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BLOG: SLG Convent of the Incarnation Visit

Posted on 12th February 2018

MEB Design first started working with the Sisters of the Love of God (SLG) Convent of the Incarnation in 2015 to carry out a strategic plan which led onto the Chapel Refurbishment project in 2016. MEB Design are now working with the Community on the next more extensive redevelopment project.

To understand the ‘SLG Rule’ and their ‘Way of Life’, the Vows professed by the Sisters within the Community and which are the foundation of their life and of their witness in the Church and to the World, Maggie Forrester went to stay at the Convent.

Maggie attended the ‘Offices’ within Chapel from 6am to 8pm, whilst also taking part in the meals and in between those times forming a written and photographic record to aid the Design Team as the project develops. The time spent there provided vital information to develop the brief and above all gave a better understanding of their life and needs.

You can read Maggie’s fascinating and informative blog below.

MAGGIE’S SLG CONVENT OF THE INCARNATION VISIT

Before reading this blog of my visit and stay with the Community within the Sisters of the Love of God (SLG) Convent of the Incarnation it is helpful to understand that as a Monastic Community the Sisters observe the rule of ‘Enclosure’.

…All Christians are called through Baptism to sanctification in a life of total commitment to the service of God.  For the Monastic, this total commitment demands withdrawal to fulfil the vocation to follow the way of Christ bound by the Vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience… (Rule 1 Monastic State)

…The purpose of the enclosed life is the preserving and deepening of prayer.  It is withdrawal from the secular estate in answer to the call of God to make possible a more complete offering of the whole self, body, soul and spirit to do God’s will and to be the means of extending His love in the world.  Within this withdrawal the needs of the Church and the world should be more clearly seen in the light of God… (Rule 4 Enclosure)

Ahead of my visit, the predictable jokes of, ‘Sound of Music’, ‘Sister Act’, or ‘You may convert to a Novice’, all came along… I am glad to say, living with the Community was some of these things, and the whole experience was one which was inspirational and imparted a great sense of love and care for one another!

…As the heavenly city is built of innumerable stone, each possessing its own intrinsic beauty and its own due place, so the living Church of Christ on earth is continually being built by the perfecting of individual souls and their due relationship to one another in the oneness of charity… (Rule 26 The Spirit of Love)

Wednesday 31st January 2018

9.00am – 9:50am TERCE/EUCHARIST

…In the Eucharist the people of God thank God for what he has done and revealed to us through Christ, who is both Word and Sacrifice, with who we participate, priest and people alike, in the one Sacrifice of the one Body and Blood… (15 The Eucharist)

Eucharist Prayer B – A Visiting Priest delivered the service.  I sat quietly at the back of the Visitors’ Chapel so as not to distract the community.  However, sitting as such meant I could not see what the Sisters were doing, so I took my lead when to stand and sit from another visitor who appeared to know and understand the process.  I failed to follow the prayer and kept looking at other pages to find a verse I would recognise, when I finally realised I was looking at Prayer D instead of Prayer B; I had misread the board!

9.50am – 11:15am CHAPTER HOUSE COMMUNITY MEETING

The Prioress, Sister Avis Mary, came across the Altar to whisk me away at the end of the service, along the cloister to the Chapter House for the weekly meeting.

I sat at the back and soon after thirteen Sisters arrived.  Reverend Mother Sister Clare Louise and the Prioress Sister Avis Mary sat at a row of tables at the front, as did one other Sister to take the minutes.

Some Sisters sat on the bench seating around the perimeter and some on comfier individual chairs (with hand rests if needed).  Sister Alison has mobility problems and uses a walking stick and Sister Adrian uses a walking chair.

They sat in a square layout and used a hand-held thumb-size microphone when each Sister made a comment.  Everyone took a turn, even if it was to say they had no comments this week.

Comments varied from information about a new service provided by the NHS for hearing aid battery replenishment/new tubing, to planned trips out, to apologies for losing an Oyster Card whilst visiting London.  More sensitive matters were spoken directly between Sisters who requested an audience with the Reverend Mother ‘post meeting’.

