Inside Preston's secret religious community

Prayer at the Carmelite Monastery in Fulwood
Prayer at the Carmelite Monastery in Fulwood
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News that the last of the Carmelite friars is to leave Preston will be felt with regret by many Roman Catholics whom they have served down the years. Local historian Keith Johnson charts one of the city’s hidden secrets

According to tradition, the Carmelites take their name from Mount Carmel, a mountain in North Palestine. The mountain was the site of the Prophet Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal around 800 BC. In the 12th century a group of hermits settled on this mountain and became known as the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Carmelite Monastery in Fulwood

Carmelite Monastery in Fulwood

They spoke of Elijah as their leader and father and they adopted as their motto his famous words “I am burning with zeal for the Lord God of Hosts.” In the 13th century the monks set out for Europe to escape the horrors of wars in the Holy Land and by mid-century had reached England.

Eventually in the 15th century those in authority agreed to allow devout women into their ranks and thus the Carmelite nuns emerged.

Madeleine Dupont, 27, and born in France, was among a party of Carmelites who travelled to England in 1878 to open a Carmel foundation in Notting Hill, London. She was intent on spreading the faith and, taking the title of Mother Mary Of Jesus, she inspired the creation of more Carmels. In June 1914, along with a group of nuns, she left the Notting Hill base to journey to Eccleston, a parish of St Helens, on Merseyside, to establish a new Carmel there.

Despite the horrors of the First World War and the inevitable restrictions, the Carmelites were pleased to take up the offer of land to create a Carmel in Fulwood. Building work started in mid-1915 at the St Vincent’s Road site and the Fulwood Carmel was ready for occupation early in 1917 when a couple of nuns from Notting Hill moved in. Mother Mary Jesus was among those nuns who established the Carmel in April 1917, along with Polly Kirkham a Preston-born girl, 21 at the time, who took the name of Sister Mary Teresa. She had been training for her vocation at Notting Hill and there was much excitement in the Catholic community when she arrived as one of the 10 Carmelite nuns at Preston railway station to take up their mission.

Mother Mary Of Jesus who established the Preston Carmel

Mother Mary Of Jesus who established the Preston Carmel

Sister Mary Teresa would soon settle in the closed community and she spent a long and happy life in prayer until her passing in 1980. We can get a glimpse of what the Carmelite nun’s life was like back then in a ‘Preston Herald’ article of 1912 which described their existence as one of prayer, penance and silence. The article telling us a Carmelite nun’s day begins at midnight when the chapel bell chimes the hour and the nuns rise from their hard beds and silently wend their way to the altar where an hour is spent in prayer. Their midnight vigil over, they return to their hard couches, where they rest until dawn, when another hour of pray beckons. At 6am they break their fast partaking of black coffee and bread before they enter upon a routine of prayer and silent work. The midday meal is served when the Angelus tolls. This dinner consists of codfish balls, or other inexpensive fish, boiled potatoes, plain vegetables and dry bread. The afternoons of the Carmelites are spent in much the same manner as the mornings with the exception of two hours given to recreation. This time being occupied in sewing, usually the making of church vestments and tapestries. Some of the most cherished tapestries in Europe being made in Carmelite convents.

This indulgence in silent recreation is accompanied by a sister reading aloud passages from the lives of saints. Theirs is a world of silence, even their footsteps fall softly and the rustle of their coarse woollen garments tell the quiet motion of their silent forms. No sound breaks the stillness save the hushed monotonous chant of their office, the inspiring hymns of vesper, and a faint echo of the busy, laughing world rushing by beyond their sombre walls.

The evening meal is as frugal as the breakfast. It consists of bread and perhaps a cereal or gruel. The early hours of the gloaming are spent in more contemplation and prayer.

Darkness finds them kneeling in supplication for courage and faith for themselves, and mercy for those classes who yield to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the Devil. She is alone in her cell. There is no warmth in her convent. There is not a cushion upon which to sit or kneel. The floors are bare, the furniture is rough, and the walls un-adorned save for the pictured sufferings of Christ, a statue of the Mother of Sorrows or St Theresa and a crucifix.

Saint Therese

Saint Therese

It was a life the converts accepted willingly and, from the world we live in today, one hard to contemplate. Down the decades some of the restrictions on their movement have been relaxed and they are allowed to leave the convent to attend appointments for medical reasons and the like.

It is still very much a closed order and theirs is a life of prayer for the whole world and especially for priests. In their endeavours to raise funds they produce communion altar breads for all the local churches and greeting cards for all occasions. The growing of fruit and vegetables and keeping of chickens which provided eggs to give them protein, which is lacking in their meat-free diet, ensures a certain amount of self sufficiency.

When a Lancashire Evening Post reporter was given a chance to visit the Carmelite convent in 2007, she found a place of tranquillity and serenity. At that time 15 residents nuns were carrying out all the everyday tasks from pegging out the laundry to weeding the leafy gardens, although prayer and reflection was still at the heart of the retreat. There was still the early morning prayers and the pleasure of daily Mass led by a priest from the Carmelite Retreat on Sharoe Green Lane. Among the nuns in attendance was Sister Teresa, who had spent more than 45 years in the convent and who had only rarely left the retreat.

The eldest nun at the convent was Sister Iris Mary, aged 98, who had been in Preston for more than 20 years. The Carmelite Nuns belong to the order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and The Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Preston is the only enclosed Contemplative Convent in the dioceses of Lancaster.

Nearby is the Tabor Retreat Centre run by Discalced Carmelite Friars whose tasks include celebrating daily Mass for the nuns.

In 1985 Preston was glad to welcome the Discalced Carmelite Friars to Preston at a time when newly ordained priests were in short supply. They took over the running of the St Ignatius parish with friars Patrick Keenan, John McGowan, Ronan Murphy and Tadgh Tierney making Meadow Street their home. In the years which followed a succession of friars served the church until their departure in 2001 to their new retreat called Tabor on Sharoe Green Lane, a former 19th century farmhouse.

Father John Hawkins took over as parish priest at St Ignatius upon their departure and a decade later, in 2011, he visited the Tabor retreat as the Carmelite friars reflected on 10 years of devotion and said farewell to their longest serving friar, Father Eugene, who was off to Dublin.

To mark the centenary of the Preston Carmel a mass of thanksgiving took place in May 2017. Among those who filled the chapel in St Vincent’s Road, Fulwood, were a number of Carmelite sisters from Liverpool and beyond. Also in attendance was current Prioress Sister Josephine and the other seven sisters who continue the traditions of old. The gathering paid tribute to the lives of Sister Mary Teresa and another Preston girl, Winifred O’Neil, known as Sister Mary Winifred.

The Tabor Carmelite Retreat’s closure in July 2017 highlighted again the shortage of priests with the only remaining friar, Fr Liam Finnerty, being relocated to Oxford. With only 11 priests, the Carmelite Order which developed retreats in Liverpool, Birkenhead, Wetherby, York, Darlington, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Ware, Notting Hill and Norwich, could no longer staff the Fulwood retreat. A handful of Carmelite nuns still remain at their Fulwood residence and stay true to the beliefs of Madeleine Dupont who inspired the creation of their retreat and founded 33 Carmels during a life that ended in 1942, aged 91.