THE permanent footprints worn in the wood of the pews are the only evidence that at one time more than 300 sisters lived at Wantage’s Victorian convent.

Today, there are just 14 women wandering the echoing corridors at the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin.

The sisters are already hunting for a new, smaller home, more suited to their needs.

But they are also trying to interest more people in their way of life, and one of their tactics is inviting people to come and live alongside them.

So-called alongsiders would be asked to live much the same life as the sisters – which, it turns out, is mostly silent.

Five sets of daily prayers begin at 7am, then breakfast is followed by Terce at 8.15am, Sext at 12.30am, Vespers at 5pm and Compline at 8.15pm.

And that does not include the daily Eucharist at 10am.

Alongsiders would be expected to take on some of the daily tasks at the community – helping maintain and catalogue books in the library; gardening in their grounds; preparing for chapel services, sewing, mending and other crafts.

Meals are held in silence, but sisters usually meet up for a cup of tea and a chat afterwards, before returning to the silent devotion of work.

Sister Elizabeth Jane, who has been with the community for 22 years, said: “It might be someone who is between jobs or between courses and wondering what their next step will be and needing time and space to explore that.

“The sisters value consistency and commitment, which one doesn’t always find in modern society.

“Moving house, changing your partner or changing job – there doesn’t seem to be any time for reflection, or criticism of people applying for a job if they have only been at the last job for two years.

“The monastic tradition really focuses on stability and commitment of a balanced life, and I think people are looking for some of those things.

“One finds that somewhere like here, one can plumb the depths of silence and prayer and being reflective, then take that around to the world outside.

“It is about trying to integrate the two lives. We do read newspapers and listen to the news.”

The sisters say the scheme is not a recruitment drive, but on the other hand they are always looking for new permanent members for the community.

Anyone interested in being an alongsider would be asked to spend a weekend first with a view to spending up to six months or maybe longer.

Sister Stella added: “Women whose families have grown up can often discover something that has been dormant but it could also be younger people wondering about how they might commit their lives to God.

“I would be looking for maturity although I’m not opposed to a healthy dose of eccentricity.”

In return for their commitment, alongsiders would be able to plumb the depths of their own soul, seeking insights on the meaning of their life.

Sister Stella added: “It’s not about coming to have a holiday, it is about a commitment to community.”

Alongsiders would be asked for a contribution towards their keep.

To find out more email Sister Stella on


Oxford Mail:

  • Prayer: The view inside St Mary’s Chapel

The community of St Mary the Virgin was founded in 1848 by Wantage vicar and philanthropist William John Butler.

It sprang out of the so-called Oxford Movement of the mid-19th century, which sought to revive religious communities, and also gave birth to All Saints in Cowley.

At first, Mr Butler housed four sisters in a little house in Newbury Street, Wantage, but then bought farmland in Denchworth Road to build a convent in the 1850s.

The residents of the community are called sisters, not nuns, because nuns technically live in an enclosed community, shut off from the outside world.

The community went on to found St Mary’s School, Wantage, which closed shortly before the year 2000, St Helen and St Katharine School, Abingdon, which now runs independently, and mission schools in India and South Africa.

They founded homes for mentally and physically-challenged and a home for women with alcohol problems in Surrey.

In the early 20th century the community had a population of about 400, but that began to decline alongside the number of practising Christians in the country.

Until just two years ago, the sisters also ran a mission house in a busy street in a deprived area of Smethwick, just outside Birmingham.

The community is now a registered charity, relying entirely on donations to keep going.


Oxford Mail:

  • A place for contemplation: Sister Stella has lived St Mary’s Convent in Wantage since 1979 

For Sister Stella, St Mary’s offers a place to find peace.

She said: “For me, the environment we create in the property offers a place people will come and find restful, simple ease, but increasingly the whole aspect of prayer and contemplation is out there.

“When we had a house in Smethwick, Muslims would stop us in the street and ask us for prayers.

“There is something about humanity that is to do with contradictions. There are aspects of myself I deny or want to have under the carpet, and can judge in someone else, but if I can bring together this stuff that is in control then I think something quite interesting and resourceful can emerge.

“I think in the community there is a trust about how we live our life.There is not a lot of finger-wagging going on and we’re not expected to be identical.”

The sisters have three weeks’ holiday a year where they have to only say two of their five daily offices.

The convent also employs about a dozen lay staff, all part-time.