The recent reports on the fate of the former convent buildings in Arnothill remind me of a promise I made to the Carmelite sisters before they left the town last year.
They were very sorry to be leaving Falkirk and were anxious to ensure that their 83 years in the town were not forgotten. I assured them that they would always be a part of the Falkirk story.
The Carmelite order was formed in Spain by St Teresa of Avila in 1562 and over the following years dozens of new foundations spread across Europe. However, it was not until 1878 that the first Carmelite Monastery opened in London, the first of 33 in Great Britain.
In 1931 the Catholic Archbishop in Edinburgh invited the Prioress from Notting Hill, London, Mother Mary of Jesus, to establish a monastery in Falkirk and Arnothill was officially consecrated on June 13 that year. Falkirk was number 27 and Dysart in Fife, where the Falkirk sisters now stay, was number 28.
The house chosen was the former manse of the Free Church built in 1855 for the pioneering minister, Reverend Lewis Hay Irving, not only a churchman of distinction but a social reformer who helped improve the lives of all the people of Falkirk. The sisters were very well aware of Rev. Irving’s reputation and proud of the connection with such an important figure in Falkirk’s past.
On the opening day Catholic clergymen both local and national were at Arnothill including Cardinal Francis Bourne of Westminster – although the people of Falkirk welcomed the sisters, the presence of the Cardinal in town did cause a bit of a stir!
The sisters set about creating a monastery which conformed to the life of prayer and contemplation practiced in the order and this meant the construction of many additional buildings to house the likes of the ‘cells’, the chapel and chapter house. Although the order was ‘enclosed’, work was an important part of the daily routine and also helped make the community self supporting.
One of the earliest activities was raising goats and many a prize winner at the Royal Highland Show was born and bred at Arnothill. Milk and cheese were also produced until 1970 when high costs brought the goat rearing to an end.
Other activities flourished including the making of jam and tablet, bee keeping and printing but, of course, the emphasis was on the religious life. For the Catholic people of Falkirk the convent was always ‘a powerhouse of prayer’ in the heart of the town. Over the decades the nuns were supported by the clergy and people of St Francis Xavier’s and in the 1950s as vocations increased and further building work was required, much of it was done by tradesmen in the congregation.
By 1981, the 50th anniversary of the foundation, there were 15 sisters but as the years passed the numbers declined and new vocations were harder to find in a more secular age. In 2014 the decision was taken to close Arnothill and the remaining sisters moved to Dysart.
Now their former home is facing development. The original house will thankfully survive, but most of the other buildings including the lovely little chapel and the retreat house are under threat.
Let us hope that when the planners come to make their judgements they remember that this is not only part of a key conservation area but is a place of peace and tranquillity sanctified by the long years of devotion of the Sisters of Carmel.