Women in the Church: The Carmelite Nuns of Christchurch

The Catholic Diocese of Christchurch was well established by the 1920s. But one thing was lacking.  Bishop Brodie had heard murmurings of the need for a monastery – a house of perpetual prayer, secluded from secular society. He liked the idea very much.

While in Sydney for the 1928 International Eucharistic Congress, the bishop visited Sister Marie of the Holy Spirit, Mother Superior of the Carmelite Sisters’ monastery in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill suburb. Their talks resulted in the bishop making a formal request for a community of Carmelite Sisters to move to Christchurch and establish a monastery there.

Four years of negotiating and planning followed, with Christchurch priest Father Thomas Price representing the Christchurch Diocese. Judging by records held in the Diocesan Archives, the negotiations were most cordial. Sr Marie seems to have been eager to meet Christchurch’s need. It suited her too, for the Dulwich Hill monastery was overcrowded with nuns. Sending a detachment across the Tasman Sea would relieve the problem.

Word of Fr Price’s negotiations “got out”. In May, 1930, Archbishop Redwood, of Wellington, wrote to Sr Marie requesting a Carmelite monastery in the windy city. He wanted it “immediately or in the near future”. Sr Marie replied tactfully that the Carmelites were already engaged in setting up a house in Christchurch and could not deal with other locations at this time.

Word had not only “got out”; it was spreading. In November, 1932, Bishop Liston, of Auckland, sent a similar request to Sr Marie. The poor Mother Superior must have wondered what was going on in New Zealand. She wrote to Bishop Brodie seeking an explanation.

The bishop’s return letter to Sr Marie shows how cordial their relationship was. He assured her there was no need to worry. He explained that he had discussed the plans for a Monastery in Christchurch with all four New Zealand bishops and they had promised their support. Then, in a mischievous touch, Bishop Brodie added that Archbishop Redwood was 92 years-old and might not have understood the situation. She might not hear any more about it, he wrote.

Letter from +Brodie to Carmelites (14 May 1930)

Meanwhile, a search was on in Christchurch to find a suitable location for the monastery. The Carmelites wanted sufficient space to grow their own food –  about four acres “would suit us splendidly”, Sr Marie wrote. They wanted privacy all around their site, access to essential providers and proximity to a parish or institution that could ensure availability of priests for Masses and the Sacraments.

Such a site was near the north-west corner of the present intersection of Lincoln, Curletts, Hoon Hay and Halswell roads. The owner, prominent Catholic businessman, sportsman and politician William Hayward offered immediate possession of the property for 2500 pounds.

Many applauded Hayward’s “generous” offer. They might not have known that, in the depths of the Great Depression, Hayward was in financial strife and urgent need of cash. Incidentally, the former owner of the property, Robert Pitcaithly, had been forced by his own bankruptcy, to sell it to Hayward.

Pitcaithly, managing director of the Halswell Stone Quarry, had built the large, two-storeyed colonial-style timber house on his 50-acre block and planted trees that partially screened the site. The part of this land where the monastery would stand was about five acres. It was largely surrounded by farming country, though the Sisters of the Good Shepherd’s Mount Magdala complex was nearby.

As negotiations neared completion, in 1932, Bishop Brodie and his consultors inspected the property. The bishop’s impression was made clear when he wrote to Sr Marie – “It would be difficult to improve on the site recommended”. Aware that some alterations and additions to the buildings would be needed, he added that the Good Shepherd Sisters would be happy to offer temporary accommodation to the Australian Carmelites.

The bishop suggested the Carmelite community purchase the property, and then make an appeal to the Christchurch Diocese for contributions to the cost. The bishop would advocate on the Carmelites’ behalf to all the parishes. He had “no doubt” they would support the project, even in the current Depression. He hoped other dioceses would help too.

Sr Marie accepted this purchase system and sent 1500 pounds at once, following with the further 1000 pounds before the end of the year (1932). She asked for sketches and photographs of the buildings to be sent so the community could begin planning interior alterations. She announced the monastery would be titled The Carmel of Christ the King, Christchurch.

