Lawrence Street, York YO10 3DZ

It was a sad day in 2013 when the news was published that the Monastery of St Joseph in Lawrence Street was to close. A York landmark for 140 years, this large property, with its five acres of land, had become unmanageable for the eight remaining Poor Clare Colettine nuns. At its peak in the 1940s, there were more than 40 nuns living at the convent. The smaller community has now moved to a house in Askham Bryan, leaving the Lawrence Street buildings to be turned into student accommodation and apartments.

Lady Herries of Everingham

The monastery in York was founded in 1864 by a group of sisters who came from a flourishing convent in Bruges at the instigation of Marcia, Lady Herries of Everingham Hall, near Market Weighton in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Lady Herries was born into the eminent Roman Catholic Vavasour family. From the date of the Domesday Book (1086) until 1908, the seat of the Yorkshire branch of the Vavasours was Hazelwood Castle near Tadcaster. Despite heavy fines and persecution, the Vavasours maintained their faith and catholic services are still held in St Leonard’s Chapel at the castle which is now a hotel. The family left England in 1908 for New Zealand to run a sheep farm on an estate in the Avatere Valley where they established a successfully vineyard in the 1980s.

Marcia Mary Vavasour married William Constable-Maxwell, 10th Lord Herries of Terregles in 1835. Discrimination against Catholics had been gradually relaxed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This process of emancipation culminated in the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament. The country’s Catholic families were resurgent and this resulted in a spate of new Catholic churches, chapels and ecclesiastical buildings. Soon after Marcia’s marriage, her husband embarked on the construction of a lavish chapel at Everingham Hall, the Chapel of the Virgin and St Everilda (1836-9). The chapel was designed in Italy by a young Roman architect, Agostino Giorgioli, and construction work was supervised by John Harper of York.

Lady Herries also applied her wealth to the Catholic cause, funding the establishment of a number of convents and the construction of churches. Led by Sister Philomene, who later became the Mother Abbess, the nuns from Bruges arrived in York in 1864. Initially, they lived at Plantation House on Hull Road and then, in 1872, moved into the new buildings of St Joseph’s Monastery which were largely funded by Lady Herries. These, comprising cloisters, cells, a chapel and a refectory, were designed by a local Roman Catholic ecclesiastical architect, George Goldie who, earlier, had also built St Wilfred’s Catholic Church in Duncombe Place.

The building is in a severe Victorian Gothic style, appropriate for the austere way of life of the occupants. Influenced by the work of A.W.N. Pugin, a noted exponent of the Gothic style, the buildings are arranged around a quadrangle, each component of the composition clearly expressing its use. In 1874, a chapel was built and, in 1875, a separate externs’ house and priest’s house were completed. The nuns who were ‘enclosed’, having no contact with the outside world, were physically separated from the ‘extern’ sisters who lived, initially, in cottages in Lawrence Street and supported the enclosed sisters by, for example, begging for alms and mixing in the community. The monastery complex was surrounded by a high wall for security and privacy. As the city of York expanded, the nuns acquired additional land to the east and the south to prevent overlooking from surrounding buildings. There were further extensions to the buildings in the late 19th century and at various times in the 20th century, part being used as an infirmary.

Lady Herries continued her considerable financial support for the Catholic Church for the remainder of her life. In addition to the Monastery of St Joseph in York, she founded the Convent of the Perpetual Adoration in Dumfries (1881-4) designed by Peter Paul Pugin, the son of A.W.N. Pugin, in a similar austere Gothic style. The main seat of the Lords Herries was Terregles House near Dumfries. She also paid for the construction of the Catholic Church of Our Lady & St Edward in Great Driffield (completed 1886). Before Lady Herries died in 1883 she, too, was considering a contemplative life.

