Carmel in Britain: The Restoration

Adam Kossowski's painting of the return of the Carmelites to Aylesford Priory in 1949,
which hangs in the Prior's Hall at The Friars, Aylesford.
 

Suppression and Recusancy

During the religious Reformations that took place in England and Wales in the 1530s, and in Scotland in the following decades, religious orders were dissolved.

In the centuries following the Reformations, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to re-establish the Carmelite Order in Britain. Many Carmelite missionaries shared the general persecution of recusant Catholics in the nations of Britain and Ireland during Penal Times.

 

The English Mission

The Carmelite 'English Mission' began in 1688, and there are references to it up to 1731, with Englishmen travelling to the European Continent to join the Carmelite Order certainly up to 1762. A number of recusant Catholic English women likewise travelled to the Continent to become nuns of the Discalced Carmelite Order (O.C.D.). To read an article about the Carmelite presence in Britain between 1685 and 1740 please click here.

 

The Nineteenth Century

Between 1864-79 a joint attempt to re-establish the Carmelite presence in Britain was made by the Irish and Lower German Provinces with a foundation in Merthyr Tydvil, Wales. Martin Bruton was a part of this project and died there in 1875. Around this time the Discalced Carmelite Order arrived in Britain for the first time, establishing a friary in the London borough of Kensington, and a monastery of nuns in the London borough of Notting Hill.
 

The Early Twentieth Century

Between 1901-07 the Dutch Province of Carmelites (O.Carm.) had a foundation in Pudsey, Yorkshire.

The early years of the twentieth century also saw the development in Britain of the Corpus Christi Carmelite Sisters. Founded in the Midlands of England by Mother Mary Ellerker (Clare Perrins) in 1908, the sisters spread to the Caribbean and were affiliated to the Carmelite Order in 1927.

 

The Return to Kent

It was in the zealous spirit of the prophet Elijah that two Irish Carmelite friars came to England in 1925, and then to Wales. On 1st August 1926 brothers from the Irish Province opened the Order's house at Faversham in the English county of Kent (a parish and shrine still in Carmelite hands), and took on the pastoral responsabilities of that parish, as well as the nearby parish of Sittingbourne. In 1937 the Carmelites were given the care of the parish of Hartley, also in Kent.

From Faversham, much work was done to establish firm foundations for the Order, especially by its prior, Fr. Elias Lynch, O.Carm. A biography of Elias, entitled Friar Beyond the Pale, was published in 2007 (for details and an extract please click here). Elias' brothers, Malachy and Kilian, were also Carmelite friars who played key roles in the Order's re-establishment in Britain.

A major desire of Carmelites worldwide was for the Order to return to Aylesford Priory in Kent. Ever since the Order's first General Chapter had been held there in 1247, Aylesford had enjoyed a reputation as something of a 'second Carmel', closely associated with the memory of Saint Simon Stock. Becoming a private house at the Reformation, the Order was eventually able to purchase 'The Friars' in 1949.

 


The Carmelite friars processing through Aylesford village
on their return to 'The Friars' in 1949.

 

Two years later, that is 1951, the Carmelites took over Allington Castle, just a few miles from Aylesford, as a retreat centre with a particular outreach to young people, which continued until 1996.

 

The Return to Wales

In 1936 the Carmelite friars arrived in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth. They were given the care of the parish, and St. Mary's College which provided education for Welsh-speaking students who were preparing to become priests. Wales developed into an important centre of activity for the Order, which built the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the town of Lampeter.

In 1947 the Order's school moved from St. Mary's College in Aberystwyth to bigger premises at St. Mary's College, Tregyb, near Llandeilo. This school continued until 1958 when a new school, Whitefriars, was opened at Charlton Kings in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The vacated St. Mary's College in Aberyswyth became a 'late vocations' college in 1947, preparing men to enter seminaries for the priesthood, a ministry which continued until 1978.

The Carmelite friars continued to minister in Aberystwyth until 2004 when the community moved to Llanelli on the South Wales coast, where a Carmelite is still parish priest.

 

The Role of Lay Carmel

Key to re-establishing the Carmelite presence in Britain was the development of 'Lay Carmel'. As they had been in the Middle Ages, many lay people felt attracted to the spirituality and ministry of the Order. Though there had not been a Carmelite 'Third Order' as such in Britain before the Reformation, the development of the Third Order was one of the key features of the restored presence. From the 1940s onwards more and more lay people were drawn to the Third Order, with communities being established across Britain. In 1949 a group of lay women known as 'The Leaven' was established at Aylesford Priory. Developing into a Secular Institute, The Leaven was formally affiliated to the Order in 1965.

 

The 1950s

Up to this point, the houses and ministries of the Carmelite friars in England and Wales were under the supervision of the Irish Province. The efforts of the missionary friars, sisters, and lay people, and those who followed and supported them, led to the formation on 1st January 1952 of an Anglo-Welsh 'General Commisariate', that is, a stage in becoming an autonomous province of the Order. The first Commissary General was Fr. Patrick Geary, O.Carm., who was instrumental in securing the development of the Carmelite Family in Britain; to read a short biography of him, please click here.

