In a small convent just off the Seven Sisters Road in London, lives Sister Anastasia, Sister Eugenia and Sister Eileen. At one time there were over 80 nuns living here, today they are just three.
I first heard about the Servite Sisters through a mispronunciation. A friend told me that her mother had told her that there were seven nuns living in the Seven Sisters area of North London, and that they called themselves The Seven Sisters of Seven Sisters. While, admittedly, it was the sibilant ring of that superstitious ‘seven’ that first caught my attention (as well as the fact they lived just down the road from me) the thing that really made me listen was the fact that they were nuns. If it was not for the initial mispronunciation, however, I might never have come across these three truly extraordinary ladies.
The Servite Sisters do not, after all, wear habits. Nor do they constantly clutch rosary beads, glide past you on their way to the cloister to prayer, or any other movie stereotype. “You see we’re just normal people” laughs Sr Anastasia in her unmuted Irish accent as she leads me out of the gate of St Mary’s Convent to the Islamic Centre next door. This grand brick building of the Sheikh Nazim Sufi Islamic Centre that she is leading me to is actually where St Mary’s convent used to be, until 1988 when St Mary’s and the small number of Sisters that remained were moved to smaller premises just next door.
Apart from the turbaned man who greeted us, from the outside the old St Mary’s still looks wholly Catholic; the stone crucifixes, the inscriptions to the Virgin, and the beautiful stained glass windows remain intact. It was only when we were led inside, asked to take our shoes off, and entered the silent prayer room that the convent metamorphosed into the mosque. On this quiet December afternoon the sun was just starting to set through the paling stained glass, but I was more taken by Sister Anastasia than anything else in the room. This is where, at 20 years old, she first entered the Servite Order and, in doing so, dedicated the rest of her life to becoming a Servant of Mary. As we looked up to the ceiling at the Arabic scriptures that had, we were told, been painted very recently, Sr Anastasia’s eyes drew up but her hands remained close to her chest.
“I celebrated my 21st there at the Old Convent,” Sr Anastasia tells me when we are back at St Mary’s, sitting with Sister Eileen and Sister Eugenia in the yellow living room they call The Sunshine Room. The three Sisters explain what the process of entering the convent was like back then in the 1950s: first you were a postulant for six months to a year, then a novice for at least a year, then you took first vows that last for three years, after which you renew those vows for another two years and then take final vows. The Servite Sisters’ vows are those of poverty, of chastity and obedience. “Oh things were very different back then,” Sister Eugenia remembers, “it was a very strict timetable. We got up very early didn’t we? The bell was rung at half past five, then we started the day with prayer, then Mass, then we all did our various works. But the Noviciate, actually, in those days was very hard. It was hard work.”
“All those long corridors over there!” Sr Eileen remembers. “With the old scrubber!” adds Sr Eugenia. “The old scrubber!” Sr Eileen laughs back, “and there was a private school so we had to deal with cooking all their dinner and washing up after the children and cleaning the tables. There was a lot of hard work, yes. Having to do the children’s laces and helping them get dressed.” Listening to the three sisters collect their shared memories here in The Sunshine Room, I tried to superimpose the image of the convent in its heyday over that of the silent Islamic Centre we had just been in. When I ask the Sisters whether they get many young people asking to enter the Servite Order now the three nod in chorus “no, not now, not now”.
The Sisters’ lifestyles are very different from that of the hushed habit-wearing nuns people might expect; they answer emails, they eat KitKats and they watch TV (if there’s something good on). Nevertheless, it would be very unusual to find a young woman living in London today who would be prepared to take the same vows these three Sisters had to. Sr Eugenia tells me how it is different in some Third World countries: “our convent in the Congo is bursting with young people, and look at Mother Teresa’s nuns in India. It’s not as structured now as it used to be, but it would still be responding to a call, you know, you feel called by God to give your life in this way,” says Sr Eugenia about becoming a nun today.
Each of the three Sisters remember when they first felt the call. “When I made my First Communion at the age of seven I felt that God wanted me to do something”, says Sr Eugenia. “Now, I didn’t know what it was then, but I always believe that’s where my call goes back to even though you can believe that couldn’t possibly be.” Sr Anastasia remembers feeling the call at a similarly young age: “I felt it at eight, but then it went away for a time”, she admits, “then when I was about 16 it came back again and then when I was 18 or 19 I thought well, I better do something about it”.
Like the tongue of a bell agitated by the wind, the Sisters explain how the call can ring almost silently through a person’s childhood. “I was the same” says Sr Eugenia, “I felt it at 7, then went to the convent school and was very drawn by that but then, like Sister Anastasia did, I went to work, worked for years, enjoyed myself, went to parties, dances, boyfriends, all that. But there’s a moment”, she paused, “when suddenly…I remember, on the dance floor, that suddenly, I was 19 and I felt I’ve got to do something about this.”
“The call gets stronger”, adds Sr Anastasia solemnly. “It’s amazing really. God works in wonderful ways,” says Sr Eugenia, touching the cross around her neck. “Mysterious ways”, smiles Sr Anastasia. Sister Eileen then said something that really resonated with me: “I think, as the others said, you realise you want something more than just enjoying yourself”, she said.
The work the Servite Sisters do in the community, for the community, is truly remarkable. Sr Anastasia served at a home for Multiple Sclerosis for fifteen years before moving to another hospice in Bognor Regis for nine years, then St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney for nine years, now she works with the homeless at their cafe in Dalston. “They’re wonderful people,” Sr Anastasia tells me, “you learn a lot, they have a lot of wisdom these homeless people, a lot to give, a lot to offer.” Sr Eileen and Sr Eugenia have also done indispensable good work, mainly working with children within each community they have resided in.
All three are also very realistic about the way the world has changed since they entered the convent. “I think nowadays young people are still anxious to serve and that’s why a lot of them do voluntary work,” says Sr Eileen, “we’re amazed sometimes that people working all week still come out on a Friday night to give their time [at the homeless cafe].” You would think the Sisters might feel some sort of resentment towards being moved out of their original convent (where the first Sisters oringinally came in 1894), but they don’t. When we visited the Islamic Centre that day there was no feeling of resentment, no feeling that the Muslims had usurped the Convent, only a mutual respect between the two spiritual groups. Osmond (a student at the centre) even showed us around his wood workshop, showed us where he keeps his partridges and chickens, and where he hopes to build a bread oven. The Muslims, Sr Eileen tells me, have also visited their Catholic cemetery more than once to pray for the Sisters who have passed.
This Christmas the Servite Sisters will celebrate here at St Mary’s Convent with another Sister who is visiting from Portugal. While they may not be dancing along to Sister Anthony’s songs on the organ like, Sr Anastasia tells me they used to, their dining room is already full of Christmas cards thanking them for their work. Sitting here in The Sunshine Room it is clear that the Sisters feel only a sense of contentment and compassion towards their Islamic neighbours. It would not be the Sisters’ style to feel anything less. This small yellow room we sit in just off the Seven Sisters Road is a peaceful one. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hangs on a frame on one side of the room while, on the opposite wall, there hangs a branch the Sisters found, naturally twisted into the shape of a cross.
Words and Photography by Zara Miller