St Joseph’s Convent in Lawrence Street, once home to the Poor Clares, looks set to be turned into student flats. But remarkable photographs in The Press archives open a window into what life at the convent was once like. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

FOR 140 years, St Joseph’s Convent was home to the Poor Clares, an order of quiet, self-effacing nuns dedicated to poverty, chastity and obedience to God.

If planners agree next week, however, the convent could soon be home to a quite different group of people: as many as 660 students.

At its peak during the 1990s, the convent – which includes Victorian chapels and convent buildings plus gardens and orchards on five acres of land surrounded by a brick wall – was home to 40 nuns. But the numbers gradually declined over the years, until only eight nuns remained.

In an interview with The Press in October 2013, the Mother Abbess said the convent was simply too big, and the maintenance and heating costs too high. Permission had been sought from both the Vatican in Rome and from the Middlesbrough Roman Catholic Diocese for the nuns to move into a new, smaller convent in a converted house in York, she said.

The nuns had mixed feelings about leaving their home. “But it’s only bricks and mortar,” the Mother Abbess said.

The nuns moved out of their old home some time ago. And it now seems likely that the convent will be converted into a 660-bed student housing complex – bringing to more than 1,500 the number of new student bedrooms built in the area in recent years.

Vita Student, the company behind the scheme, says they will save the listed buildings, “sympathetically reuse” the land and keep a lot of the garden space.

Nevertheless, the convent in its new incarnation is likely to be very different to what is was when it was home to the Poor Clares.

The York community was founded in 1865 by a group of sisters who came here from Bruges. The buildings were designed by a local Roman Catholic ecclesiastical artist, George Goldie, and were built between 1870 and 1875.


York Press:

May 31, 1982: Taking their first look at the outside world for many years were these nuns of the closed order of Poor Clares, given special permission to travel from St Joseph’s Convent in Lawrence Street to see the Pope on Knavesmire


The nuns generally kept themselves to themselves – but occasionally allowed the outside world to gain a glimpse into their quiet, sequestered life.

In 1965, for the first time in 100 years, TV and Evening Press cameramen were given permission to go inside the convent, in St Lawrence Street, to mark the centenary.

Five years later, photographers were back again, this time capturing photographs of the nuns going about their regular chores – watering lettuce in the walled greenhouse; stacking sandals; mopping the cloister floor. Cameramen have also been allowed to photograph the nuns making the altar breads they supplied to churches around Yorkshire.

In May 1982, meanwhile, the nuns were given special permission to leave their convent in Lawrence Street to see the historic visit of the Pope to Knavesmire.

Other photos show a lighter side to the nuns: selling surplus eggs to the public in 1979 and, in 1991, selling their homemade rhubarb wine at their annual Christmas Fayre.

There have been interviews, too: including a memorable one in December 1985 in which the then Mother Abbess, Sister Mary Bernard, spoke to Evening Press reporter Simon Schofield about daily life in the convent – and preparations for Christmas.

Speaking through the iron bars that separated the convent from the outside world, she described the Christmas presents the nuns would receive – displaying a sweet sense of humour in the process.

“The presents would probably horrify most people,” she said. “We might get a packet of soap powder, or some bars of soap, or some toothpaste – things we need.”

The life she described was austere and devotional: bed at 8pm, in order to rise at midnight for mass. Then bed again, to rise at 5am for an hour’s quiet prayer, followed by a light meal, then chores, then more religious devotion, and lunch.


York Press:

September 22, 1979: Hens at St Joseph’s Convent in Lawrence Street were proving excellent layers. Picture shows Sister Catherine, left, and Sister Martha preparing eggs for sale


The afternoon would be given over to more chores, free time, meditation and Scripture reading, until Vespers at 5.45pm. After another light meal there would be half an hour of recreation: the only time, the Mother Abbess said, when the strict rule of speaking only when necessary was relaxed. “It’s amazing what we find to talk about,” she said. “We are never short of anything to say.”

In 2006, meanwhile, Press feature writer Charlotte Percival interviewed three nuns, who spoke candidly about their calling.

At the height of the swinging Sixties, each had left their families, friends and homes.

Their flares were exchanged for habits and Rita, Angela and Constance were given new names.

When she was young, Sister Immaculata revealed that she had had dreams of becoming a teacher.

“But then God called me to this life and it was an irresistible call,” she said. Sister Colette had always wanted to be a nun – but in Africa, not in York.

“Ever since I can remember, that is what I wanted,” she told Charlotte. “But when I was about 14, I saw a Tarzan film and I thought about all the creepy crawlies out there.

“So I visited a monastery in another part of this country and it just hit me that is was so peaceful and quiet. I decided that I could spend my days living in that sort of atmosphere.”

Sister Pia Francis, meanwhile, had wanted to be a nurse. “I can’t pinpoint the overall moment when I decided to become a nun. I think it was when I came into my teens. I knew what God wanted me to do,” she said.

The three were speaking after a BBC2 series, The Convent, had followed the life of four women in a Poor Clares convent in Arundel: a programme the three York sisters had watched with interest.


York Press:

 Sister Colette, left, Sister Immaculata and Sister Pia Francis, right, in 2006    


Although they had taken a vow of enclosure and only left the convent when absolutely necessary (to visit the doctor, dentist or hospital), they had access to a television as well as a radio and Catholic magazines, they told Charlotte. It helped keep them in touch with the outside world, and find topics for prayers.

Some might find the way of life they had chosen difficult, Sister Pia Francis admitted. “The way we live is not natural.” “It’s supernatural,” added Sister Immaculata. “It’s God’s grace that keeps us here.”

That was almost a decade ago.

In their new convent, the remaining Poor Clares continue their lives of quiet devotion. But whatever its future, the old convent building and grounds will never be the same again...