A new film shows the amazing growth of a contemplative order whose convent stands near the notorious execution spot, says Simon Caldwell
Tyburn Convent stands yards from the site of the former Tyburn Tree, the three-sided London gallows upon which 105 Catholics, including 20 canonised saints, were executed during the Protestant Reformation.
The convent’s very existence fulfils the prophecy made in 1585 by Fr Gregory Gunne when, during his own trial, he rebuked an Elizabethan court for having sentenced St Edmund Campion to death at Tyburn.
“You have slain the greatest man in England,” he said. “I will add that one day there, where you have put him to death, a religious house will arise, thanks to an important offering.”
Ever since March 4 1903, when the order’s French foundress, Mother Marie Adele Garnier, opened the convent, the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre OSB – also known as the Tyburn Nuns – have prayed at Tyburn in perpetual adoration of the Eucharist.
The order is now growing and is spreading rapidly around the world. In the last 15 years alone it has opened a succession of monasteries at the invitation of local bishops, most recently Blessed Pope John Paul II,who, in the 2005 Year of the Eucharist, invited the Tyburn Nuns to establish a house in Rome.
Yesterday, the Tyburn Nuns released the DVD Tyburn Convent Gloria Deo, a 90-minute film by Michael Luke Davies, a former West End fashion and beauty photographer, which offers a unique and fascinating window into life in their order’s nine monasteries.
Here, the viewer is introduced to the Tyburn Nuns and their foundress, Marie Adele Garnier, a French woman devoted to both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and adoration of the Eucharist.
She founded the order in Montmartre, Paris, in 1898 but fled to London three years later to evade anti-clerical laws. She re-established the order on England’s own “hill of martyrs” in 1903. The convent’s Crypt of the Martyrs has grown to become a centre of international pilgrimage.
Archbishop George Stack of Cardiff is filmed saying: “Whenever I think of Tyburn Convent I think of those beautiful words and that wonderful image of the English poet T S Eliot. He spoke about a still point in a turning world and that seems to me to sum up what Tyburn is. Tyburn Convent is situated at the very centre of the busiest city of our country, London, and it is situated at possibly the busiest junction, Marble Arch. But there is an invitation here from every walk of life, people in any need whatsoever, to participate in that wonderful world of heart speaking to heart in the silence of the heart.”
The Tyburn Nuns are resident in St Benedict’s Priory, Cobh, a monastery in the colonial-style former Admiralty buildings of the Royal Navy, overlooking Cork Harbour, one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.
Here, the film examines the nuns’ life of prayer and work, under the Benedictine rule ora et labora. Devoted lay people are seen joining the nuns for Mass in the monastery church before nuns are filmed at work in the library, kitchen and garden.
Filming also takes place in the monastery’s Oratory of St Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland and the last of the Tyburn martyrs.
It includes footage of the Bible garden and of Veronica Brennan, who tragically lost her son, David, speaking in the Leanbh garden, which was specially constructed as a place of peace and reflection for the bereaved parents of deceased children.
Michael Luke Davies captures the extraordinary moment when 26-year-old Sister Mary Justin of the Divine Child, who grew up in Bordertown, South Australia, sings her solemn vows during her profession as a nun, having entered the convent at the age of 17, and receiving a ring from the Mother General with the solemn proclamation that she “is now forever espoused to Christ”.
“It was the first time I have ever attended one of those ceremonies and to be so close was very involving, and she had a beautiful voice,” said Davies. “Because of her voice, because of the light at the windows, the whole ceremony was just fantastic and very moving.”
The monastery at Riverstone in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, is one of the order’s oldest houses, dating back to 1956. Cardinal Norman Gilroy invited the nuns to New South Wales. As is typical of Tyburn Nuns’ houses, it enjoys the active support of local Catholics, some of whom not only attend early morning Mass but also join the nuns to help them with their work in their gardens, simply because they “want to be where the nuns are and close to God”.
The Monastery of the Sacred Heart in the fishing town of Sechura, Peru, was the first foundation of the Tyburn Nuns in a developing country. The nuns went there in 1976 at the invitation of the Archbishop of Piura who asked them specifically to pray for priests and seminarians. The nuns built a convent on the highest sand dune of one of the most isolated regions of the country. It opened in July 1981 and the following year the nuns found themselves at the heart of a humanitarian effort to help the victims of floods caused by the Corriente Niño.
