December 6 2013 Latest news:
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Clare Priory is one of Suffolk’s oldest institutions with roots dating back to the Middle Ages. But what is its role in the 21st Century? James Marston reports
It was Richard de Clare who first invited the Augustinian Friars to Suffolk.
Richard gave the religious order lands close to Clare castle and Clare Priory was built.
Today the original church is a ruin but a sense of history is inescapable in this quiet corner of Suffolk
Father David Middleton, 71, is the current prior.
He said: “It is a very historic place, originally the Augustinians were hermits who followed the life rule of St Augustine of Hippo. It was Pope Innocent IV who gathered them together and created a religious order with the original ministry of going into the cities and towns.
“Clare at that time was a thriving wool town and it was from here that friars went to other towns such as Cambridge, Oxford and London and other centres of greater population.”
The priory existed at Clare from 1248 until 1537.
Father David said: “Henry VIII suppressed England’s religious houses. His men came round and closed about 2,000 religious houses in two years. One Augustinian friar John Stone refused to make the oath of supremacy and he was martyred at Canterbury but here in Clare the friars accepted the situation.”
After the suppression of the priory the buildings passed into private hands.
Father David said: “The priory was owned by the King’s trumpeter Richard Frende and by 1600 it was in the hands of Sir Thomas Barnadiston.”
The house was lived in by various families until 1953 when it was sold by the De Fonblanque family back to the Augustinians.
Father David said: “When the friars came back it had two roles, as a parish centre and as a place for novices to come to learn about communal living and living the life of a friar.”
The Parish, created in 1953, is dedicated to Our Mother of Good Counsel, and encompasses the villages of Clare, Cavendish, Glemsford, Hundon and Stoke-by-Clare
Father David added: “At that time many of the novices came from an Augustinian school in Carlisle. But society changed after the post-war years and in the 1970s the flow of novices ceased and the priory took on a new direction.”
Today the priory retains its role as a parish church as part of the Roman Catholic diocese of East Anglia but is also a place of retreat as well as home to a community of Augustinian Friars.
Father David said about 1,500 people either stay or visit the priory for a day each year – aside from the Sunday parish congregation.
He added: “We have people here all the time either staying with us or spending a day here. There are four friars in the community, Sister Eileen, who is a nun, and Mary, a lay woman.”
The community lives together in the priory.
Father David said: “The key phrase of St Augustine’s rule of life is ‘Be united in mind and heart on the way to God’. We live a shared existence and we live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.”
The day includes prayers and religious services alongside the work the community does.
Father David said: “We are not early risers. The first communal experience of the day is prayers at 9.40am followed by mass at 10am then usually we sit and have coffee for a while with whoever has joined us.”
Further prayers are said before lunch and again at 6pm there is half an hour of prayers which includes 20 minutes of silent prayer and 10 minutes of more formal spoken prayers. The community has an evening meal at about 6.30pm.
Father David said: “There are always lots of things to do. We make ourselves available to visitors to offer advice or someone to pray with. We visit the community or schools or the sick and we make hospital visits. I am also a chaplain for the prison at Highpoint so I go there on Saturday mornings.”
During a walk through the house – there is a library, quiet room, and dining area known as the cellarers hall, as well as the community’s accommodation – and Father David shows off some of the fascinating original features such as stone work, stained glass and the priory’s shrine to Our Lady of Good Counsel housed at the end of a 13th Century passageway.
The priory is funded by people who pay to come on retreat, funds from the diocese and a subsidy from funds held by the Order of St Augustine.
Father David said he joined the order after finishing his A-levels. He said that the number of novices has recently begun to rise.
He said: “I think people are attracted to communal living as people can get isolated and there are all sorts of communities around.”
The priory’s new church was finished in July this year.
Father David said the old church – the medieval priory’s former infirmary – has become too small for the growing congregation.
He said: “The church had been used as an infirmary, a barn, a school room and a barn again. It wasn’t a church until the 1950s when the order came back here.”
Built as an extension to the old church building, the new church is a mixture of old and new using modern building techniques against the ancient building. It is an impressive space.
Father David said: “We hold three masses on Sundays and we have a congregation of about 200 people. The congregation is growing.”
In the kitchen Sister Eileen is busy washing up and preparing lunch.
She said: “I have been here since 2000 when my convent in Sudbury closed. I asked to come here and I am a full-time member of the community. My role is to help with the general running of the priory and help look after the church.
“I cannot describe what it is like to live here but there are many joys that come from living in a community like this.”