By Peter Clarke
Throughout the country one finds depressing stories of once flourishing Victorian churches, convents and priories where the Faith was proudly proclaimed with confidence and vocations were plentiful, that have now closed their doors and been transferred to secular use. Often closure is forced upon these religious establishments due to the present lack of vocations in the church as well as dwindling congregations and rising costs. At Carisbrooke there was a relatively happy ending for one such establishment, when the Dominican nuns departed after 123 years, pleased that their Priory House was to continue as a Christian House of Prayer and Retreat Centre.
It was Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman who invited the Dominicans to return to London in 1861, having been expelled 300 years earlier by Elizabeth I. Two years later the foundation stone of their Priory Church in Haverstock Hill (one of the largest churches in London) was laid by Father Jandel, Master General of the Order, in the presence of Cardinal Wiseman. Subsequently the Dominican Order gradually sought to build and develop priories throughout the country. The Order found an enthusiastic and generous patron in Elizabeth Countess of Clare who developed an affectionate admiration for the work of the Order and in 1865 she invited the Dominican Order of nuns at Stoneyhurst to move to the Isle of Wight. She decided that the Dominicans would be the first religious Order to be established on the Island since pre-Reformation times and consequently provided £12000 towards the cost of a new priory at Carisbrooke. She found an ideal site on the hill opposite the famous castle, one mile south west of Newport. The location emphasised the link with the Island’s Catholic heritage, as there had once been a pre-Reformation Cistercian Priory at Carisbrooke founded by Baldwin de Redvers (Earl of Exeter and Lord of the Isle of Wight) in 1156. The new Priory would be only a stone’s throw from the Catholic section of the Island’s main cemetery where the Dominican nuns, who had a special affection for the holy souls, would be able pray daily for the repose of her souls of the faithful departed.
The Countess instructed the architect, Gilbert R. Blount, to “present a good aspect towards the Castle so that all visitors would see that side of the Convent as they looked over the battlements. It is important”, remarked the Countess, “that any Protestant disagreeableness of convents should be counteracted by the appearance of the convent externally.” Bishop Grant of Southwark laid the foundation stone on the feast of St. Dominic (4th Aug) 1865. This was a very significant year for the Dominican Order. It was 650 years after St. Dominic founded the Order of Dominican nuns, and the establishment of the Order of Preachers by Pope Innocent III. It was also the 500 years after St. Catherine of Siena received the habit of a Dominican nun.
Building work survived a violent storm in February, 1866. Bishop Grant reported to the nuns who were eagerly awaiting the completion of their new Priory; “the hurricane caused minimal damage which cost five shillings to rectify! If the unfinished Priory survived such a violent attack from the elements”, the Bishop continued, “it will surely stand for a thousand years”. It was finally completed in November and the nuns were invited to travel to the Island from Stoneyhurst. The Countess was right to be concerned with Protestant reaction as the Rev. Mother Prioress recorded at the time, “We arrived at Carisbrooke via Southampton on 10th Dec. 1866 after some adventures on the way, not least the hoots and jeers especially as we disembarked at Cowes. Our nuns’ habits caused much amusement and laughter especially amongst the children”. The nuns responded in a dignified manner with a simple smile. The new convent was dedicated to “Our Lady of Reparation and St. Dominic”. Once again this was significant, as the foundation stone was laid exactly 327 years after the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was burnt in London on the orders of Thomas Cromwell. It was therefore considered that this dedication of the priory would be a small act of reparation for this sacrilege. The bishop announced “this is a fitting act of reparation for the destruction of the Shrine at Walsingham 327 years ago to this very day. We must hope and pray that faithful Catholics will find peace and consolation at this priory here on the Isle of Wight, as our spiritual ancesters did at the ancient Priory of Walsingham in Medieval times”.
Before the first Mass at the convent, celebrated on 13th Dec, the feast of St. Lucy, the new chaplain, Fr. Peter Sablon OP, led the nuns around the cloisters singing the “Veni Creator Spiritus” while blessing all the rooms of the Priory. The Prioress wrote to Bishop Grant expressing her “joy, gratitude and good fortune at being called by Almighty God to lead the nuns at Carisbrooke in their life of prayer and meditation in such a fine and beautiful Priory. The Order will for ever be grateful to our noble Foundress.. May God bless her and reward her a hundredfold”. The Countess had her own apartment incorporated into the west wing of the convent where she would make her annual Lenten retreat and also spend part of the Summer holidays. The nuns referred to the Countess affectionately as their “Lady Foundress”. She apparently had her own prie-dieu in the chapel’s sanctuary and on certain holy days she was permitted to come into the enclosure to join the nuns for prayer, devotions, meditation and for dinner. The nuns seemed to have adopted her as their “Honorary Abbess” and always addressed her as such although strictly speaking no such title or role exists in the Dominican tradition.
She was keen for the architecture of the Priory to complement that of the castle situated only a hundred yards across the narrow valley; hence the creation of a “folly” in the form of a square tower over her private accomodation. From here she surveyed the scene looking out from the parapets. In a letter to Bishop Grant she descibes the environment of the priory as an oasis of peace and tranquility disturbed only by the wind gently rustling trees, the song of the birds, the drone of the insects and the sporadic barking of a dog. To the north across the valley the nuns saw the Victorian tourists as they explored the castle walls, armoury and dungeons where Charles I had once been imprisoned. This haven of retreat certainly proved to be most conducive to the contemplative monastic life.
