Drawing back the veil

NUNS in Cobh, Co Cork, are currently enjoying their 15 minutes of fame as part of a new documentary.

Filmed by renowned London fashion photographer, Michael Luke Davies, Tyburn Convent Gloria Deo, depicts scenes of life in Tyburn monasteries around the world, but the Cork nuns feature highly.

They are immortalised in film, along with their sisters in monasteries in Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Rome, New Zealand, Australia, England and Scotland.

There are beautifully-shot images of the Irish nuns walking through the Bible Garden, praying together in the chapel, cataloguing books on handwritten ledgers in the library, sweeping the parquet floors, and cooking and washing in the huge convent kitchen.

The movie, which was funded by a generous benefactor, also contains evocative scenes from the nuns in New Zealand, seen bottle-feeding orphaned lambs, Scottish nuns working in the gardens, and the entrance ceremony of a young Peruvian girl as her mother watches with an unreadable smile on her face.

The Tyburn Order of nuns was established in 1903 to commemorate the 105 Christian martyrs killed during the Protestant Reformation at the Tyburn Gallows, near Marble Arch, London. Over the past hundred years, the order has spread rapidly, with nine convents throughout the world.

“I was really touched by the world I saw. It was very beautifully religious. It’s great to see them so dedicated to their faith and the community around loves them,” says Davies, who has also designed a website for the Vatican, gaining entry to the sacred tomb of St Peter.

“I once filmed a nun in New Zealand by a waterfall, it was so beautiful and so religious, that I thought this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I got out of the whole fashion industry and moved on,” says Davies, who renounced his media company seven years ago to concentrate on creating websites for a number of other religious orders.

The nuns in each monastery acted as assistants to Davies, carrying film equipment and setting up shots.

“To go in on my own without a crew was brilliant. It allowed the access for me to go into this woman’s world,” says Davies.

Prioress of St Benedict’s Priory in Cobh is Mother Vianney. The 78-year-old is enthusiastic about the film, as it may help to demystify the daily life and work of a nun.

“We would like to encourage more people to come and see another side of life that they haven’t thought about. We would like them to have an understanding of religious life, that it’s a normal life and we’re just normal people who do normal things. We weren’t born nuns. We lived a life before we entered the convent and trained and grew into nuns.”

From her second-floor balcony, Mother Vianney loves to watch the cruise liners docking in Cobh harbour, as the carillon bells of Cobh Cathedral ring out at intervals.

“I often think of myself as the admiral, looking out at the ships,” laughs the 78-year-old Sydney native, who arrived in Cobh seven years ago.

Rain patters down the windows of the community room, as the nuns don their white cowls, readying themselves for one of the seven Offices they sing daily in the wooden-floored church. There are only five nuns left in the convent, a former Admiralty house of the British navy, now.

Cork native Mother Benedicta, 86, wheels the walking frame she calls her ‘taxi’ across parquet flooring, and Mother Simon, 78, has just finished correspondences on her electric typewriter. Two nuns in their 40s wait patiently — Vietnamese Mother Machtilde, and English native Mother Colmcille.

The Sisters wait in line in the draughty cloister, before entering the church. Amongst empty pews, candles flicker silently as Mother Colmcille sings a heavenly psalm.

After the Office, the nuns disperse to attend to the various businesses of the day — Ora et Labora, Prayer and Work, is the Benedictine creed. An old wooden board serves as a roster, with Sisters’ names handwritten beside each duty — Vestiarian and Sacristan. There are hundreds of books in the library, as well as Scrabble and jigsaws for recreation. One nun is studying Spanish, in case she is sent to one of the monasteries in South America. Another cleans the basement shrine to St Oliver Plunkett, the last Christian martyr to be put to death at the Tyburn gallows in London, during the Protestant Reformation.