The filming in Peru demonstrates once again just how very close the nuns are to the communities in which they flourish. In Sechura, they have opened both a hospital and a museum. They and the priests who serve them are assisted in their works of mercy by lay oblates.
Every morning, before dawn, the chapel is crammed with fishermen who go to pray there before starting work, asking God’s protection before they set out on the Pacific Ocean in their boats.
The filming at the Benedictine Monastery in Largs on the west coast of Scotland caught the nuns as they sang, played musical instruments and meditated in the quiet seclusion of their walled garden. It observes the “silent succession of Sisters replacing one another in the monastery church for periods of silent Eucharistic Adoration”, which is at the heart of the life of the order.
The film tells how the Bishop of Galloway formally petitioned the Tyburn Nuns to open a monastery in Scotland in the 1980s and how they amalgamated with the Benedictine convent at Dumfries, inheriting its rich musical tradition, museum of hand-embroidered vestments as well as valuable oak church furniture.
The Tyburn Nuns came to New Zealand just 15 years ago at the invitation of Bishop Patrick Dunn and they now have a thriving monastery supported by the active enthusiasm of local people, including a 92-year-old man who has created a series of bush walks modelled on the Stations of the Cross which have become a pilgrimage destination for tourists.
The nuns are filmed in the New Zealand countryside, nursing orphaned lambs, harvesting herbs and crops and in silent contemplation.
Michael Luke Davies, a non-Catholic, said that filming the prioress sitting beside a river bank was for him the high point in the entire production. “I come from a fashion and beauty background,” he said. “I had been filming models all my life and then suddenly I found myself waist-deep in water filming this religious person by this river and I felt to myself: ‘This is what I am supposed to be doing.’ It was a massive moment in my life.”
The Monastery of the Gate of Heaven at Vilcabamba, Ecuador, is situated 5,000 feet above sea level in the Andean mountains. It dates from 2002 when the Bishop of Loja asked the nuns to establish a contemplative community to pray for the priests of his diocese and to help the local people find a more prayerful way of Christian life.
The film reveals how the nuns have transformed a mountainside “full of rubbish and weeds” into a vast sculptured garden with walkways, containing walls and packed with indigenous plants and flowers and medicinal herbs.
The film features the admission to the novitiate of Mother Fatima, when she takes the veil and begins to live under the rule of St Benedict, and the monastic profession of Mother Caridad.
The Monastery of the Divine Paraclete is one of the newest of the convents. The Tyburn Nuns established their third Latin American house at the urgent and insistent requests of a bishop who wanted the nuns to specifically pray for peace in a land bedevilled by civil conflict and drugs trafficking.
The monastery, situated at Antioquia, high in the northern lakelands, is in an Italian medieval style.
The film concludes at the order’s newest religious house, the Monastery of Madonna dell’ Eucharistia in Via Cardinal Bofondi, near St Peter’s Basilica.
The order was invited to Rome by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2005 to pray perpetually before the Blessed Sacrament for the Holy Father and the Church in Rome.
A group of the nuns, led by the Mother General, kneel before the Blessed’s tomb in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica to offer prayers of gratitude for the pope’s invitation to open a monastery in the Eternal City and for the gifts of a chalice bearing his coat of arms.
Davies says the filming in the Vatican represented for him another of the “high points” of the experience of making Tyburn Convent Gloria Deo.
He explained that the Vatican closed the crypt to pilgrims so he could shoot the moment when the nuns prayed at Blessed John Paul’s tomb.
He said: “It was Mother’s very positive wish that they go back and thank Pope John Paul.”
We have five copies of the DVD to give away. Just send us a postcard marked “Tyburn competition” with the answer to this question: who was the first Tyburn martyr? You can also email the answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. The competition has closed.
Copies of Tyburn Convent Gloria Deo can be purchased for £15 either directly from Tyburn Convent, 8 Hyde Park Place, London W2 2LJ (tel: 020 7723 7262) or from Catholic bookshops