Anna Arco visits the thriving Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate in Cornwall who follow an arduous daily routine of work and prayer
Lanherne monastery has always reflected the movements of the wider Church. Celtic monks first established the monastery near Newquay, Cornwall, in the sixth century. Later, the house became the property of the recusant Arundells of Wardour. They continued to have Mass celebrated there during and after the Reformation. In 1794, a group of Carmelite nuns from Antwerp escaping the French Revolution established a Carmel. Today, the brown habits of the Carmel have given way to the distinctive blue and grey habits of the contemplative Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate.
In 2001 the Carmelites found that their community had become too elderly and small to carry on keeping the building and its extensive gardens. But they were reluctant to leave a place so redolent with the prayers of the ages empty. So they approached the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate about taking up where they were leaving off. Several months after the meeting the new community was established.
Members of a new institute founded after the Second Vatican Council in Italy, the Franciscans of the Immaculate have a fourth vow alongside poverty, chastity and obedience. This is the Marian vow of total consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Sisters see themselves as the Virgin Mary’s property. The Marian devotion of both St Francis and St Maximilian Kolbe shaped the vision of the founders of the institute. Unusually for Franciscan Sisters, they follow the Rule of the First Order rather than the customary rule of the Third Order Regulars.
There are 12 Sisters at Lanherne. The oldest member is 50, and, again reflecting the reality of religious life today, consists of an international group of women from England, the United States, Italy and the Philippines.
The Mother Superior, Rosa Pia, pulls back the black curtain that covers the big wooden grille in the “speak room”, where the Sisters receive people from the outside world: their teachers and the occasional visitor. “Ave Maria!” This is the Sisters’ customary greeting.
Under her very white wimple and pale blue veil, Mother’s eyes are the most tranquil blue, her complexion is fresh, her cheeks pink and she radiates calm. Over the last two years, the Sisters have been learning to sing the Tridentine Office in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, which liberalised use of the older form of the Mass and pre-conciliar breviary. In their contemplative houses the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate have gradually moved towards using the older Office and calendar, while the order’s friars and missionary Sisters, who still say the Office of Pope Paul VI, are either also doing so or are heading in that direction.
The switch to the Tridentine Office wasn’t easy, says Mother, because they have had to learn how to pray it from scratch. The liturgical changes which followed Vatican II were made long before any of the Sisters were old enough to remember what preceded them. A priest has helped them with learning the Office and comes to Lanherne once every two weeks to give them lessons on the Tridentine liturgy.
The Sisters also take weekly Latin classes, to give them a deeper understanding of the words they sing every day. Despite the difficulties, Mother says the change has intensely enriched their lives. Before, singing the Office felt a bit like they were adding something on to was part of their daily lives, whereas singing the older, more intensive, form has given them the sense that they “are living the liturgy”. Where the post-conciliar Office stretches out the prayer cycle of the psalms over four weeks, the pre-conciliar Office goes through the full psalm cycle over seven days.
The Sisters pray for seven hours every day. They sing the Office, praying for the Holy Father, the universal Church and the whole world. They also engage in meditation in their cells and other prayers in the choir, besides the Divine Office. Mother explains: “We have left the world, it is true, but the world is what we pray and sacrifice for, since there are so many who are walking in darkness, especially in these days where there is so much indifference with regard to God.
“Some people go through their whole life without giving any thought to their Creator or questioning the meaning of their life. That is why there is so much unhappiness and dissatisfaction today – because people do not know that they were created to love and serve God in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next. The Sisters have responded to the call of God and in sacrificing their lives, they hope to draw many others closer to Him.”
They begin their day with Matins and Lauds at midnight, which means they sing the first part of the Office in the locked church before going back to bed until 5:45, when the bell rings for them to rise. At six, they pray the Angelus and make the act of consecration to Our Lady before saying Prime, or the first hour of the day. They meditate on sacred texts or pray silently before Terce. Then Fr George Roth, their chaplain and a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate who lives in his own community in the house outside the enclosure, celebrates Mass at 7:30 in the Extraordinary Form. Mother says that fewer people attend Mass at Lanherne since it became Tridentine, but she hopes the numbers will increase when the people come to understand the beauty of this ancient liturgy.
At 8:45 the Sisters eat breakfast. They live entirely on the charity of others and they depend entirely on gifts from benefactors. Visitors often leave useful donations, from oranges to yeast, in a turning pillar in the entrance, which allows the outside world to interact with the Sisters. Mother says their benefactors are generous and there hasn’t been a moment since the Franciscans arrived at Lanherne when the Sisters have gone hungry.
Heating can be a problem during the winter but then, says Mother, the Sisters pray very hard and God provides. In one case, the Sisters were landed with a bill for £5,000 for some much-needed repairs at the monastery and were unable to pay. The Sisters decided to entrust the situation to their patron, St Joseph, and within several weeks Mother found an anonymous cheque for the exact sum in the post.
Most of the vegetables eaten at the monastery come from a kitchen garden across the road from the high-walled flower garden. They can access it without having to leave the enclosure through a tunnel under the road.
When they have finished breakfast the Sisters either have choir practice or they go about their domestic chores or specialist works. One Sister binds books while another embroiders chasubles. One looks after the vegetable garden. Yet another translates a magazine about the contemplative life from Italian every month. There is a sacristan and a Sister who arranges the flowers in the Church and monastery. Mother says she often hears the Sisters praying the holy rosary saying Hail Marys and other prayers over their sewing, cleaning or cooking.
At 12:45, it’s time to return to the choir back to the church for Sext which is followed by a quick lunch and None. The Sisters rest for an hour and 50 minutes before praying the daily rosary together with the litany of Our Lady. Then the Lanherne Sisters spend another hour in meditative prayer in their cells. These cells are simple, containing a desk, a chair, a kneeler, a bed with a straw mattress, some books and adorned with a crucifix and an image of Our Lady. Every six months, the Sisters move into another cell as a small gesture of sacrifice.
There is time for more work before Vespers and evening study. Then the Sisters have supper, Compline, the last hour of the day and are in bed by 9.30. There isn’t a monotonous day, says Mother. Every day is exciting, full and varied.
Life at Lanherne is strict by most contemporary standards and the contemplative life is a radical step for any young woman. And yet in Italy and the Philippines, the Franciscans of the Immaculate offer an answer for young women in search of a life directed entirely to God through a Marian prism. Mother Superior Rosa Pia says that many people cannot even hear what it is that God calls them to do since there is so much noise in the world. The silence here is remarkable.
Like the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in Nashville and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate reflect a shift in the Church where new institutes grow out of older orders. These institutes return to their order’s origins but innovate in continuity with the Church’s history. They are often more traditional than their older contemporaries. In an age where women’s vocations to the religious life have declined, institutes like these are getting vocations.
So the monastery at Lanherne has come to reflect movements in the Church again. But the future of the Franciscans of the Immaculate at Lanherne is slightly uncertain, since the ancient buildings continue to belong to the Carmelites and the Franciscans are only their guests. As the Carmelites continue to get older and need more care, they may be forced to sell the monastery. Only time will tell.
Mother Rosa Pia adds a prayer: “Let us pray that this holy and historical place may always remain a place of prayer where God is glorified and Our Lady honoured in a special way and where the Holy Mass will continue to be celebrated as it has been for many centuries.”
To get in touch with the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate or assist them in any way please write to The Reverend Mother Rosa Pia, Lanherne Convent, St Mawgan, Newquay TR8 4ER