It was a practical, informative and focused meeting, much like that of our MEB Design Monday morning office meeting.

At the end of the meeting the Sisters went about their work whilst I chatted with the Prioress and the Reverend Mother to establish what we both needed to achieve during my stay, and the areas I was permitted to visit.  Subsequently this was everywhere except the Sisters’ cells, however a number of Sisters had offered for their cells to be viewed.  The Reverend Mother then took me to view these cells; two in St Raphael’s, two in St Joseph’s, and two in St Mary’s.

The Sisters live according to the ‘Way of Life’ document, and therefore, the cell is their place for solitude.  To allow me a glimpse into their cell, in order for us (MEB Design) to gain a better understanding of their personal needs within their space for solitude, was greatly appreciated.

I was then taken to my cell ‘St Olga’s’ on the second floor of St Mary’s.  Perfectly adequate with a lovely view of the gardens and orchard beyond.  With so little time, I dropped my bag, coat and pile of work to make use of the time before the next call (bell ringing five minutes before) to Chapel.

11:15am – 12:15pm Photographic Record

I set about working my way through the ground floor areas starting in the Rhoda (main entry foyer) along to the Chapter House (monastic meeting place) and into St Zita (a small kitchen to make a drink).  Whilst in there surveying I met the housekeeper, Amanda Salkeld (wife to the Maintenance Manager, Andrew).  It was interesting to note that the ‘external’ members of staff care greatly about the Sisters and are very protective of the ‘Way of Life’ whilst also being supportive of radical change.

Time quickly disappeared, and I needed to make my way to Chapel.  I had broken into a running walk, when an Oblate, Jennifer, appeared by ‘the Slab’ (In & Out Notices/Clipboard Station at the bottom of the staircase, central hub) and raised eyebrows with the glint of a smile.  Enough for me to know I should walk gracefully at speed and be mindful of Chapel and time from thereon.

12:15pm – 12:45pm SEXT (MIDDAY OFFICE)

This ‘Office’ I sat again in the Visitors’ Chapel, alone.  No other guest to take a lead from, but I was given the appropriate service sheet to follow and so did.  The angelic voices of the Sisters singing was a delight.

12:45pm – 1:15pm LUNCH

At the end of the Office I was asked to walk with the Reverend Mother Sister Clare Louise to the Refectory.  It was explained that I was to gather my hot meal from the trolley which stood in the middle of the ‘Statio’ (ante room before the Refectory) and then choose a table where a mug mat was placed (as I was a guest I received a serviette, but the Sisters have their own material napkins in a station outside the Refectory).

I chose a bench to sit on alongside one of the long tables, I then poured myself a cup of cold water (I could have had hot water if preferred) from a jug placed on another trolley which was centrally located within the Refectory. My meal was a nut loaf, ratatouille and broad beans, followed by steamed apples (from their own orchard of apple trees), rice pudding and jam, all homemade and FULL of flavour!

As the Refectory is Monastic the Vow of Silence is still observed, the Sisters sit at tables with space around them and do not speak.  Whilst eating, the Prioress gave a reading from a book which was written in 1964 about a group of travelling Novice Priests, which was humorous in parts and the odd smile and chuckle were beautiful to see.  All ate and listened, with the aid of the sound and loop system, but I couldn’t help but notice the ‘structural’ cracks in the walls behind the top table, and how the little spot lamp aside the lectern was so inadequate.

I finished my meal and returned my empty plates to the opening in the wall for guests ‘empties’.  I continued with my work, as did the Sisters with theirs.

1:15pm – 2:00pm Photographic Record

I returned to St Zita to continue the photographic record.  In some ‘building project notes’ the Sisters had expressed that they ‘Praise the Lord daily for the benefit of grab rails by St Zita’.  A blessing to anyone with mobility issues and numerous level changes to navigate.  The long meeting on Wednesday in the Chapter House, which I attended in the morning, warrants the effort of a ‘long walk and many level changes’.  However, on a Monday a brief meeting would be too exhausting, so it is on those days the community now hold such meetings in the Refectory so as not to be exclusive of the mobility impaired (it is worth noting the difference in level from end to end of the site exceeds 1.7m!).