The Priory was honoured with a visit by Queen Victoria in 1869. This was believed to be her first visit to a Catholic monastic institution. She was known to resent the revival of Catholicism and the increasing papal influence over English Catholics. However she gradually mellowed in her attitude and considered a royal visit to this new Catholic Priory to be a worthwhile public relations exercise, She therefore travelled the four miles from Osborne House and was duly received by the Prioress and local Catholic clergy. The Sisters stopped their embroidery and needlework, as directed by the Prioress, in order to listen carefully to their Royal Visitor. They stood so motionless that the Queen was heard to whisper to one of her ladies-in-waiting, “What a pity that these ladies have not got something useful to do!” In subsequent years Princess Beatrice became a frequent visitor. In 1896 she succeeded her husband, Prince Henry of Battenburg, as Governor of the Isle of Wight. Carisbrooke Castle was the residence of the Governor and the nuns developed a good relationship with their royal neighbour. The Princess was sympathetic towards Catholicism. Her daughter, Victoria Eugenie, became a Catholic on her marriage to King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1906 and they too visited the Priory on several occasions
Fortunately, Queen Victoria’s visit dispelled some of the fears and prejudices of the “Protestant Society”, who appeared determined to prevent them being accepted and settling into the local community. “If the Queen could visit these Roman nuns”, they thought,” then surely we can accept them living at the end of our road”. By their devotion to duty, generosity and care in the local neighbourhood, the nuns gradually became both popular and respected. A near neighbour remarked to them, “When we hear your bell, we know that you are praying for us all and we feel loved and looked after.” The bell did cause some confusion initially, as the nuns remained with “Greenwich Mean Time” when the clocks went forward in Spring. They rung every three hours to call them to the regular pattern of conventual prayer and meditation. This included the time-honoured tradition of rising at midnight to recite Matins. Their pattern of daily work did not include any idleness, as Queen Victoria had suggested. They became skilled in needlework and embroidery which were the customary occupations of ladies of their station in Victorian times. Many became very skilled needlewomen and they produced many fine sets of vestments for various churches and chapels.
In 1870 there were major celebrations at the Dominican Priory to mark the 700th anniversary of the birth of St. Dominic and the 600th anniversary of the death of the Dominican nun, St. Margaret of Hungary. In her latter years the Countess of Clare still travelled the seven miles over to Carisbrooke from Ryde and took her maid and cook with her and she was permitted to decide the menu, (which was cooked by her own servants), when she joined the nuns for meals on important feast days. Hence the enforcement of the normal seclusion, as instructed by the Holy See, and the inclusion of grilles, only became the norm after the Countess’ death in 1879. She was buried in the nearby cemetery where the nuns cared for her grave and prayed for the repos of her soul.
celebrate the golden jubilee of the Priory, the chapel was consecrated to the glory of God and in honour of Our Lady of Reparation and St. Dominic by Bishop Cotter of Portsmouth in 1916. The sanctuary was subsequently re-ordered in line with the requirements of Vatican II in 1973 and sadly most of the ornaments and furnishings were removed. However three beautiful stained glass windows remain from the time of the Countess. Two of these depict Sts. Augustine and Dominic.
Eventually it became evident that the decline in vocations and the increasing cost of maintenance was taking its toll on the elderly nuns and consequently the priory would have to close. Inspired by the Holy Ghost, one of the nuns, Sister Mary Albert O.P. resident at Carisbrooke since 1939 composed this simple prayer placing the future of the priory in God’s hands:-
“Christ of Carisbrooke claim your Kingdom,
And lead us together to the Father
Rejoicing in Your Spirit of Love. Amen”
Parallel to this petition was the prayer of Helen Rawlings, who with her husband John, an Anglican priest, began a ministry for those suffering from mental and emotional problems. They needed suitable accomodation for the project. In a dream Helen saw a large three storey Victorian house in the country with a sustantial garden and water running nearby. As they searched the South of Englnad the house in Helen’s dream was eventually identified as St. Dominic’s Priory which they subsequently purchased from the nuns.
So it fell to the last Prioress, Sister Mary John O.P, to vacate the property on 17th Oct. 1989, with the four remaining nuns; one of whom was ninety five and had not been outside the Priory for seventy years. They left behind the graves of their spiritual ancestors of the Dominican Order together with those of their chaplains, the chapel which had witnessed their daily life of community prayer and devotions, and the cloisters where silent meditation had nurtured their spiritual relationship with Almighty God since 1866. In the end they were both philosophical and pragmatic about their departure. Yet they would surely be forgiven for speculating on the thoughts of the Countess of Clare, presumably observing from above, their departure from the Priory she had built. It was of considerable consolation when Sr. Mary John returned to visit the Priory in the Spring of 2002. She was pleased to be able to record, “the new owners have carried out any necessary changes with a deep respect and indeed reverence for the nature and purpose of the building”. The nuns of the Dominican Order were pleased that the Priory was to remain in Christian hands and that a praying, worshipping community started by the Countess would continue to pray and work with Christ at the centre of their lives. This view was echoed by the Rev. Chris Lane, Chaplain Director of the Carisbrooke Priory Trust. “We are a House of Prayer and a Centre for Christian healing”, he wrote in Jan 2002. “This Priory was built as a House of Prayer and what we are doing is not, at heart, any different from what the nuns did here for over 130 years. We are more than happy to think that the Priory still maintains something of that great tradition of prayer cherished by our Catholic Sisters.”
Today there is still a warm welcome at the priory for Christians of all denominations and a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere is immediately evident where Christian worship and fellowship continues. Thankfully the prayer of Sister Mary Albert and Helen Rawlings was answered by Almighty God and the building has been saved for religious use. Today the influence of the Dominican nuns still pervades the cloisters and the chapel to enhance the Christian atmosphere in the centre of the Island.
The Catholic community return each year to the priory, on or around the Feast of St. Dominic, for an annual Mass and to bless the graves of the Dominican nuns.