By Christopher Power
Ferns were privileged to have a little place of tranquility for over thirty years. The village is far from a metropolis. But for those who wished to escape from the daily rounds of life, who sought spirituality, or were troubled with the many problems that life has a habit of presenting, it had a unique and special retreat for all who needed solace in the form of its convent chapel. This lovely place was the basis of the Adoration Sisters who arrived in Ferns in 1990.
The convent was built on the site of the original 19th century parish church which was demolished as a result of the questionable architectural modernisation of many parish churches during the 1970s. Since then the Adoration Sisters had lived and worked here and became an embedded part of the community. The perpetual adoration in the convent’s chapel provided an immense comfort to a surprising number of people from a wide area and from every walk of life in its understated but powerful way. It was a force for good and a source of stillness in an often very troubled world. In attending Compline on a winter’s night, inside the shadows of the church, when only the Eucharist is illuminated by candle light and the Nuns sing prayers for the close of day in accents that are not native to the locality, it had a powerful, holy and deeply atmospheric virtue.
The Sisters of the Adoration are very interesting. Their spirituality is tempered with a multilingual, international view of life. The original houses of the order namely Belfast, Paris and Ferns, could not have contrasted more from each other and yet all were an immensely important part of the wider Christian community.
Their chosen life to love and serve touches an enormous amount of people. The Order's origins spanned from Paris in the 19th century and coincided with a very troubled period of French history.
To describe its origins it is necessary to recount some details of its foundress. Theodelinde Dubouche was born in Montauban, France in May 1809. The daughter of a reasonably high ranking civil servant, she became, in her early life, quite a successful painter. While in her mid-twenties her family moved to Paris. Throughout her early years she had grown to become a highly spiritual person despite a religiously secular family background. After her mother’s early death she cared for her ailing father. It was at this period of her life, as the force of her religious conviction grew, that she beheld a vision of Christ referred to by her as “The Holy Face.” She lived close to the Carmelite Convent in Rue d’Enfer, which is in the Latin quarter of Paris, while awaiting admission.
External events intruded on her life in 1848 when rioting broke out in the streets of Paris and the huge Tuileries Palace was burnt by a mob. The widespread riots known as the Days of June had arrived. This was one of several occasions of extreme social unrest, to occur in France in the 19th century (one of which is most memorably described by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables).
During this troubled period, Theodelinde instigated forty days of prayer as atonement for the havoc on the streets and a reaction to the violence. A growing number of people associated themselves in this prayer until they eventually numbered two thousand. The Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. Affre, who sanctioned and assisted her to carry out these prayers, was killed trying to negotiate a truce with those manning the barricades. During the Octave of the feast of Corpus Christi, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed each day - a practise which was quite unusual for the time. By the end of June the violence had ceased and Theodelinde had another vision of Christ in which he asked for a religious consecration so that there would be souls continually before him to receive spiritual life from the Eucharist and to transmit that life to others. In essence this was the basis and origin of the Adoration Sisters and the secular branch of that spiritual family.
Theodelinde did not enter the Carmelite order as originally planned but instead, guided by the superior of the Carmelite convent, she founded with eight postulants, a new order devoted to the adoration of Christ. The order was created on 6 August 1848. The following year Theodelinde was consecrated, becoming Mother Marie Therese.
Until her death in August 1863 she worked tirelessly and against impossible odds to build up the fledgling, penniless order. Perhaps one of the most astonishing incidents of her life was her prediction of a terrible physical test she would endure which came, as she had fully predicted, in the form of an accidental but very real raging fire which destroyed the convent chapel. She had walked into its midmost flames to save the Eucharist and was horribly burnt in the process. She never fully recovered from this ordeal and remained disfigured. Other incidents in her life marked her as a prophet and mystic. Undaunted by this dreadful ordeal and perpetually wracked by pain and ill health, she continued the work of the order. Eight years after the fire she eventually died while overseeing the construction of the later convent in the Latin Quarter of Paris. She now lies in the serenity of the adoration chapel, not far from the room where she died, which still contained her minuscule bed.
I was privileged to visit the French convent in 2015 with Father Richard Redmond, arriving on a broiling humid Parisian afternoon in July. After travelling from Ferns, we eventually found ourselves walking the short distance from the Luxembourg metro station, through the traffic and the roar of scooters, a sound always to be associated with the warmer climes of Europe. We had briefly became at one with the locals, enjoying that life style so envied by the poor Irish under their too often grey skies, café culture in all its glory in the delightful afternoon sunshine. The convent, which was on the Rue Gay Lussac, was the essence of calm in the middle of the Paris Latin quarter. The Sisters greeted us warmly, and we were invited to share their evening meal in the refectory. For me, it was an extraordinary experience to listen to divine readings in French and be part of this important part of the communal life in sharing this meal. After dinner, which was conducted in respectful silence, there were many questions from the Nuns and I felt ashamed at my utter lack of French. All conversation had to be translated through our host Sister Christina. The convent itself was a beautiful and imposing nineteenth century building with gothic windows. It was still under construction when its foundress died here in 1863. It’s lovely garden was a small haven of green surrounded by the encroaching city. The convent's focal point, the adoration chapel, is an airy bright space beneath the larger building. Perpetually attended as it was intended to be, many visitors were present seeking solace and paying their respects. In a small grotto nearby lay the simple tomb slab of Mother Marie Theresa. Stepping out on to the street, a twenty minute walk from Notre Dame and the mighty bustle of Paris all around, it was hard to imagine this little haven of calm in its midst. It was a little drop of tranquillity from the metropolis of life, great or small.
At the start of February 2022 the convent in Ferns closed its doors. The nuns, such an integral part of the village, have moved to Belfast. All things pass. The convent in Paris is also closed. No doubt these were difficult and deeply considered decisions and not taken lightly. The move has created sadness. A void has been left by this relocation which has affected many people, who now grieve for what they have lost. Such changes, which were scarcely imagined in the past, will now arrive with surprising swiftness and an entire way of life will be altered. Our local churches with their long traditions of worship and community face a similar fate. There are few lessons which can be learned from such inevitable change only to cherish those small drops of tranquillity, while we have them, and recognise that they may not last forever.
I would like to thank all those who assisted me in writing this short piece, particularly Sister Cecilia who kindly helped me with several of the details. Christopher.