Whilst surveying the room noted as Carmel I caught the eye of Sister Judith in the cloister and promptly motioned to ask a question.  I was quickly taken back into Carmel where I was able to ask the use of the room (the equivalent of a lounge for reading the daily newspapers).  Sister Judith kindly gave me an insight as to why I had been ushered back into ‘Carmel’ to talk.

Speaking is not permitted in the Cloisters, around the Chapel, or in sight or ear shot of others, this is to remain respectful of the ‘Way of Life’ the Vow of Silence.  The discipline of silence in the daily lives of the Sisters is a task characteristic of the Monastic way.   They treasure the tradition and practice of silence and support each other in it with hospitable, straight forward communication and mutual respect.

…Silence is a witness and response to the presence and holiness of the living God.  It is vital to their life and has a bearing on what is most central to their life within the community.  By being silent the Sisters acknowledge that we are creatures and part of creation, waiting for God’s word…. (Way of Life)

Conversation should only be engaged upon in the rooms provided (cloakrooms, ante rooms off the Cloister, or the external grounds of the Convent beyond the beech hedge-row and should be brief and quiet.   This of course made sense once highlighted.  Still further I learn!

2:05pm – 2:20pm NONE (AFTERNOON OFFICE)

I made my way back to Chapel and sat in the Visitors’ Chapel.  Reverend Mother came to guide me to sit at the back of the Choir Area of the Chapel (the end opposite the Altar) where I was able to observe their ‘Office’.

2:20pm – 3:00pm CHOIR PRACTICE

Choir Practice for my uneducated ears, I thought was quite beautiful and was headed by Sister Judith.  Sister Judith has the duties of Laundry; however, she was previously in charge of ‘Maintenance’ during the Lift installation and Cloister window replacement, so, has some valuable knowledge in this area.

Sister Margaret Theresa is the current Sister in charge of ‘Maintenance’ and is a fountain of valuable knowledge, having carried out the role for many years.  She worked with MEB Design during the Chapel Refurbishment last year and was a huge help with coordinating the project.

The Choir Practice was packed with rehearsals for different forthcoming services and events, alas not enough time before the Sisters had to make off for their work and duties.

3:00pm – 5:30pm Photographic Record

I continued my photographic record, working through the Cloisters, beyond the Chapel, St Joseph’s, St Michael’s, and the Refectory.  I was very conscious that I was running out of camera battery, with daylight diminishing, and I was in need of caffeine!

I headed back to my cell to swap batteries, make a coffee and ponder my plans of what is yet to survey and how will I fit it all in. I am stood in the failing light; Sister Helen glides by and very kindly puts the light on for me.  I hadn’t turned lights on as I was trying to avoid using ‘energy’ until needed!  There are little notes all around the rooms, switch lights off, compost bins, recycling bins, water butts for saving water.  The Monasteries and Convents of course historically were sustainable, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

I set off again from my room and I made my way to St Joseph’s, the incredible ‘Laundry’ (every home should have one), the kitchen, pantry, cold room and working back through to St Raphael’s (the Infirmary).

5:30pm VESPERS

I headed back to the Chapel for Vespers.  The lighting was dimmed down slightly and most of the Community attended.  The Reverend Mother explained to me that going for dinner straight after the service will be different and that I should walk with her and wait in St Joseph’s Cloister.

More beautiful Psalms filter through the air, and at the end of the service the Sisters leave the Chapel in twos, I remained until the Reverend Mother guided me out.  I walked with her and the Sisters followed.  We quietly waited in the Cloister.

The dinner was a self serve buffet (left overs, hot and cold), we walked through the Pantry (a selection of bread and crackers, butter), then through to the Kitchen (beef casserole, mackerel, baked beans, cabbage, butternut squash, sliced fried potato, broccoli etc).