And so, a group of Carmelite Sisters disembarked from their ship at Lyttelton on February 20, 1933. They travelled in cars over the Port Hills to their temporary home at Mt Magdala. There they met many priests of the diocese who had come to welcome them. Having lived in enclosure for years, they must have felt excited.

How many nuns were there? Numbers vary from six to seven in archival documents. It seems most likely seven nuns arrived, as this figure appears in most primary sources, while the number six is in all the media reports. Perhaps the leader of the group, Mother Anne of Jesus, was overlooked in the counting.

Much work remained to be done before the sisters could move into their permanent home. Willingly they rolled up their sleeves and helped, with Bishop Brodie joining in. The biggest job was the building of a small chapel, while transforming large bedrooms into small “cells” for the sisters proceeded. At last came the day when the Carmelite community moved in, and away from the world. It was June 4, 1933.

Bishop Brodie at the Carmelite Monastery [3288]

The opening of the monastery was actually a closing, as the sisters stepped inside their new home and Mother Anne locked the door behind her. This was part of the Ceremony of Canonical Enclosure. It included a blessing from the bishop, watched by a large assembly of Catholics standing in the rain.

The next two decades were marked by growth. Only three years after the inauguration, a new two-storey building was erected to house the growing community. An extra wing was added in 1950 to house novitiates (new entrants not yet fully professed). In 1950 a decorative belfry tower was built, with bells imported from Ireland installed the following year. Later in the 1950s the community forged links with Western Samoa and sent seven sisters there to establish another monastery.

Finances were sound and cordiality with Bishop Brodie continued. In a 1942 letter to the bishop, Mother Anne enclosed a cheque for 200 pounds (worth several thousand dollars today). Mother Anne wrote: “I wish you would accept it as a feast day gift (St Matthews Feast Day) and give it to some good work instead of securing it for us. At present we have no need. When we increase and it is necessary for us to build, the Good God will provide as he has already done. We have been blessed beyond measure in your diocese, both temporarily as well as spiritually. There is not a jarring note in the fervour of our little community.

Annual registries show a slow but steady increase in numbers of sisters at the Christchurch monastery through the 1940s and 1950s. From 14 sisters (eight New Zealanders and six Australians) in 1946, to 16 through the rest of that decade, and to 21 by 1951.

Cloister at the Carmelite Monastery [2296]

Cordial relations between the Carmelite Sisters and successive bishops continued. This was fortunate, as issues arising in the following years would test their patience.

The first issue was the requirement of the Prioress to seek permission from the bishop for various activities. Some of these would seem trivial in later times. For example, permits were required to install pictures for the Stations of the Cross on the novitiate walls, for arranging small bank overdrafts, for holding Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel, for nuns to go outside the monastery for medical reasons, for the election of a new prioress.

The issue of nuns going outside the monastery loomed larger in 1954. A statement from the Holy See encouraged the Carmelites of Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea to form a federation. The statement favoured more liberal rules for the Sisters. It claimed this reflected the wish of the Pope (Pius XII) that the Sisters needed “to come out of too great isolation”. Details of federation that was envisaged were scant but, again, opportunities for nuns to go outside their monasteries were urged.

This issue became heated when calls for caution and opposition were characterised by the Holy See as “of false, inaccurate and tendentious nature”. But, in what could be read as a backdown, the Holy See stressed federation was only a suggestion and the Sisters themselves could decide.

Through all this, the Christchurch Carmelites carried on calmly. A visiting Carmelite priest from Italy gave a glowing report on it to his superior, Fr Silvenio of Teresa. Fr Silvenio felt so moved he wrote to Bishop Joyce expressing his “joy that your Carmel is so truly what our great Mother, St Teresa, would have wished”.

Carmelite Sisters

For more information about the Carmelite nuns in Christchurch –  The Carmelite Monastery of Christ the King

Acknowledgements: Michael Crean, author

Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives and  Photographic Collection


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