Drawing on divine inspiration

Niamh Nolan reports on the 50th anniversary of a unique industry.

A CARD from Glencairn is more than just a greeting; it’s a unique and individual gesture from the hands of the sisters of St Mary’s Abbey, situated on the banks of the River Blackwater near Lismore in Co Waterford.

The greeting cards industry may seem an unlikely enterprise for an enclosed order of monastic women, but this year they are celebrating 50 years of dedicated card production.

The 35 women of the Cistercian community live a contemplative life of simplicity and solitude within the enclosure of the monastery gates. But along with the production of altar bread and the running of a dairy farm, the sisters of St Mary’s depend on the sale of a variety of unique and individually-handcrafted cards for their livelihood.

Customers have travelled from as far as Dublin and Mayo to hand-pick their designs and inspirations for a variety of cards for special occasions.

But, according to Sisters Lily and Clothilde, who work in the abbey’s card room, the most popular cards are those made from pressed flowers grown in the monastic gardens.

“We use colourful daisies, pansies, fuchsia and sweet pea, as well as leaves, vines and grasses,” Sr Lily said.

“I love doing it. It’s very therapeutic and very beautiful work and lets me work closely with nature,” she said.

Card-making was introduced to the abbey in 1955 by Sr Sarto Weihing, an American sister and Sister Paula, an artist who designed the first Christmas cards at Glencairn.

“Sr Sarto sent a batch to some of her relatives in America and they sold well and provided an income of £100 (€145) at the time,” Sr Lily said.

“From then on, people got to know Glencairn cards and asked us to make them cards at Christmastime,” she said.

The variety of cards have evolved over the years, with Sr Lily introducing photo cards depicting scenes of nature and beauty and then picking and pressing flowers for use on the cards.

In her work, she is ably assisted by the quietly-spoken Sr Clothilde, a Japanese sister.

When Sr Clothilde came from Japan five years ago she brought with her knowledge of computers, printers, and most importantly, a digital camera.

“I think God wanted me to come from East to West ... I don’t know why, you’ll have to ask God.

“I’m learning how to tend flowers and water and press flowers, I’m enjoying it,” she said.

The flowers are first planted in the glasshouse, and then transferred to the garden before they are picked and pressed.

“It’s pleasant to work under the sun picking the flowers and waiting to see how they will turn out,” Sr Clothilde said.

“The whole idea is that we try to support ourselves by the work of our own hand,” Sr Lily said.

The two sisters and their helpers create cards for up to 60 occasions - birthdays, thank you cards, memorial cards, baby cards, sympathy cards, bookmarks and wedding invites.

No two cards are the same and once they have enough notice they can make any amount to order and post them.

“We do cards to people’s specifications, whether they are blank or with a message and we can make anything from one to 200,” Sr Lily said.

Despite the simple, peaceful environment in which they work, however, the sisters are not free from the demands of the business world.

“Brides are very hard to please,” Sr Lily said. “They want flowers to match their bridesmaid’s dresses,” she joked. While the sisters have a steady flow of customers, costs are increasing and they are keen to publicise their unique craft to a wider customer base.

“The most expensive cards are €2.75, so it’s reasonable enough and people on the dole can afford them,” Sr Lily said.

The cards can be made to order by contacting Glencairn card room at 058 56901 or emailing: glencairncards@eircom.net.

Cards from Glencairn are also available from a range of distributors including Veritas in Cork, the Wilton shopping centre in Cork, the post offices in Ring and Lismore, the Franciscans in Co Donegal and the Carmelites in Whitefriar Street in Dublin.

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