Living in harmony

North Yorkshire nuns committed to a simple life of poverty and solitude have sold their Victorian monastery to build an eco-friendly replacement. Jonny Walton found out why.

There are bowls, paper knives and lots of candlesticks – and I once made a raft for the lake," recalls Sister Rose of one audacious woodworking adventure.

"It was a polystyrene-based structure and when we got it on the water it only went down about an inch. But it did work." "But it was quite lethal," adds Sister Bridget, the prioress, with a chuckle. "There was loads of deep mud below the water and it could have been quite dangerous." Needless to say, Sister Rose's home-made flotation device never entered regular service and Thicket's lily-adorned lake must still be circumnavigated on foot, via woodland paths. But its creation is testament to her industry. Whether it be skill with the lathe, saw and drill in her sawdust-strewn workroom or using the sewing machine to make habits and wimples, Sister Rose is seen as a creative asset to Thicket Priory.

The 42-year-old former chemistry teacher is an example of how all 12 of this self-sufficient Carmelite community must pool their individual gifts and energies for the common good. And it has been so since 1955 when Exmouth's Carmelite community moved here, buying a mansion at Thorganby, near York from the vacating Dunnington-Jefferson family and igniting a link to the site's medieval use as a monastery for Cistercian nuns.

Eleven sisters now live under a vow of poverty in the Thicket community, with a twelfth away on an educational break. Despite the mansion's grand statement, theirs is a simple existence of lifelong devotion to God. "People write to us and say, would you pray for my uncle who's having an operation, or perhaps someone who's very ill, someone lonely or about a terrible war going on," says Sister Bridget.

"We can talk to them or write and say, yes, we are praying. Just to know they are being held up to God in these difficult situations, it gives people comfort."

Each day within the carmel is an ordered blend of prayer, work and recreation, with the sisters rising in their sparsely furnished rooms, or cells, at 5.30am, before going to the chapel or staying in situ to pray.

"The cell is a special place for a Carmelite, it's a place we live with God. It's a sacred place," explains Sister Ann, a former nurse who has lived at Thicket for 27 years.

"We then come together in the chapel for the first of the divine office. It's a set of prayers based on the Psalms which the whole church takes on behalf of the world. We began that rhythm of prayer in common with the world at 7am.

"Then we have breakfast of tea or coffee and a slice of bread and marg, sometimes cereal if it's a feast day.

"Everyone laughs at that," she smiles at this rare treat.

Maintaining a monastery the size of this early-Victorian mansion is full-time work for the sisters, who range in age from 30 to 89-year-old Sister Mary of Christ. The remainder of their daily routine is spent praying at dedicated times, cooking, sweeping, cleaning, answering the telephone and letters and making their living. It's a livelihood made from the production of church altar breads. The task is completed by modest means – just white or wholemeal flour and water baked into wafer-thin sheets and cut into discs – but executed on a grand scale. A British Isles map in the packing room is spattered with tiny stickers, from Land's End to the Scottish islands, showing all the groups which receive Thicket's breads. The sisters send out seven million individual pieces per year.

However, this work and all tasks around the priory are being done with reduced numbers. In December, 30-year-old Sister Thrse made her solemn profession. The Warrington-born business graduate is the community's youngest member, but women are not joining in numbers.

Fourteen sisters made the move from Exmouth and an increase to 26 prompted the creation of a new carmel at Wood Hall in Wetherby in 1969. But in the last 10 years numbers have dwindled as older sisters have died and fewer have joined.

It has meant that for the first time since the formation of Wood Hall, Thicket Priory is to experience fundamental change. The sisters have made the bold move of selling the mansion house and most of its grounds to build a smaller, more manageable monastery within seven acres of the 23 they have retained beyond the lake.

"It's a beautiful house and beautiful grounds and it's not that we don't want to live here, but we realise we've got to be forward-thinking," says Sister Bridget, adding that Thicket will become a

family home.

"We have to realise that not so many are coming in, though we hope many more will. While we've the strength and energy we are building a more manageable place." For Sister Ann, maintaining a large house for a small number of nuns runs against their ethos. "It's a bit immoral to be living in this big mansion. We are trying to live a very simple lifestyle," she says. "For people to see that we're spending a lot of money just keeping it in good repair is not a good witness to a group of women who try to profess poverty." The sisters appear deeply enthused by the forthcoming monastery which Ann calls a "wonderful chance to refocus on what we are about", while she and Sister Bridget chatter excitedly about its geo-thermal heating, solar panelling and swathes of glass to transmit natural light. "There'll be no wasted space," says Bridget. "Also, we are not really going away, we will still be here. And the new owners are lovely people, considerate and protective of what we do."

As we walk towards Sister Rose's woodworking room, conversation turns to the paths which lead away from the material and towards a lifetime within the sisterhood. Predictably, there is no neat answer. "It's an imperative really," says Sister Ann. "Some people know from the beginning that they want to, while others feel at least they've got to give it a try."

Sister Bridget, who is 68 and joined Thicket 47 years ago after teacher training college, says women can feel that God is speaking to them directly, telling them to follow the path. Understandably, long-observed processes prevent women from making this lifetime commitment without hesitation. "It's a minimum of five and a half years and is tailored to the individual sister," says Sister Ann. "Some need longer before they know they can make a permanent commitment, but often now so many cannot face that commitment. Also, the community has to know she is ready. We'd need to know

they are happy and comfortable where they are."

Having committed absolutely to life at Thicket, one of 21 carmels in Britain, a sister must continue to challenge herself, says Ann. "She would have to be growing as an individual. She cannot be in any way regressing and not developing her skills. And it's about being happy within your limitations. Not everyone will realise every skill they have."

"We live a fairly solitary life," adds Sister Bridget. "We try to be hermits while we are working and living. You have to be so happy with yourself because you are facing yourself all the time.

"You've all got loads of distractions and loud music, whereas we keep silent most of the time we're working because we can pray and be with God all of the time."

Back in the woodwork room, Sister Rose tells how her father presented her with the lathe to aid her recuperation following illness. "My brother bought me the saw and mother the drill. The more things I have, the quicker I can learn and make things," she says.

Many of the items Rose hews from locally-sourced wood become gifts, including toys which can make it as far as Africa. "We are very much a part of society; we are immersed in it," says Sister Bridget. "We are able to see the needs of everyone and pray and hold them up to God." And with that, warm farewells are made and sisters Bridget and Ann continue with their work. There is much to do. The builders will soon begin laying bricks, while the sisters must prepare their move to a new home – albeit one a few hundred yards away – within eight months, closing a door on a chapter of Thicket's religious life and opening another.