Nuns to leave Darlington convent after 180 years

Image caption Sister Francis and Sister Carmela are busy packing for the move

Dwindling numbers and spiralling maintenance costs have forced the Carmelite nuns in Darlington, County Durham, to move from their Grade II listed convent to a smaller, more modern building.

BBC News joins them as they pack up and prepare to downsize.

Sister Francis and Sister Carmela diligently sort through the many boxes scattered around their home.

Moving house is stressful for anyone, but when you're downsizing from a 3.16 acre convent to a seven-bedroomed detached house, it is even more chaotic.

"It's not pleasurable," said 70-year-old Sister Carmela, who has been tasked with organising the packing operation, including boxing up the 10,000 books in the library.

"There are 50 rooms, nooks and crannies and cupboards in the wall full of stuff," she said.

The Carmelite Convent in Darlington has been home to the Carmelite community of nuns since 1830.

But with numbers dwindling - there are just four nuns left at the convent - the huge listed building has become too expensive to maintain.

Stark contrast

"When we have to pay such bills for a community of four, it seems horrendous," said Sister Francis, who is originally from South Africa and has been at the convent for 26 years.

"It's not right to be paying that sort of money for such a small group. We do have a vow of poverty."

Image caption The nuns will move from a large old building to a smaller, modern house

Their new home is a 1930s detached house, just around the corner from the convent, and is a stark contrast to their current home, which originally dates back to 1684.

A former nursing home with just seven bedrooms, the new premises will also be easier for them to clean.

"When there was a big community, it did not seem so bad because the jobs were distributed between the community," said Sister Francis.

"As it's got smaller, each person has had to take on more and more.

"It's a case of literally cleaning all the time - we do not get time to do other things.

"We've had to get a cleaner in to help us."

The Carmelite nuns in Darlington are not the only religious order in England to feel the financial pressure of trying to maintain their historic home.

A community of more than 20 Benedictine nuns last year moved from the 20-acre ornate Stanbrook Abbey in Worcester to a modern eco-monastery on the North York Moors.

The community had been at the abbey for 171 years, but mounting maintenance bills and limited options to modernise left them with no choice but to move.

The new £4m Stanbrook Abbey has been purpose-built for 21st Century living, and even has en-suite cells with balconies and broadband connections.

"Some of the community thought it (having en-suite bedrooms) was indulgent but we are living in the 21st Century," said Abbess Andrea Savage, Mother Abbess of Stanbrook.

"And we were thinking about disadvantages we had, such as caring for the elderly members and also young people expect certain facilities."

Monastic life

The community looked at modernising the old Stanbrook Abbey, which has now been sold to the leisure company Amazing Retreats, but its listed status made it difficult.

"It was a beautiful building," said Abbess Andrea. "But we did not come to maintain buildings, we came for the monastic life, the life of prayer and not to be spending our time cleaning and maintaining buildings."

Image caption Abbess Andrea Savage said the new abbey was purpose-built for the 21st Century

She said moving was emotional, but the new building was much better for the community.

"We moved from the 19th Century to the 21st Century - we missed out the 20th Century altogether," said Abbess Andrea.

"They (the Darlington Carmelite nuns) have all my prayers and the prayers of our community because we know all the emotional attachments.

"We really sympathise with what they are going through."

Sister Francis said part of the reason their community was so small was because of a decline in interest in religion.

"It's not just convents," she said. "It tends to be a church thing - everybody is experiencing it.

Catholic schools

"The Anglicans are experiencing it, the Salvation Army, we are experiencing it.

"There is a lack of young people coming forward and if they do come forward they do not want to make commitments long-term."

Both Sister Francis and Abbess Andrea said the role of religious orders had changed over the years, which might also explain why fewer people are joining.

"There are not the nuns and priests in Catholic schools anymore and that was quite an example for a number of us," said Sister Francis.

Image caption The old Stanbrook Abbey and the new eco-monastery

"A few of them still teach, but most of them are too old and there is no one taking their place."

Abbess Andrea said: "In centuries gone by, education and health were things that the state never covered so a lot religious groups were formed for education or nursing.

"Today, the state looks after these sorts of things so many religious communities are finding there is no need for schools or whatever."

She added that there was now more room for "expression of faith" and so young people no longer felt the needed to join a religious community.

The Darlington Carmelite nuns, along with their four rabbits and pet bird, hope to move into the new house on 15 October.

Sister Francis said they were given the option to disperse and join other convents in the order, but the four of them decided they wanted to stay together and stay in Darlington.

"It has been very very difficult," she said. "It has made us stronger and made us realise that there must be something good here and it must be worth saving."

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