Notes on the side say to heat in the microwave if need be.  Sister Judith kindly helped me navigate the digital microwave, where we had frolics trying to figure out how it worked. A few buttons and it was sorted!

The Prioress then came to check I was ok and that I had enough food, and to explain the seating and drinks trolley within the Refectory.  She expressed how difficult it must be for someone to be within ‘their community’ not knowing ‘their ways’, I agreed!  As I walked back through to the Refectory, there is a rumbling of joy, the Reverend Mother points to a view of a magnificent ‘perfect blue moon’, a beautiful moment with some beautiful people (Note – all the conversation was outside of the Monastic area, and out of sight and sound of the other Sisters).

I sat in the Refectory, at a long table, the lights were dimmed, the Sisters were sat in different places to lunchtime, still silence, but with a gentle hubbub in the Kitchen.  Some of the Sisters need to sit on specific chairs for their mobility problems, and I note how difficult to manoeuvre a hot meal or hot drink when using a walking aid.

A trolley with hot tea and hot water sat in the middle of the room; I got a mug, then on to the Kitchen again for pudding!… steamed apples, custard, rhubarb crumble, fruit and shortbread biscuits!!

6:30pm – 8:00pm Project Information Download

I rinsed my dinner crocks in the sink, whilst the Sisters carried on with their duties of ’clean up’.  I made yet more notes whilst fresh in my mind and then headed back up to my room for some ‘quiet’.  By that I mean ‘quiet my mind’ it has been one LONG list of TO DO today and I feel exhausted!

I set up my laptop and downloaded the photos.  I downloaded the notes, sketched some thoughts and ideas, and it drew near to the final Office of the day, Compline.

8:05pm – 8:20pm COMPLINE

The Chapel lights were dimmed further, and only a small number arrived for Compline.  Sister Eve disappeared and returned to provide me with the Visitors’ Compline Service Sheet.  One of the lady’s present was Arabella – she resides with the community as a guest whilst doing her doctorate. This is an unusual occurrence and is only possible because Arabella has taken her Vows before a Bishop.

The Community are able to offer space for guests either for retreat, or special circumstance, and this is yet another area of their Ministry which needs to be accommodated within the brief.

8:20pm Project Information Download

Sister Judith let me know that the Convent for the evening onward would be ‘quiet’; I chose that as my cue to retreat to my room, but with a stop off to St Paula (the kitchenette) on the first floor of St Mary’s for a cup of coffee.

Whilst searching the cupboards and trying to prise open a locked cupboard thinking it was the fridge, Sister Judith appeared and announced that was the cupboard for keeping the hidden ‘chocolate stash’.  It seems that some of the community are like my youngest daughter Rhiannon, and cannot say NO to chocolate, so by their own request, the cupboard has been locked.  I was quite happy with coffee, as that is my FIX!

Back to my cell, to read through the documents given to me to read by the Reverend Mother, ‘Way of Life’ and SLG Rule.  I made a plan for the following day and set my mobile phone alarm for the morning.

Navigating the darkness of the corridors to the facilities proved a challenge armed with a torch and the tiny glow of ‘night-time lights’ plugged into low level sockets.  The main lighting of the staircase and corridor (refurbished in the 90’s) remains off through the night to save energy. Of course, this is an easily remedied design feature with current technology which can avert potential injury.

Thursday 1st February 2018

5:30am my alarm serenade seemed EXTREMELY LOUD.  I got up, got washed and dressed and made my way to the Chapel.  I was surprised to hear the bell ringing.

6:00am MATINS

Only half of the Community attended due to physical limitations. The Chapel was dimly lit.

Beautiful calm beginning to the day, praise to God for the safety through the night, thanks for the food and shelter we have, blessings and prayers for the day ahead.

Straight after service I was gently taken to one side to have an element of poor design pointed out.  The design ‘faux pas’, a security light shining like a huge beacon down the Cloister not only detracting from the significance and presence of the statue of St Pieta below but blinding the Sister whilst ringing the bell for Chapel.  Note to self ‘get mechanical and electrical consultants to think and experience the importance of Enclosure and Monastic State areas’!

