After weeks of daily downpours the Lord sent a strong north easterly wind which chased away the rain-bearing clouds, leaving a bright, if breezy day, full of the Spirit, as befits the feast and the occasion.

The Chapter at Lauds, from the Book of Tobit, proclaimed God’s promise to rebuild and renew Jerusalem, to comfort exiles and all who are afflicted or in distress, and a prophecy that praise would ring out from the sanctuary through all generations to come. We carry these intentions in our hearts this Jubilee Year as we celebrate God’s faithfulness to our community over the past four centuries, through times of exile and distress, and we pray for all those who are experiencing exile and affliction in our own day.

By 11.15 the abbey church was full and the overflow space in the Chapter House began to fill up. No one could have failed to be struck by the stunning arrangement of roses against the southern windows just beyond the ambo. The ivory and pale dusky pink blooms on long stems seemed to embrace the assembly and the whole world, like the prayers of Mary whose visit to her cousin Elizabeth lies at the heart of today’s liturgy.

The clergy processed in as the community sang a chant which had originally been composed by Dom Cyprian Smith of Ampleforth for Dame Michaela Whitmore’s Silver Jubilee: ‘I exult for joy in the Lord’.

Before Mass began Mother Abbess welcomed the assembly and thanked everyone for coming, some from quite a distance. A Jubilee, such as we are celebrating this year, she said, is not something deserving congratulations but rather an opportunity to give thanks to God for his faithfulness over the past 400 years. M. Abbess thanked Bishop Terence Drainey, of our diocese of Middlesbrough, for coming back from pilgrimage in Lourdes early in order to lead us in this primary service of thanksgiving, the Eucharist.

D. Petra read the first reading, Zephaniah’s joyful proclamation of the Lord’s salvation and renewing love originally for Jerusalem but also for each one who turns to God in trust (Zeph. 3:14-18).
The responsorial chant was taken, unusually, not from the psalms but from the first Book of Isaiah chapter 12: ‘Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel’, celebrating the Lord’s presence with his chosen people and, with the advent of Christ, with all his people.
The Gospel (Luke 1: 39-56), St Luke’s account of the newly pregnant Mary’s compassionate visit to her older cousin Elizabeth, also with child, was proclaimed by Canon Christopher Jackson, retired priest of the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle and an oblate of Stanbrook.

Bishop Terry began his homily with an apology: people generally go to Lourdes for a cure – he had returned with a cold! His homily brought out the conjunction in this feast of the homely, domestic, natural visit between the two women and the world-changing events which their babies would herald – John the Baptist – and bring about – Jesus Christ – nothing less than the reconciling meeting of humanity and God which has the power to change our lives today. Bishop Terry included two quotations from one of our foundresses Dame Gertrude More.

Bidding prayers, composed and read by D. Philippa followed.
Then, a rare moment as only the second offertory procession in our abbey church since covid began to make its way down the nave of the church, the gifts carried by oblate, Mary Cockroft, and Dr Emma Morrison to the sound of another chant of Dom Cyprian Smith’s, a version of the ‘Hail Mary’ sung unaccompanied by two chantresses alternating with the choir.

For the communion chant, a composition by Dom Paul Johnstone of Ealing, ‘The Almighty has done great things for me’, was sung beautifully by two chantresses to a haunting organ accompaniment and then repeated by the choir.

The final hymn, ‘Now thank we all our God’ was taken up with heartfelt gusto by the whole assembly as Bishop Terry and the concelebrants* processed out of church.

The voluntary played by Dame Mary Peter Smith, Frescobaldi’s Toccata in D,                                                            provided a joyful yet meditative link between the Mass and part two of the celebration.

As we wanted to invite as many of our family, oblates and friends as possible, it was decided that a finger buffet would be the best way to offer hospitality to a large number – we were about 120. This would offer maximum space for seating and allow people to spill out into the garth and other outdoor seating areas – hence our fervent prayers for dry weather! All worked out very well and the buffet also gave extra opportunities for circulating among our guests as one made trips to re-fill plates. (It should be noted that the plates were totally compostable made from palm leaves not quite plaited by our own hands!)

There was a sense of the heavenly in encountering so many friendly faces in one place, drawn together by a love of the community built up over many years and woven together by mutual prayerful support. We read much about ‘synodality’ but on this occasion it was palpable, enfleshed in the wider Stanbrook community journeying together on the way to God. The grace of the day was such that it was clearly being fed by the prayers of many not present in person and, in turn, like the extending arms of that rose flower arrangement, surely stretched out to include all our absent sisters, oblates, families and friends and indeed the whole world. Deo gratias!