Mother Colmcille cooks roast pork and sweet potatoes in the huge kitchen, mixing summer berries in a bowl on the long wooden work table, fretting that her home-made custard will burn. Another sister hangs a long line of washing on a rack above the enormous Belfast sinks in the laundry, watching the oak tree outside the window changing with the seasons.

“I wish I had entered [religious life] when I was five,” says Mother Colmcille, 46, who became a Sister at 37, after working as a warden in a retreat centre in the island of Iona. Her parents are currently visiting, and we eat together from antique china in the guest quarters, carefully washing up afterwards. The Sisters eat in silence in their private refectory, pausing occasionally to listen to the psalms being read aloud.

Perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the main duties of Tyburn nuns — day and night, Sisters work in shifts to ensure that someone worships in the church at all times. But there are no longer enough Sisters in Cobh to continue Perpetual Adoration there. A cohort of Nigerian postulants is expected in the New Year, to begin their training in the newly-established novitiate (training college) in Cobh. “This country evangelised Nigeria so we’re getting some back, you see, because really there aren’t many vocations around of Irish girls,” says Mother Vianney.

It takes over five years to become a Tyburn Sister, with plenty of opt-out clauses along the way, including the option of taking an oath for a year at a time. “It’s not a quick thing. You’re not pressured into anything, it’s like an engagement. I think it makes it more difficult for a religious life when you think I’ve got a choice. It’s more confusing to a lot of young people when they have a lot of choices,” says Mother Vianney, who worked in computers in Sydney in the 1950s, before becoming a Sister.

Although an enclosed order, life in the Cobh monastery is far from claustrophobic. The Tyburn Sisters may travel between their monasteries throughout the world, and members of the community attend Mass with the nuns, sitting in the public gallery.

Guests are welcome to visit and stay in the simple guest quarters at any time. “We welcome the public in for all sorts of things. We never ask them to pay anything and they can stay for as long as they like. They’re welcome to stay and have a prayerful weekend or week or whatever they like,” says Mother Vianney.

The Bible Garden, containing replicas of many different gardens from the bible, is open to the public. And the Leanbh Shrine, surrounded by water and beautiful engravings, established by layperson Veronica Brennan after her son David died, provides a place of peace for bereaved parents.

But the Sisters’ day is really all about prayer.

“Going to Office seven times a day brings you back and balances your life. We all entered to seek God and so if we’re going to involve ourselves in our various occupations throughout the day we’re going to forget him fairly soon. So going back to the Office, you remember why you’re here,” says Mother Vianney.

“A lot of people, because of the way Ireland was and because of the way it is becoming, have lost their way and just want a little guidance. A lot of cancer patients turn up here, and that’s our job to pray for them. Other people ring in saying that nobody loves them and people tell us they want to commit suicide. We have to say ‘God loves you’ and they don’t believe it. We realise the need that these people have and the hurt that’s in them. They ring to get a nice message from us, not a great big sermon.”

In between prayer and work, the Sisters find some time for rest and relaxation.

“We used to play Scrabble but I’m not patient enough for it. You can just do your embroidery, one of the sisters makes rosary beads, one sister crochets, one knits, and I just sit and talk. That’s your free time to talk, you see, it’s just family time,” says Mother Vianney, who loves reading and is currently working her way through Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation.

“It’s a good day because it’s balanced. Nuns never look their age. The veil covers the grey hair anyway. It’s the regular life, you’re not hassled, you’re serene most of the time.”

Christmas Day at the convent will pass as any other day.

“On Christmas Day, lonely people come to stay with us and have Christmas dinner. We don’t do any more work than we have to that day.”

The bishop used to visit on Christmas morning.

“Bishop John Magee brought us here [to Cobh]. He is a very holy man and we feel very sad about what’s happened. He’s been very good to us and he’s been very supportive of us. And we’ve never had any complaint against him in any way. We feel totally loyal to him, actually. We can’t judge, he must have made mistakes, I believe he said so, but we’re very sorry for what has happened.”

* To purchase a DVD of the movie for stg£15, see tyburnconvent.org.uk



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