Convents are often considered to be places of refuge and religious service, a place where those with deep religious convictions go to be part of a community, living and worshipping under strict vows. Convents represent a religious tradition which dates back centuries, but in the 21st century, they are often open to misrepresentation and stereotype in the modern media.
So, what is it like to be a modern-day nun, and how are such devout women still actively using their faith to serve the community, politically, and socially.
In Bermondsey, on the edge of Dickens’ Mill Street, stands the Sisters of Mercy convent, which is home to seven sisters. One of them, Sister Assumpta, 88, has been a nun for nearly 70 years. Before she told me of her life experience, she emphasised that, “to understand me, you have to understand our history,” and that she, “is just one of a long line of sisters.”
The Sisters of Mercy congregation was founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831. Struck by the poverty, that laced the streets of Dublin, Catherine used her father’s inheritance to open a house for women, on Beggart Street, which was home to the city’s elite. Sister Assumpta explained her foundress’ notion: “you bring the poor among the rich – to give the rich a conscience about the poor.”
The house was created for women who were maids and servants for the landed gentry; many were often, “psychologically and sexually abused by the men of the house,” but Catherine continued growing the order, Sisters of Mercy, by helping those in need, visiting hospitals and prisons.
In 1839, Catherine McAuley came to Bermondsey, at the request of the Parish Priest, to build a primary school for the children of Irish dockers. The school still stands, under the name St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School. She also formed another Sisters of Mercy convent just a street away.
The sisters that Catherine had acquired, began teaching at the school. Sister Assumpta told me how, “four of sisters, went to the Crimean War with Florence Nightingale” in the 19th Century.
Growing up in Ireland, Sister Assumpta attended a catholic primary school, later to take her exams at a secondary school that was run by the Sisters of Mercy. She explained her spiritual awakening, the specific moment that certified her decision to become a nun: “When I was still in primary school, I had a very strong calling in my heart, that I wanted to give my life to God.”
At 18 years old, after completing her training and probationary period, Sister Assumpta became a nun, and when telling her family of her plans she said that, “the only thing my parents said to me was that I had to go somewhere close enough for them to come and get me if I wasn’t happy.”
Sister Assumpta was raised in a family that, “were the kind of family that went to church every Sunday, and we prayed every night.” Her mother taught her, “to never say anything bad about anyone,” and that “if you can’t say anything good – you can’t say anything bad.” Her family attended her entering ceremony, to which she wore a white dress.
However, Sister Assumpta noted how grateful she was for her parents’ acceptance – considering not all the women have had it so easy. She told of one sister who once lived in the convent, whose “family didn’t speak to her for a couple of years”.
Soon after her entering ceremony, Sister Assumpta moved to Bermondsey, she worked as a teacher at St Joseph’s Primary; worked on projects in Italy; met Mother Teresa is Calcutta; opened a project for carers in Croydon; before moving to East Africa for five years.
Routed in biblical truth, the phrase ‘religious mission‘ signifies purposeful movement, when a person is sent from one place to another to fulfil a purpose. Sister Assumpta worked at a school in Kenya, educating the young children, who have grown up in the slums there. “Africa was definitely a mission”, she told us.
One of her fellow sisters, Sister Catherine, has recently stepped down from her job as a headteacher at a private school, in Kenya, to open a state school for the less fortunate children in the community. This state school emerged when Sister Catherine used her spare hours to teach children under a tree, on a small plot of land – bringing a bucket of food with her.
“Two years ago, that began, today she has got five purpose-built schools, with showers and gyms in five different slums. And children who have been educated in those schools, are sponsored to go to secondary school, and sponsored to go to university, for high paid jobs in Kenya today,” Sister Assumpta said. One of the students who was educated in the school that she worked in has since, “validated her law degree in Kenya School of Law,” and then went to America where “Obama gave her an internship in the White House from 2009 to 2010.”
The salaries and pensions earned by each sister are given to the Sisters of Mercy convent, which has its centre in West Yorkshire: “Leeds takes charge of the money – all of the pensions etc, are paid into there.” This raised the concerns about a lack of financial independence, to which Sister Assumpta responded: “I get on with the business and the vocation, and the work. What does money matter to me? I don’t need money. I have enough clothes until I die.”
The sisters are, however, responsible for obtaining food supplies, “we have a certain amount of money for the shopping every week. It’s all communal, we all have a card each.” The sisters often share their food with those in need: “Once a week we have a man coming, who has no food for his children and then we might have nothing left for ourselves. That’s what my life is about, the most important thing is that I share myself.”
The day-to-day life of a sister is not always what it seems: Belonging to a convent that is not enclosed and as they are “active religious”, the sisters are free to focus on their independent work schedules. “There is nothing rigid about it,” Sister Assumpta tells us; their routines are their own.
Set prayer time, is a common theme on everyone’s agenda, each sister has a private prayer time, which takes place in the earlier hours of the morning. The later morning prayer is at 9:30, in the church, and evening prayer is set for 5:30 in the chapel, which lies inside the convent.
