▪A century of Carmelites

A new history celebrating one hundred years of the Carmelite community of nuns in East Anglia has just been published.

Naturally, Margaret Rope (‘Sister Margaret of The Mother of God’ as she became), who joined the community in 1923, is heavily featured within the book.

Compiled by one of the current nuns, this is the story of one of the first Carmels to be established in Britain since the Reformation.

Woodbridge

The East Anglian Carmel had barely been established when Margaret came across it. On a visit to her sister Irene, who was living close to its house in Woodbridge, curiosity led Marga to find out more.
Enclosed convents were enjoying a bit of boom among young Catholic women due to the popularity of Therese Of Lisieux’s autobiography, The ‘Story Of A Soul’; Therese herself had been a Carmelite.
Margaret joined the convent in 1923.

Work

Although basically a contemplative order, work is encouraged among Carmelites, and Mother Rosario, the founder of the community (see pic right), had no compunction in putting Margaret to work almost immediately; a design-studio was created for her to enable her to continue her stained-glass output. What Margaret thought of this is not known, but as the anniversary history says, the convent house was crowded with applicants and it was poor – so Margaret’s sales became its life-blood.

However, Mother Rosario, who was Marga’s junior by ten years, was also an artist, albeit an amateur, and the two even seem to have collaborated on some decorative designs, so there may have been some fellow-feeling there.

Revelations

This history also comes up with some facts that Margaret Rope scholars will be grateful for.

The first is that, when Woodbridge finally became too cramped for comfort, and the community moved in 1938 to another house (in nearby Rushmere), there were no design facilities there for Marga. This may explain the sudden drop-off in the quality of Marga’s work. Admittedly, she was nearly sixty by this time and the Second World War (1939-45) would cut off the supply of materials anyway, but it’s an interesting revelation.

A second, touching moment must have been in the month when the community decamped from Woodbridge to Rushmere. The book recounts how, on the way, the convoy dropped in to the Rope family church at Kesgrave, and the nuns were able to see the beautiful glass made by Marga for the church as well as examine the altar linen (which had been sewn by themselves). This must have been a hugely emotional day for Marga – don’t forget that, as an enclosed order, these nuns never usually went beyond their four walls – but sadly, the book’s editor has found no records of the nuns’ reactions on that day.
(Incidentally, Marga and the community were to move a third time, in 1948, to their present premises at Quidenham, in Norfolk).

The photos in the book have proved helpful too. One photo (see pic right) of a room in the current house at Quidenham shows, in the background, part of the window-set made by Margaret called the ‘Founders Windows’ (created to celebrate the whole Carmel project). No-one but the nuns can go into an enclosed convent, so this is the first photo (that we are aware of) that shows the window in situ. The set was originally created at Woodbridge, so had to be transported to its new site and re-installed.

Interestingly, anyone can see the stained-glass in the chapel at Quidenham Convent, which is open to the public for services. Although Margaret had a hand in their design, these wonderfully vibrant windows are in fact a collaborative work between two other glass artists, Tor (Marga’s cousin) and Clare Dawson.

Extraordinary community

Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise to learn that Carmels are semi-independent institutions. Carmelite nuns are autonomous in the structure of the Catholic Church and owe no (hierarchical) loyalty to the local bishop; the community’s orders come from Carmel HQ alone.
Following on from that aspect – though the order does lay huge stress on humility and obedience -, Carmelites are not meant to eschew original thought. Even the humble St Therese was not afraid to say what she thought – with sometimes staggering honesty…

And that spirit of honest assessment does seem to have found a home in this book! The authors (there are more than one) are not afraid to point out the flaws in their predecessors. It’s rather refreshing…

The spirit of enquiry mixed with self-questioning could account for why so many intellectuals and senior public figures have figured among the nuns in this community over the one hundred years. (These include the art historian Sister Wendy Beckett and the thinker Ruth Burrows as well as one of the recent abbesses, Sister Teresa Keswick, a former barrister who even now writes a column in a national magazine. And the story of the secret millionairess who joined the order is worth a book in itself…!).

Did Mother Rosario and Sister Margaret, as well as some other figures similar to them in outlook, set this tone for the community, a tone which has lasted to the current day? The book doesn’t say, but the implication is there…

Magnificat – The Story of A Carmelite Community’ (100-page booklet) is on sale for £5 by mail-order. Click here for details.

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