In August 1956 the first community of Carmelite nuns of the Ancient Observance (O.Carm.) was established in Britain, at Blackburn in Lancashire, by sisters from Boxmeer in The Netherlands. The last three sisters returned to Boxmeer in May 1996.

 

The 1960s

On 12th September 1969 the autonomy of the ancient Province of England and Wales again became a reality under the title of The Anglo-Welsh Province of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Fr. Kilian Lynch, O.Carm., as the first Provincial of the restored Province.

 

The Return to Yorkshire

The medieval Order had enjoyed a strong presence in Yorkshire, with houses in York, Hull, Doncaster, Scarborough, and Northallerton. Though the Dutch Province foundation at Pudsey (1901-07) had not lasted long, the Carmelites were keen to re-establish a presence in the north of England.

In 1967 the Order was given the pastoral care of the parish in Tadcaster, between York and Leeds, where Carmelite friars remained until 1980. The Tadcaster friars became close friends with the enclosed Discalced Carmelite nuns at Thicket Priory near York. These nuns were asked by the Bishop of Leeds, Gordon Wheeler, to establish a monastery in his diocese. Inspired by the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Wheeler wanted to found an ecumenical centre and later youth ministry at Wood Hall near Wetherby, a house with recusant connections. He wanted the ministry at Wood Hall to be supported by the prayers of an enclosed religious community, and so in 1969 seven of the nuns from Thicket established Wood Hall Carmelite Monastery. Keen on the Carmelite Order, and stately homes with recusant connections, Bishop Wheeler then encouraged the Carmelite friars to purchase Hazlewood Castle near Tadcaster and establish a retreat and pilgrimage centre, which ran from 1972 to 1996.

When the Diocese of Leeds established its own conference and retreat centre at Hinsley Hall, the scope for ministry at Hazlewood diminished. The bishop of neighbouring Middlesbrough Diocese, John Crowley, invited the Carmelite friars to (re-)establish a community in York, and in 1995 entrusted to them the care of More House, the Catholic Chaplaincy to the University of York. The same year, the Corpus Christi Carmelite Sisters opened a house in York to be close to the friars, and began ministering in local parishes and chaplaincies.

 

The 1980s

Until the 1980s, most Carmelite friaries were in small towns. Conscious of the Order's mendicant origins of serving the urban poor, the Whitefriars requested the Archbishop of Southwark for a parish in inner-city London. The Carmelites were entrusted with the pastoral care of the parish of English Martyrs, Walworth, from 1980 to 2014.

In the 1980s a shift occured in the formation of Carmelite friars. Instead of sending their friars to study in Rome, more and more provinces decided that initial formation for ministry should take place at home. The Carmelites in Britain started sending student friars to the Missionary Institute of London ('The MIL') based at St. Joseph's College at Mill Hill in north London, which since the 1960s had consolidated training facilities for various religious orders. Requiring a community house for student friars not too far from The MIL, the Carmelites first set up in Hendon, before moving the student house to East Finchley, where it continued until 2016.

Carmelite friars continued to be involved in the education of boys at Whitefriars school in Cheltenham. In 1987 Whitefriars merged with the girls' school run by the La Sainte Union Sisters to become St. Edward's School, an independent co-educational Catholic school on the Whitefriars site. Though no longer involved in teaching, Carmelite friars have continued as governors and chaplains up to the present day.

 

The Return to Scotland

In the Middle Ages the Carmelite houses in Scotland were, at different times, part of an autonomous Scottish Province, or part of the English Province. In the 1970s both the Anglo-Welsh and Irish Provinces established a presence in Scotland. At various times in the late Twentieth Century the Order had friars in ministry in Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Carfin.

Reflecting the presence of the Order in Scotland, the name of the Anglo-Welsh Province was changed to The British Province on 18th May 1999.

 

The Early Twenty-First Century

At the start of the twenty-first century a new form of Carmelite community, known as Carmelite Spirituality Groups, began to develop in Britain, showing how Carmel continues to read the signs of the times and adapt itself to the needs of the Church and Society.

 

The Present and Future

Centuries after the Order first arrived on these shores the Carmelite Family continues to form praying communities and to minister to the needs of God's people in England, Scotland, and Wales. At the present time [2019] the friars serve: in parishes; as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, universities, and schools; as retreat directors; in centres where people gather on pilgrimage; as writers and broadcasters; as teachers and spiritual directors. Depending on our unique talent and training, and the needs of a particular time and place, we Carmelites can be found in a variety of settings, whether living in community or serving a particular ministry on our own. We presently have friar communities in Aylesford and Faversham. We have friars in ministry in Llanelli, York, Cheltenham, Sussex, HMP Belmarsh, and the English College in Valladolid, Spain. There are approximately thirty communities of Lay Carmelites, and two communities of Corpus Christi Carmelite Sisters in York and Birmingham. We enjoy close relations with our brothers and sisters, religious and lay, in the Discalced Carmelite Order. Like Elijah the prophet, and the founders and refounders of our province before us, we remain ordinary people witnessing to an extraordinary reality - God's abiding presence and God's love for every human person!