Down the hill we enter the massive gates of the convent, and are admitted behind the grilles which, pre 1890, demarcated the public part of the building from the enclosed nuns’ living and worship area. Today only 15 sisters remain, and they are free to mingle in society and to serve as they wish. But the reason the convent was built immediately is, presumably, that something had to be done with the “spare” women. The younger daughters with no dowry, the widows, the unwanted. All over Europe these buildings are a reminder that most of the women who lived in them over the centuries did not enter with a vocation, but for lack of anywhere else to go. What must these little girls in their early adolescence have thought as the inner doors were locked behind them-for the rest of their lives. Lots of gruesome paintings on the walls of suffering martyrs and tortured Christs, interspersed with idealised pictures of the Virgin Mary. Ha! But the gentle old guide today was herself one of the 15 contemporary sisters, and she exuded pride and love for her own place. mind you, the Order is no longer enclosed, so taking the veil no longer means entering a prison. Above all it is now a choice, not a sentence.
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