Foundation of the Order of St Clare

By 1872 when the nuns moved into Lawrence Street, the Poor Clares had been in existence for more than 650 years. Originally called the Poor Ladies, the order was founded at Assisi, in central Italy, by Clare (1193/4-1253), a noble woman who became a follower of Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226). Shortly after Clare’s conversion in 1212, Francis brought her and her sister Agnes to the church of San Damiano, just outside the walls of the town. Other women soon joined them to form the first community of Franciscan women. Here they lived a life combining poverty and simple living with the silence and solitude of contemplative life within an enclosed community. The Order of St Clare was created by papal legislation in 1216 and St Clare canonised in 1255. Pope Urban IV ratified a new constitution for the Order of St Clare in 1263. At first, San Damiano had no formal monastic rule; oral directions from Francis were the foundation of their religious life. Other communities were founded on the model of San Damiano with the assistance of its sisters but, at the time of St Francis’ death in 1226, only San Damiano and a handful of other houses had been incorporated into the Franciscan Order.

During the 14th century, the rules of religious communities became more relaxed. In Italy, 15th-century reformers encouraged the Poor Clares to profess their ‘first rule’, that of St Clare. Contemporary sisters who were praised as spiritual models included the French reformer Colette of Corbie (1381-1447), a town in Picardy in northern France where she was born. In 1402, Colette came to believe that she was being called to reform the Poor Clares and return the order to the original Franciscan ideals of absolute poverty and austerity. In October of that year, she travelled to Nice to seek the blessing of the Antipope Benedict XIII who was recognised in France at that time as the rightful pope. Benedict received her and allowed her to take vows as a Poor Clare nun, giving her mission his blessing through several papal bulls which authorised her both to reform existing monasteries and to found new ones. The Poor Clare Colettines follow these reforms.

Colette established the first successful community of Poor Clare nuns under her inspired way of life in 1410 in a semi-derelict monastery of the Order in Besançon in Burgundy. From there her reforms spread into Germany and then on to other communities of Poor Clares around Europe. In total, 18 monasteries were founded before her death in March 1447. A Colettine community was established in Bruges in 1457. Some 400 years later it was from this community that the Colettine monastery was established in York. In medieval England, the nuns were known as “Minoresses” and their principal monastery, the Abbey of the Order of St Clare, was near Aldgate in London. The order gave its name to the street still known as Minories on the eastern boundary of the City.

English Reformation

In 1534, the English parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, recognising Henry VIII as the head of the English church and, in 1536, he began the suppression of the smaller religious houses. Abbots and priors were given pensions, some becoming bishops or deans of the Anglican church. Others became parish clergy or tutors to noble houses. Such paths were not open to the nuns, but they were not badly treated. Heads of houses were given pensions; some returned to their families; some certainly married, records showing that their husbands drew their pensions. However, many nuns wanted to continue their religious life and joined communities on the Continent, some formed specifically for English Catholics. One such was a Poor Clare monastery founded in 1609 at Gravelines by Mary Ward.

Following the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, other Poor Clares returned to England, eventually establishing communities in Knowle, Warwickshire (1850); Notting Hill, London (1857), Woodchester, Gloucestershire (1860); Levenshulme, Manchester (1863); Much Birch, Herefordshire (1880); Arundel, Sussex (1886); Lynton, Devon (founded from Renne, France, 1904); Woodford Green, Essex (1920-1969); York (1865-2015); and Nottingham (1927). The York community founded one in Liverpool in 1903 and a later one at Tewatte, Sri Lanka, in 1953.

For the monasteries which followed her reform, Colette prescribed extreme poverty, going barefoot and the observance of perpetual fasting and abstinence. Because each convent of Poor Clares is largely autonomous, practices have varied greatly. Not all Poor Clares dress alike, work alike or keep the same daily schedule. Poor Clare Sisters number over 20,000 throughout the world, in 16 federations and in more than 70 countries. Generally, the Poor Clares are regarded as an austere women’s order of the Roman Catholic church, being devoted to prayer, penance, contemplation, and manual work.

As the current Mother Abbess explains, the community at Askham Bryan ‘continues the way of life begun in Lawrence Street, working and praying and interceding for the needs of humankind’.

Sources

Paul Chrystal, Changing York (York: Fonthill Media, 2015)

Lezlie Knox, ‘Poor Clares Order’, Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, An Encyclopedia, Margaret C. Shaus (ed.), (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006)

[Title of news story], The Press, York, 23 October 2013

English Heritage list entry for Convent of St Joseph, Yor

I am most grateful to the Mother Abbess of the monastery at Askham Bryan for all her help and information.

© Dinah Tyszka