6:30am – 7:00am Outdoor Record

Early morning photo record of elevations and areas of activity – Private, Semi-Private and Public.  The orchard and Convent allotment area, laundry drying area and gardens complete with hand-pumped water were a marvel.  There is a path which takes you around the perimeter for contemplation whilst seeing the beauty of the grounds and the dwellings which form a wall around the grounds.

I wandered to the area around St Raphael’s and St Joseph’s ‘back’ where I met Mark Brassington the gardener who kindly showed me the magnificent ‘fruit store’.

7:00am BREAKFAST

Breakfast was a self-serve buffet like the process at Dinner the night before.  Every palette is catered for: six different cereals, four types of bread, crackers, milk, fruit, jams, peanut butter, tea and coffee. In silence you gather the food you wish to eat then take your place at a table in the Refectory.  The Refectory was dimly lit.  Some Sisters take their breakfast to their rooms to eat.

7:40am – 9:00am Morning Photos

I continued to make my photographic record and take notes.  I was approached by Sister Margaret Theresa, the Sister responsible for Maintenance, to have a meeting at 11am in the Chapter House as she had a question for me.

9:00am TERCE/THE EUCHARIST

I joined The Eucharist service again but this time I was sat within the Choir area of the Chapel.  It was lovely to be with the Community for this service, although I was quite taken by surprise when a ringing bell disrupted the quiet during communion.  Sister Helen then quietly removed herself from Chapel.  When she returned it was in time for Sister Christine to provide Communion for her.  Shortly after the ringing bell sounded again and Sister Helen removed herself again.  It then dawned on me, that this was the doorbell to the Rhoda, at the other end of the Convent (some distance) and it was Sister Helen’s duty to answer the door.  On occasion external staff may answer the door, but it was a significant detail to be noted: the inconvenience and distance to be met and worse, the impact upon the time in Chapel.

10:00am Tea-time

The Reverend Mother took me to St Joseph’s Cloister (adjacent to the Statio), here on a Thursday morning the Sisters have a cup of tea and conversation.  I watched as the Sisters gathered from all directions.  Some stood, some sat on chairs, but all were smiling and talking (quietly).  I took this opportunity to have the courage to speak with the Sisters I hadn’t yet spoken with, albeit to ask their name and could I take a photograph of them!  I suspected that whilst I had been building the courage to approach them, they may also have felt equally unnerved in my presence wandering around with plans, camera and notebook!

10:30am – 11:00am More Photos

Whilst taking photographs and writing more notes, the Prioress took the time to tell me about the lighting at night time in the corridors of St Mary’s and how some Sisters had walked into doors and walls (mentally already noted last night as I nearly did the same!).  She also mentioned how Sister Barbara June suffers from Dementia and the impact dark coloured and glossy flooring has on her mentally.  These areas of design I am already aware of having researched them previously, I was able to reassure the Prioress that all details would be considered; and that I had already spoken with Sister Julie about the constraints of the hearing loop system in the different areas and her hearing aids (my eldest daughter Scarlett has been moderately deaf since birth and so I am fully aware of the impact an environment has on those with a hearing impairment and those communicating with them).  This had also already been observed during their meeting in the Chapter House and within the Sanctuary.

11:00am MEETING IN THE CHAPTER HOUSE

Sister Margaret Theresa had an important question, “what the dimension would be if two cells within St Mary’s were made into one?”  This was a design concept put forward previously but as a coloured block layout; Sister Margaret Theresa wanted to mark out the area physically for the benefit of the Community (this I did upon my return to the office along with some key information relating to accessible/flexible space and images to help prompt discussion and for the Sisters to gain a better understanding of what is possible).

I was conflicted as to whether I should attend the 12:15 Office, but I still had many areas to record and a meeting to attend so I knew I would have to focus on those for the remainder of my time.