“I love Saturdays! Saturday is a free day – you can stay in bed all day if you like. Sunday is church, and we have visitors for lunch, it’s a bit busier,” Sister Assumpta explained.
After their evening prayers, the sisters come together for a meeting each day, where they talk about current affairs, work, and future plans, such as “who we will give Christmas presents to, and what charities we support.” The sisters engage in news media independently, discussing their opinions in these afternoon meetings. “I make sure that I hear the news everyday,” and she reflected on how, “there is an element of teamwork,” and female empowerment within the household.
Considering Sister Assumpta prioritises keeping up to date with current affairs, I was curious to find out how she reacts when scandalous articles, which criticise religious orders, come to light. She urged me to understand that “if you were to examine them, I’m sure they weren’t scandals.” She also expressed the reaction from the whole convent being, “we let that go over our heads, because we know the truth about it – and the truth makes you free.”
Although she denied being a feminist, Sister Assumpta emphasised how there is “definitely – definitely” advocacy for women in the projects that they dedicate their lives to. The convent intends to, “educate the girl-child and give them their rightful place,” she said. “I would not call myself a feminist” but, “we all have our place in life.”
The Women at the Well, is a sister-run project in Kings Cross “for women who have been street prostitutes or sleeping on the streets”. Sister Assumpta explained that women can “go there and get a shower; they can wash their clothes; they can see a care worker who can try to get them somewhere stable to live – and then point them in some occupation.” Sister Assumpta also explained that the name of the charity-run organisation, is a biblical reference to when Jesus met the woman at the well.
The youngest sister in the convent is 40 years-old. I asked Sister Assumpta if she feels that religious dedication is diminishing amongst young people, to which she replied: “In Europe yes. But not in Africa or South America. We have some very young sisters visiting us, from South America. But in this culture, 40 is the youngest.”
Young people are often exposed to nuns through archetypal figures which are popularised in TV culture, in shows like Call the Midwife and Sister Act. The role of a sister is also prominently invalidated when appearing as an antagonist in many horror films. Sister Assumpta emphasised the importance of young people being educated on religious dedication through school: “They need to have values, a value system to work from.”
In 2018, a thriller/horror movie titled The Nun opened in UK cinemas. The film was set in an Abbey, with viewers witness to brutal murders and attacks carried out by the nuns themselves. In October, sisters are victims to even more religious ridicule, when Halloween costumes, consisting of dressing up as a nun, are sold globally. The Daily Mail released an article, reviewing the film, with the headline: “The Nun is a demonic nun horror movie with plenty of gory, gothic action.”
So, how does Sister Assumpta deal with the religious ridicule in society today? “If people want to ridicule the habit, then they can, it’s their business. I get on with my work. It’s all passing, people don’t remember that.”
The Benedictine habit is worn to symbolise the vow of poverty, it consists of a white tunic; topped with an apron that hangs at the front and back (scapular); a belt that is secured around the waist (cincture); a headpiece (coif); and a veil that is pinned around the headpiece (usually black).
In the 1970s, as a sign of modernisation, the Sisters of Mercy, collectively decided to stop wearing the habit, with the intension of seeming more approachable: “We felt we were more like other people if we didn’t have the habit”.
Playing a significant part in religious identity, and worn by nuns for centuries, I wondered if Sister Assumpta missed wearing her ‘uniform’? “I don’t miss anything. The past is gone, you have no control over it. The future isn’t yours because you haven’t lived it. But you’re certainly very responsible for the present.” On the other hand, she did say that: “It was very easy when we had the habit, because you knew what to put on in the morning. Everyone on the bus wanted to get up and give me a seat!”
The sisters continue to wear small tokens of their religious dedication. This includes a silver band on their left hand, to wear as a “testimony to the fact that I have given my life to God.” In addition to a small coin (engraved ‘Mercy’), and a pendant of Mary, the mother of Mercy.
The Old Testament is a controversial subject in contemporary society, due to connotations of racism, homophobia, and sexism being present throughout. Many people think that the Old Testament is outdated and used for malpractice, and therefore it should be altered to match the modern perspective. As someone who practices their religion according to the Old Testament, Sister Assumpta explained how such disputes are because it is “always on how people interpret it,” and we should all acknowledge that “it’s to do with its time.”
Today, retired from teaching, and settled in Bermondsey, Sister Assumpta continues to write to MPs about class injustice: “that’s one of the things I do, I write against any steps that victimise the poor”.
Religion has always played a significant part in politics, but it seems now that society is more unaware of its subtle power than ever. With the current cost of Living Crisis in 2022, Sister Assumpta emphasised that she is doing all that she can to help those in need – she went on to laugh about how “they must be sick of getting letters from me!”
For information on how to get involved in the ‘Women at the Well’ campaign: click here
Featured image by Danielle Summer
Edited by Taysan Ali-Osman