Archived News Item

The Chapel – Heart of the Convent

When first asked to speak on the place of the Chapel in the life of the Convent I assumed that it would be a simple task. How mistaken I was!   I spent some time thinking about chapels in general and about this chapel in particular with the aim of finding something to say that would be informative and interesting.  Of course, being an historian, I looked at the function of chapels over time in the Christian tradition. This is what I have come up with.

Essentially a chapel is a sacred space: it can be large or small, simple or ornate.  Many chapels have the Eucharist reserved in some part of their space – some do not.  So the only way to define a chapel is by the space it encloses and in some measure by the activities that go on in that space. 

But the space itself is important: Historically the chapel denoted the division between the secular world and the sacred world. In monastic times when men or women joined religious life, generally it was to escape from the world. Monastic architecture reflected this.  The monastic complex was as a rule built in such a way that the external wall of the chapel was the barrier between the outside world and the cloistered or enclosed life inside the monastery.  Lay people might come to the chapel for Mass or for special celebrations but they had their place and they kept to it. As for the monks and nuns – their entire day was arranged around services in the chapel – some orders even rose and went to the chapel at 2.00 am for the first prayers of the day.

When Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831, religious orders were seen as monastic institutions and religious houses were built more or less according to the monastic pattern.  Each house had its chapel – some of them mini-churches or mini-cathedrals – all of them symbolically keeping the religious inside and the world out.  And while Catherine did not want her sisters to be enclosed, many of the monastic trappings stuck.  There’s a lovely story from Catherine’s time concerning the convent built in Bermondsey (London) – the first convent in England since the Reformation. It was designed by the famous church architect Augustus Pugin and Catherine hated it.  In particular she hated the design of the chapel which was in neo-Gothic style. It was dark and sombre and its windows were so high you had to climb on a chair to open them. This displeased Catherine exceedingly.  She had no interest in shutting out the light, much less the world.
With regard to this chapel – St Ann’s Warrnambool: It was completed in 1888 and designed by local architects. One of its features was its magnificent ceiling (now beautifully restored). Another was the marble floor of the sanctuary similarly restored. Later stained glass windows were inserted – imported from Germany – and their beauty continues to delight us.

However, I think we need to ask the questions: Why the expense?  What made this space so special?
•    For one – the Eucharist would have been reserved here
•    Secondly, despite school, visitation and other ministries, most of the daily life of the sisters was arranged around this chapel. 

It would have been something like this:
6.00 am – Having been summoned by the bell, the sisters would take their places in the chapel where daily  meditation would commence.
6.30 am – Morning office (prayers, readings and psalms)
7.00 am – Mass
– Prior to going to their various ministries the sisters would ‘pay a visit’ in the chapel to pray before the Eucharistic presence.
– Before lunch other prayers were said
– On returning from outside ministries another ‘visit’
5.30 pm – afternoon office followed by
– Prayer before dinner
– Prayer after dinner
– Spiritual reading
9.00 pm – night prayer marked the end of the day and the beginning of what was called the Solemn Silence.
That is just the daily regime – other ceremonies, celebrations and devotions took place in the chapel according to cycle of the liturgical year.

Clearly in practice this was the heart of St Anne’s convent!  Here the sisters practised their spiritual duties safe from the distractions of the world,

Fast forward to the 1960s and to Vatican Council II.  Pope John XXIII wanted the Holy Spirit to blow in the windows of churches and convents and religious institutions.   Under the influence of the Spirit religious life became far less monastic in style.  Sisters, rather than being protected by the walls of chapels and cloisters were encouraged to go out into the world, to embrace it and to work in harmony with its people to make the world a better place. Rather than attend Mass in the convent chapel Sisters were more inclined to worship in the parish church together with the other people of God. Rather than live in institutionalised sets of buildings which overall were unwelcoming, sisters moved into smaller houses closer to the people of God.  The common timetable which had regulated the sisters’ lives no longer was applicable.  Chapels became under-utilised as did the institutionalised sets of buildings which held them.  Consequently the importance of the chapel as the heart of the convent began to diminish.  

Often the ‘big’ convents were given to alternative uses.  How frequently we see – as here in Warrnambool the former convent being used by the school. In other places the former convent buildings were assigned to other ministries. In Bathurst, for example, the former convent has been developed as an ecological centre – Rahamim – where, interestingly the moveable hen houses are called ‘chook chapels’!

The houses where sisters lived may have had a prayer focus or a prayer room but more often than not there was no Eucharist.  This reflected a development in the doctrine surrounding the reservation of the Eucharist.  Jesus was present in the Eucharist, true, but Jesus was also present in God’s people, Jesus was present in God’s world.

So, in the face of all these changes, what became of the chapels? For a while they suffered a sort of identity crisis – some were made into prayer rooms, some became heritage centres – but as time passed it became increasingly clear that school communities, ecological centres, administration centres still needed a heart – a place where people could go and spend some quiet time, not to escape the world, but a place to bring the world and the world’s worries to set them before God and ask God’s blessing or healing or forgiveness.
We have come a full circle. The chapel is now the heart which opens itself to receive the world.  Aware of Jesus’ invitation to all who labour and are burdened, individuals, small groups, classes come to the chapel to lay down their burden, to find comfort and rest and inspiration. The chapel now lets the world in – people who come to the chapel bring the world with them.  The heart of the convent has become the heart of the world.

Messages to: Berenice Kerr rsm