Canon Alec Barrass, retired priest of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.
Canon Christopher Jackson, Hexham and Newcastle.
Fr Mark Milward, Hexham and Newcastle.
Fr Mervyn Williams SDB
Fr Mark Savage OSB, Pluscarden Abbey
Fr Kieran Monahan OSB, Ampleforth

From the House Chronicle


As Abbot Robert Igo of Ampleforth reminded us in his ample homily, today we celebrate at least 3 things:

The Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas
The first of our shared 400th anniversary celebrations
The annual Day for Consecrated Life

We had chosen this feast to invite our local friends from Ampleforth Abbey and Thicket Priory partly as they would be more likely to be able to get here should the weather turn wintry. In the event it has been a very mild, dry day.
Prioress Ann Dodd and four of the Thicket nuns arrived about 11am while c. 21 of the Ampleforth brethren came across a little later but in good time for the Mass and Procession at 11.30am.
It was lovely to have the cloisters full – the brethren in the glass cloister, Thicket and ourselves in St Joseph’s, and full of the new light of February enhanced by candlelight: both grace and nature prophetic of Spring.
As the bell tolled the cheerful sound of encounters and logistics gave way to a profound silence.
Sr Thérèse, bearing the Evesham Cross, led Abbot Robert, looking resplendent in mitre and the Jesse Tree vestment, and the two main concelebrants, Fr George Corrie and Fr Oswald McBride, to the crossing for the prayers and blessing of the candles before the procession set off.

Two of the Thicket nuns, Sr Rosemary and Sr Thérèse, proclaimed the lessons, while the Gospel was proclaimed by the Prior of Ampleforth, Fr George.
Fr Abbot’s homily betrayed his time in Africa (Zimbabwe) both in its content and length but was very lively and engaging. He highlighted ‘encounter’ as a key theme of this feast and reminded each of us of the personal encounter with Christ which was at the root and heart of our individual vocation.  A dominant role of  consecrated religious is to share this encounter with others: the consecrated life is always missionary.

Abbot Robert later brought out the way Mary and Joseph safeguarded the quality of amazement which characterises, or should characterise, our life of faith as we consider the marvellous works of God.
We were exhorted to lives of gratitude and joy for all we have received over the past 400 years and of courage for the future in the spirit of our foundresses. All of us as religious have a special role in the Church as places of prayer. Abbot Robert remarked on God’s Providence in that our 400th Jubilee coincides with the Year of Prayer which Pope Francis has inaugurated as preparation for the Church’s Jubilee Year of 2025: ‘Pilgrims of Hope’.

D. Philippa composed and read the Bidding Prayers.
The voluntary played by D. Peter, Diffusa est Lumen ad revelationem gentium by Dom Paul Benoit, brought to a luminous close the first part of our celebration.

Part two began with drinks in the refectory and cloister. Before lunch M. Abbess, whose feast-day this is, said a few words of welcome and thanks and brought out the particular links we have with both Ampleforth, especially via the contribution to our spiritual and material well-being of Fr Laurence Shepherd (Chaplain to Stanbrook 1863-85) while of course the shared experience of prison in Compiègne is a strong link with our Carmelite sisters. Those of Thicket have shown extreme kindness to us ever since we moved to our respective new monasteries on the same day, 21 May 2009 – the anniversary of our first abbess, Dame Catherine Gascoigne (1600-76).
Grace followed the applause from Anna’s speech and the serving hatch was opened revealing D. Josephine’s latest culinary creations:
Salmon with a light, optional, curry sauce, stuffed peppers, Spanish potatoes, green beans, salads, bread rolls, olives.
Desserts included meringue, Christmas pudding ice cream, individual sticky puddings, cheese biscuits grapes and chocolates.
There was much fraternal exchange as the meal progressed, including of gifts – individual candles and an amazing gift-wrapped ‘Gorilla Cart’ as an aid to portresses from Thicket who took home some goodies for those sisters unable to attend today.

In writing on Jubilees St Aelred mentions ‘a very pleasant joining together of many minds’ * – and this was certainly the case for the first community celebration in our Jubilee year. Deo gratias, and Jubilee blessings on all who took part in person or spirit.

* Mirror of Charity Bk III, Ch. 6.