12:45pm – 1:15pm LUNCH

Format within the Refectory as the previous day.  Another chapter of the book was read out by the Prioress whilst we ate ham and pea soup with fresh baked bread, savoury nibbles and grated cheese followed by steamed apples, rhubarb crumble and yoghurt.  Today there were a few other guests and a visiting Sister from another Community.

1:15pm – 2:20pm Hunt the Stopcock

I was taken by Sister Margaret Theresa to find the many stopcocks for the different areas, some in the most obscure areas, one of which is called ‘No Man’s Land’ by the Community, a first-floor link between St Raphael’s 1990’s build and St Joseph’s 1950’s build.

I then went onward with the Reverend Mother to St Raphael’s (the Infirmary) to see Sister Adrian’s cell which had an incredible view of the gardens and orchard, which, when Sister Adrian came to the Convent were bare; that was back in the 1950’s and she is now 87!

We talked about the mobility issues within the Convent and the needs of some of the Sisters.  The problem of fire doors and the strength required to open such a door, the conflict between being safe and needing freedom of access.  I had already noted this after trying to push open some of the doors myself.  The automated door we installed last year within St Raphael’s with key fob access had already made a significant difference to their everyday lives, something so simple yet such an impact.

2:20pm – 3:30pm BUILDING MEETING IN THE COMMON ROOM

The ‘building project’ meeting which I attended where all the Community able were present.  We sat in a circle within the Library and had the assistance of the hand-held microphone, which in itself for a two-way conversation is very frustrating and involved the Reverend Mother going back and forth between those who wanted to speak.

I thought it would help for them to know me as an individual, my professional background and how I see the project progressing in terms of communication and working with them to fine tune the brief. All the Sisters introduced themselves and the questions came forth.

The questions were focused, and key concerns made.  As with any client they have already been doing some research and are fully armed with that information.  It was wonderful to know they have already investigated the design of spaces, designing for aging, and that they already have a strong idea of the type of space they are not designing for – they are not retired ‘gentlewomen’, they are not an ‘old people’s home’, they are a Monastic Community who are aging but refurbishing and upgrading for current and future needs, perhaps even designing for what is yet to be!  There is a huge difference.  The meeting went well but is just the very beginning of a long relationship which is exciting.

3:30pm – 5:30pm Project Information Download

I went back to my cell for the last time.  Another note which was by the side of the bed asking for those that are able to change the bedding ready for the next guest.  I did so.

I made notes from the building meeting and notes for myself on what I should action as soon as possible.  I had to wrap up my work and felt quite sad to be leaving as the Sisters were heading for Chapel, but equally my brain was bursting with so much information, ideas, questions, excitement at the privilege of having such a client and such a unique project, and the incredible Community of Sisters.

… all shall study to develop themselves in the spirit of love, setting the well-being of their Sisters, and the perfection of the Community as a whole, above any personal aims and desires of their own… (6 Entry into the Community)

I needed some quiet for my thoughts, however, at the back of my mind was how this labyrinth evolved.  It was through faith and hope of individuals who became a Community, a Community which grew at a huge rate, decreased but may increase again. The many buildings from different periods connect and link just as we as individuals do, all provide a different environment, use, need, and how through the design process we will be taking all of those elements into the design for the future, and modelling it in REVIT!

It is going to be a challenge in many ways, not least because of the design needs, but the needs of the Community and the complexity of defining the brief (and realising it).

I also realise that the Community is a family, the labyrinth is their home, and they have lived here and through all these changes (some Sisters in excess of 50 years).  It is a life which is not known to those outside, it is a life with a routine to be respected, and a life to be praised.  It is a huge task, it is a Community already, but with changing needs, and needs they have yet to know.

They have the upper hand, the Community know what happens outside of their life, we do not know what happens in theirs.  Their language is different, there is a hidden history behind a room, a floor, a window, there is a memory in a cell; these are all vital elements to be considered within a design process, but above all, trust is the essential quality, and communication the essential tool to take things forward.