Carmel in Britain: The Restoration

Adam Kossowski's painting of the return of the Carmelites
to Aylesford Priory in 1949.

In the centuries following the Reformation a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to re-establish the Carmelite Order in Britain. Many Carmelite missionaries shared the general persecution of Catholics in the country during Penal times.

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

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.

Between 1901-1907 the Dutch Province of Carmelites (O.Carm.) had a foundation in Pudsey, Yorkshire.

It was in the zealous spirit of the prophet Elijah that two Irish Carmelites came to England in 1925 and then to Wales. On 1st August 1926 brothers from the Irish Province opened the house (still in existence) at Faversham. 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.

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

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'. 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.

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 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 a General Commisariate (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 the Netherlands. They returned to Holland in May 1996.

On 12th September 1969 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.

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

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.

Centuries after the Order first arrived on these shores the Carmelites continue to form praying communities and to minister to the needs of God's people in England, Scotland and Wales. The friars serve in parishes, as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, universities and schools; as retreat directors and in centres where people gather on pilgrimage. 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. Like Elijah the prophet and the founders 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!
We presently have friar communities in: Aylesford, East Finchley, Faversham, Llanelli, Walworth and York. 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.