How the building of a North York Moors convent was a modern day miracle

Sister  Anna Brennan in the glazed link between the enclosed part of the abbey and the church and chapter house

Sister Anna Brennan in the glazed link between the enclosed part of the abbey and the church and chapter house

  • Stanbrook Abbey isn’t just a strikingly contemporary convent. This architectural tour de force is a modern-day miracle. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
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Like all good double acts, Mother Abbess Andrea Savage and Sister Anna Brennan are sympatico. They finish each other’s sentences and laugh easily and that has certainly helped over the last decade.

For after signing up for a life of quiet contemplation in an enclosed Benedictine order, the two nuns found themselves in the middle of a self-build storm. It was stressful, over budget and seemingly impossible but they and the 20 other nuns who make up the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation have succeeded in their quest to construct a new eco-friendly monastery in the middle of the North York Moors National Park.

The crucifix window is one of the standout features in the building.

The crucifix window is one of the standout features in the building.

Modern, majestic and breathtakingly beautiful, Stanbrook Abbey is not just a testament to their faith… it is a miracle. “Or to be more accurate, several miracles,” says Dame Andrea.

The remarkable story began when the nuns decided to sell their old abbey in Worcestershire after almost 170 years. The heating bills were extortionate, with oil costing £6,000 every six weeks in winter, and the endless repairs distracted from their monastic life.

They wanted an eco-friendly monastery for the 21st century, although they had no idea where it would be or how much it would cost. The total so far is £7.5m.

“We were open minded about whether to convert an existing building or build from scratch and we looked the length and breadth of the country,” says Dame Andrea.

Abbess Andrea Savage at  Stanbrook Abbey  at Wass in North Yorkshire.

Abbess Andrea Savage at Stanbrook Abbey at Wass in North Yorkshire.

After being gazumped, they were sent details of Crief Farm in Yorkshire, which seemed spiritually auspicious as it is in Wass, close to the Benedictine monks at Ampleforth and to the ruined abbeys at Byland and Rievaulx. It also had existing holiday lodges that could provide an income,

They bought the farm in 2007 without planning permission, which was an enormous leap of faith as the North York Moors National Park authority is notoriously conservative. “In the eyes of many it seemed very unwise but I believe the Lord wanted us here and the national park agreed, although it was a nerve-wracking wait,” says Dame Andrea.

Former mother abbess Joanna Jamieson instigated the project and when she retired in 2007 her successor, Dame Andrea, and Sister Anna took charge. Before taking her vows in her mid-30s, Sister Anna worked in policing, while Glaswegian Dame Andrea joined in her 20s after working in banking.

The first phase of their new home cost £5m and was funded by selling land and assets. It delivered the accommodation block and the sisters moved into their 26 en-suite cells in 2009. Locals immediately dubbed the building “Tesco on the hill”. This was understandable as the austere looking property was missing its pièce de résistance: the church, chapel and chapter house.

The timber clad abbey church.

The timber clad abbey church.

Now, with the completion of the £2.5m second phase, the Tesco analogy has been laid to rest. Everyone who sees the new Stanbrook Abbey says “wow”, except the bishop, who said “gosh”.

For the sisters, the end of the second phase in 2015 brought immense pride and joy, along with a sigh of relief. It had been a stressful few years. The lowest point was trying to sell their old abbey during the recession, although another miracle occurred when they did so at a crucial moment in 2010, releasing vital funds.

Dame Andrea describes the self-build so far as “a long and tough road with many trials and tribulations”. Surely during this time, she and the other nuns must have begged and pleaded with God to help? But no, she says: “It was about entrusting ourselves to the Lord and believing that if something is meant to happen it will happen.”

Discreet fundraising helped make the £2.5m second phase possible. There is no doubt it would’ve been TV gold for Grand Designs but mention of the programme is met with puzzled expressions. The abbey has no television or radio.

Although their traditions and the scriptures they study hark back centuries, the design of their building reveals how progressive the nuns are. They wanted a sustainable, 21st century building and Feilden Clegg Bradley architects delivered it. Stanbrook Abbey is now on the shortlist for a Riba Yorkshire award.

Constructed from locally-sourced stone and sustainable timber with solar panels, a woodchip boiler, rainwater harvesting and a green roof, the aim was to create simple, tranquil and beautiful spaces that would aid prayer.

The church, where services are open to the public, is designed around the two liturgical axes that are inherent in the teachings of St Benedict. The choir stalls are in sycamore. The minimalist altar is decorated with a simple alpha and omega worked into a cross. The hanging crucifix was made in the 1930s in the style of Eric Gill by one of the Stanbrook nuns, Dame Werburg Welch. It was restored by Harrogate artist David Everingham.

The floor is Purbeck limestone with a square of Minton tiles from the old abbey, which is now a hotel. The tiles mark the place where the sisters profess their vows. The old convent, designed by Pugin, was dark and had windows that were frosted or stained by order of the Vatican, so the nuns would not be distracted by the outside world.

The Vatican is more liberal now. The church is bathed in light and provides dramatic views over God’s own county. The light and the visual connections to the surrounding landscape help rather than hinder their work, which is to pray and study. They rise at 5am and pray together six times a day and once alone for an hour.

Dame Andrea and Sister Anna have the additional task of finding funding for the third and final phase of the build: a library to house Stanbrook’s 50,000 historic books, which are in storage at Buckfast Abbey in Devon. They are not asking Him but they are hoping for another miracle.

n Stanbrook Abbey,www.stanbrookabbey.org.uk; Crief holiday lodges, www.cottageguide.co.uk/crieflodges

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