The Right Reverend Mother Bernadette Smeyers, who has died aged 102, was, as Abbess of St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight.
The fifth of a Belgian civil servant’s eight children, she was born Marie-Madeleine Elise Eugenie Smeyers at Louvain on August 5 1903. She was educated by the Paridaen sisters at Louvain until the family followed the Belgian Government into exile after the outbreak of the First World War. She was next sent to St Mary’s Abbey, Mill Hill, in London, then became a boarder at the Benedictine community of Pax Cordis Jesu, which gave up its school at Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight, and transferred to St Cecilia’s.
Marie-Madeleine could recall the great Solesmes plainchant authority Dom Mocquereau giving lessons in a faster chant to the community and girls, and she remembered being told to try again when she got wrong the Terce for Pentecost. After a period at home she followed her elder sister, Alice, into the community aged 23. As Sister Bernadette, she taught philosophy, served in the sacristy and the refectory, worked on the poultry farm and became an excellent calligrapher. After seven years she was made prioress, and became secretary to both the chapter and Abbess Ambrosia Cousin, whom she succeeded in 1953. During her 34 years as St Cecilia’s second abbess, the community was particularly lively, with much laughter in the parlour and conversation conducted in a mixture of English, Irish and French accents. Mother Bernadette threw herself into everything, ensuring that St Cecilia’s avoided many of the traumas experienced by other monastic foundations in the aftermath of the Vatican Council. Her twice-weekly conferences for the community were practical and unsentimental. Always ready to listen and to take the initiative, she showed a prudent interest in the making of altar bread, bookbinding and art work; she also introduced courses in Greek and Hebrew. She also presided over the redesigning and reordering of the abbey church, the introduction of vernacular readings and the abolition of dress distinctions between lay sisters and choir nuns. But she never wavered in the conviction that the Latin chant should be retained. In response to the repeated requests by conciliar documents, and to Pope Paul’s issue to bishops of a booklet of simple chants for parish use throughout the Church, she increased the singing of chant at the Divine Office and at Mass. This led her to arrange for a weekly practice for the congregation with two nuns, as well as the launch of the community on its recording career.
Mother Bernadette was responsible for issuing the first British recording of plainchant by nuns and for establishing the first Benedictine community for women in India. St Cecilia’s was initially uneasy about being able to dispose of the initial 500 plainchant recordings in 1974; but in the event they sold out within three weeks. A second impression of 3,000 copies was disposed of in six months; and Richard Baker contributed further to the recording’s popularity by playing an excerpt on his wireless programme These You Have Loved.
The Abbess visited the abbey of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, in the village of Byrathi, three times. By the last occasion, before it became independent in 1981, the community had begun a process of gradual Indianisation, with the furniture being replaced by mats and the nuns allowed to wear saris instead of habits.
Between 1980 and 1992, the abbey produced 10 further recordings, thereby encouraging other communities, from Downside in Somerset to Silos in Spain, to follow suit, astonishing a secular world with the undimmed appeal of chant.
Five of Dom Benedict’s nieces, whom Abbess Bernadette named “the quinque”, were welcomed to St Cecilia’s as potential members of the new community. While they received their monastic formation in contemplation, doctrine, and liturgy, in addition to English, French, Latin and plainchant, the Abbess dispatched two Ryde nuns to India, where they chose a site at Bangalore. This led to her being asked to meet the Bishop of Bangalore at the Vatican Council, where Pope Paul VI promised her that he would pray for the project. She was also invited to attend the first meeting of Asian monastic superiors in Bangkok; and, when the writer Thomas Merton was electrocuted in a shower, she joined in the uninterrupted recitation of 150 psalms around his body. Although superiors of the Solesmes Congregation, which St Cecilia’s joined in 1950, are elected for life, Mother Bernadette decided to offer her resignation in 1987 before she became too incapacitated. It was one of her hardest decisions, but she rejoiced in the election of a successor half her age, and settled happily into a quieter rhythm, peeling apples for bottling and attending classes taught by younger nuns.
When her hundredth birthday prompted messages of congratulation from the Queen, the King of the Belgians and Pope John Paul II, she described her longevity, despite ill-health, as “one of the miracles of God“, then added: “But my father lived to be nearly a hundred; it must be a family disease.” She continued to head the procession with Mother Abbess for Mass and Vespers, and attended all the offices except Lauds and Vigils to the end, genuflecting and walking without a stick. The night before her death on September 17 she fell, but told the nuns: “I was just doing some gymnastics.”
Her funeral Mass took place, as she requested on a feast day of Our Blessed Lady, to whom she had a great devotion. Most appropriately she was laid to rest in the crypt of St. Cecilia’s on the Feast of Our Lady of Ransom / Our Lady of Walsingham after a Concelebrated Requiem led by Father Nicholas (Prior). All the monks of Quarr Abbey were present in the sanctuary and Fr. Richard Hind, Chancellor of the Diocese, came to represent the Bishop. She is buried in the abbey crypt. Requiescat in pace