Postulant “A’s” Story, Part II – Life at Kirk Edge Carmel

Laundry, jugs, bowls and H.O.’s

Perhaps washing deserves a mention. Underwear and any delicate items were washed by hand by the Sister they belonged to (unless she was infirm). You did your personal laundry in the laundry room in a bucket of hot water with a bar of soap. But what I found fascinating about the laundry was something I had only seen before in a museum – a mangle! First you tightened these large screws on the top that pressed the rollers together. Then you fed it your washed items, one at a time, from one side, and turned the handle, which turned the two large rollers. The item came out, squashed, the other side, while the water from it ran down into a trough below the rollers and was channeled into a spout that dribbled into a bucket. I found it fascinating that the only thing used to power it was arm muscles, and whether or not the electricity was working you could still get the washing done! The damp washing was hung on hot water pipes until it was completely dry, they couldn’t go outside at the time as it was raining.

In your cell, you had a small jug for cold/drinking water, but for personal washing it was more complicated. From under your bed you pulled out your washing equipment. First there was a large, clear, hard wearing, plastic sheet that you spread on the floor of your cell, then you put a cotton square piece of material in the middle of it. On this square you put a large ceramic bowl. In your bowl there was kept a number of things that you took out: your hand towel (there was a larger one for baths/showers), a soap dish (with a soap bar on it), your toothpaste, toothbrush, a flannel, and a cotton drawstring bag in which you kept your hairbrush and comb. You also found and pulled out, from under your bed, a separate, large, plastic container with a lid and a handle. You collected warm water in your large metal water jug (a very different size from your pottery, drinking water jug). It was quite a trek from my cell to collect the water. You washed in your cell, with your jug and bowl, on the floor. You left the washing things out overnight, and then used the rest of the water in the jug, which was cold by then, for washing in the morning – wonderful to offer up to God! You tipped your used water into the large plastic container and took it out of your cell in the morning, to tip into the toilet down the corridor and clean the container in the large sink there. It was also this plastic thing that you used, if you wanted the loo (toilet) in the night. This was to avoid making a noise by flushing and waking sisters up (I apologize if your eating while reading this)!

While we’re on the subject of toilets the sisters had a very odd name for it, that I haven’t heard before. They called it an H.O, that stood for ‘Humble Office’, which caused me to break out in giggles. Apart from the odd thing with the toilet rolls, a person also had to think carefully about which toilet to use (just one more point then I’ll change the subject)! The sisters had extra loos put into the building, but they were very likely to get blocked because of the size of the pipes. So the sisters had to be very careful not to put ‘anything’ which could cause a blockage down them.

This odd plumbing system also affected the baths and shower. The community had three baths between them (each sister was allocated a specific night to have hers). Actually one of the most amusing experiences was washing my hair. Hair is washed in the laundry. No, not in a bucket, there is a plastic bowl which you can fill from the hot tap (there is a hot tap in the laundry as well). It was actually amusing as my Angel was there as well to help me. I dipped the top of my head into the bowl which was on the draining board near the sink, but couldn’t work out how to make the rest of it wet enough to wash. My Angel filled a jug with hot water and tipped it over my head, it did the trick and I was able to wash my hair with her tipping jugs of hot water over the back of my head to rinse the shampoo off. I don’t know what it was, but I found the whole situation a giggling affair. Some of it may have been due to the passing sisters who looked amused, the laundry is after all a public room, as far as they’re concerned. The sisters have short hair that dries with a towel, but Angel managed to borrow a hair dryer from the infirmary for me.

Cells and the garden

The cell layout was indeed very simple. On the outside of my cell door was a picture of Our Lady giving the Rosary to St Dominic. Every sister had a different little picture for her cell door. Inside, the cell was small, painted plain cream and had bare wooden floorboards, with a light fixed to the wall. On the walls, I was actually surprised to see so many pictures. There was one of St. Therese of Lisieux, one of St Joseph and one of St Teresa of Avila. The most imposing feature was an enormous black wooden cross which had a wall to itself which had no corpus on it. My Angel explained that the cross was bare because the sister was a victim, crucified and offered herself, put herself on this cross for God.

