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Brief History of the Convent

This page gives a short history of St. Louis convent.

Founding of the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis

The Sisters of Charity of St Louis were founded in France, at the end of the 18th Century, by a French noble woman, whose husband was guillotined during the revolution. She founded the Congregation to care for and educate children who were abandoned or orphaned as a result of the turmoil and chaos after the revolution and Napoleonic war.

In 1897, two sisters of the Order of Sisters of Charity of St Louis, travelled from France to England to visit various places where they could establish a foundation. Minehead in Somerset was chosen and on March 2nd 1898, the Sisters arrived at Southampton harbour and travelled by train to Minehead.

Establishing the Glastonbury Convent

In 1902, they established a House in Frome in Somerset and came to Glastonbury in Somerset in 1904. Initially, in Glastonbury, they bought and lived in The Priory; in Magdalene Street, a Georgian House, built around 1800, with approximately three acres of land. It was in this house that the Sisters opened an orphanage.

During April 1907, The Central Somerset Gazette carried a small advertisement which ran:

FRENCH LESSONS A splendid opportunity of acquiring a good practice of the French language in a short time is offered to the young ladies of this town and neighbourhood by the French Nuns lately settled at The Priory in Magdalene-street. Accommodation for boarders Apply to the Rev. Mother Superioress. The Sisters will also undertake all kinds of plain and fancy needlework.”

For the original article, see The Convent - A Centennial Commemoration.

In 1912, a girl aged 2, came to the orphanage, her name was Marie Therese Woods, later to become Sister Eugenie. Within this building, the convent chapel was used as the parish church until 1925. This Priory was to become part of the convent school. During the following years, next to The Priory, they built the three storey block and converted a stable into a small Roman Catholic church, which seated about 50. Both the school and small church opened in 1926. In 1953, they also bought the neighbouring Somerset House.

The main focus of the work of the Sisters was education. In 1913, the Sisters built a laundry hut, which provided a wash-house, drying place and ironing room. It had been converted from a stable, coach-house and cart shed. Many can remember the laundry room and the sign by the convent. Doing the washing for the neighbourhood, provided a much-needed income for the convent. The Sisters also made use of their various skills by keeping a few animals, including a cow and chickens, and growing their own vegetables. They also did needlework for a London store. These activities were run to support the school, as parents paid as much or as little as they could afford. In 1930 there were three classrooms, and in 1932 the first school hall was built. Sister Patricia was headmistress at this time. From 1932, during the summer holidays, a holiday camp was set up for children (mainly from London) thus providing extra income.

The Convent Expands

In 1939, in response to the growing catholic community, the small Catholic church beside the convent school, was demolished and, at a cost of £11,000 a new church and presbytery were built nearby. While the new church was being built mass was said in the convent hall. The priest at this time was Fr. Fitzpatrick, who lodged in the convent. The new church was opened in July 1940 and was attended by 800 people although the church only seats 300 parishioners! The church was consecrated in July the following year. The cellars under the new church were used as air-raid shelters for the pupils of the convent during the second world war. The sisters and boarders slept in the cellars under the convent during air raids at night. In 1943 evacuees arrived, and American soldiers stationed nearby sent their washing to the nun's laundry.

In the mid 1940's, out of the 100 pupils attending the convent, 12 were boarders. Their dormitory was situated on the top floor of the Priory. Sister Eugenie looked after the boarders, apart from this and being a teacher, she was also the church organist and choir mistress. In 1944 they decided to close the orphanage and concentrate on the school instead. From 1944 till 1947 Sister Patricia went to Bristol University where she obtained a degree. During her time away, Sister Eugenie was left to run the school.

In 1951, Sister Aimee became headmistress. There were five classrooms now. To meet the needs of change, Sister Aimee taught shorthand and Sister Winifred typing. In 1953, typing lessons were taught in the newly acquired Somerset House. By 1959, typing and shorthand lessons were being taught to non-pupils too, with 50 attending these lessons. By the mid-1960's, the convent was expanding with over 260 pupils, including boarders, attending. They were taught by eight full-time teachers, five of which were Sisters of the order of St Louis and a further 6 part-time teachers. In 1978 Sister Lise Barbeau became headmistress. Around this time the laundry hut was turned into a science classroom and the fields around the hut were used as a sportsfield.

The convent had big playgrounds. Each summer, the school fetes were held in the playgrounds and the rose garden, behind Somerset House. Morrisons, (formerly Safeways) the supermarket, now stands in part of the fields owned by the convent. Before the building of the supermarket (in 1988), the annual Roman Catholic pilgrimages would take place in these fields. In the early 60's, the first school hall was demolished, and a larger hall was built. It was officially opened in May 1963. Apart from the school using the hall for various lessons and concerts etc. It was available for hire to the general public, including being used as a polling station. It also provided a venue for the neighbouring St. Mary's church's activities.

The Convent Closes

In 1984, the convent closed down in Glastonbury. On Tuesday, 21st August 1984, an auction was held at the convent selling the furniture, books, games equipment etc. In the spring of 1985, a maple tree was planted in the Abbey ruins, opposite the convent, to commemorate its closing. The convent in Minehead closed in 1994 and the one in Frome in 1998.

From its closure, to a few years ago, the buildings were still used as a preparatory school, but under the ownership of Millfield school of Street.

The Sisters also set up houses in Richmond (Surrey) in 1959; Norwood (London) 1967; Vauxhall (London) 1989 and Tolworth (Surrey) in 2000. As at 2006, only Richmond and Tolworth convents remain in use.