There follows a process of “mutual discernment”, as established nuns get to know potential new members.

If the nuns think a woman shows a suitable, potential vocation, they encourage her to apply, getting references, medical certificate and a psychological assessment.

The process of vocation is lengthy. Postulancy, or candidacy, lasts up to a year, noviciate lasts two years, at first profession, the sisters take the vows of obedience, conversion of life and stability for three years, and solemn profession requires taking the vows for life. Not every candidate is successful in her application and some leave (“Hopefully enriched by the experience,” says Mother Marie.) Mother Marie says she had a full life as a nurse before she joined the order, 29 years ago, but it was only when she came to Glencairn that she felt complete.

“Coming in here, I think I got to know myself,” she says. “Part of monastic life is conversion, in the sense of knowing yourself and the areas in which you need to grow. There can be things hidden in our hearts, like anger, fear, pride and jealousy.

“When you come in here and you’re face to face with yourself and the scriptures and you see what the Lord Jesus was like and how loving he was, and then you see yourself and you’re far less loving, I think the community brings out the areas that need healing.

“The key here is to become fully human. To be loving, caring, compassionate and merciful and to relate well with people, and to be warm and helpful.

“We work at that,” says Mother Marie with a smile. “We work at that.”

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