My little bed was in one corner, with the little dipper of Holy water by the side of it, one of the standard low wooden stools, a table, a small bookshelf (on the wall) and a corner shelf, to put your water jugs on. There was also a large bag made of tough paper which stood on the floor, in this was your toilet roll, a note-pad, a pencil, a pen, and some envelopes. Also on the floor, was a small wicker work basket containing some sewing things, scissors and some linen to darn (I needed a lesson on how to do that). I also kept one of my own bags in the cell with my toiletries in it. What I didn’t need, was put into a storage area with my suitcases, which I had free access to for as long as I remained a postulant. In your cell, you only kept a change of underwear and anything you wanted to wear the next day underneath your pillow. I was in a cell next to the novitiate classroom. The classroom was also an ‘overflow’ for some possessions. There was a chest of drawers in the novitiate where you could keep the rest of your clothes, craft work, and things that you didn’t require immediately but had easy access to. There was also a large bookcase where you could keep your books.

The cell had a large window, without curtains. You didn’t really need net curtains though, as I was on the third floor overlooking part of the garden, the moors and woodland. I also had a beautiful view of the surrounding area. What you could see varied from day to day, depending on the weather. Sometimes you were lucky to see the wall of the enclosure at the end of the garden, sometimes you could see for miles to layers of hills you didn’t know were there, before ending in gray misty peaks.

The windows opened out on to the fragrant mountain air, but inside those were another set of windows that opened into the room, so you could shut both pairs for warmth and not lose any light. Instead of proper curtains for use at night, they had wooden shutters on the inside of the room. There was an especially lovely view at night when it was clear, as you could see all the lights of Sheffield off to one side, further along there were other lights belonging to the rows of lights marking the roads. Sometimes the lines of hills were marked by the lights going up and down the tops of them, it was a most fantastic view, but I preferred the moors.

The grounds were large and they also had an underground spring. It was the original source of water for the Sisters of Mercy and orphans, when the place was an orphanage, which was what most of the building was designed as. This is why a large part of the convent looks like a French town house!

“French town house look”

Attached to the newer part of the house, there is a small wing, still in use, of an even older building. It’s size and shape suggests it was originally a farmhouse or a barn. When the Carmelite nuns moved here they built the large visitors Chapel and extended their living area inside the enclosure. It was built in local stone and blends into the area as if it has been there forever!

Part of the grounds the nuns grow vegetables and fruit, but there’s also a flower garden and a woodland area, which the local pheasants take refuge in and they have a cemetery also. Surrounding the garden is the enclosure wall which is made in dry stone walling. The Sisters have to keep a check on this wall because in some areas the strength of the wind actually causes a bulge in the wall, once this happens it won’t last long, as wind and rain get in and cause it to fall apart. This isn’t so bad if it looks on to the local farmer’s fields, although it does have to be repaired if it falls down to a certain level. The most urgent part of the wall, is that which runs along the lane (you can’t really call it a road), as cars, walkers and tourists go by there. Local farmers usually repair the wall for the sisters, though sometimes they do have to call in people to reinforce it with mortar if it’s a particular trouble spot.

Absolute enclosure

Entering Kirk Edge Carmel was like stepping back in time. The isolation, lack of traffic, buildings, noise and modern trappings meant that you could be anywhere, at any point in time. It felt quite surreal but beautiful. There was separation even from family and visitors. I’m used to chapels and even parlours that have little gate-like structures that can be opened, to serve as a grille. But never before have I come across a fixed criss-cross grille and bars (making a double grille) which is built into the wall and cannot be moved or opened. A sister will only ever come out for hospital treatment or serious dental treatment. A female doctor from the local surgery comes to the convent to see sick sisters.

Double grilles in parlor (hard to see 2nd set)

Keep in mind that Sheffield Carmel will not let you in unless you join as a Postulant. They told me that ‘live-ins’ are a modern idea and they don’t do that. To go into enclosure, you must be a Postulant (unless you’re doing essential building maintenance or the visiting doctor).

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