20 Jul 2013

21st July 2013 - A chat with the Cistercian nuns of St Mary's Abbey, Glencairn Co Waterford - Part 1 of 2

On this weeks programme, we have part one of a two part special programme on the Cistercian nuns of St Mary's Abbey, Glencairn Co Waterford. Lorraine has a discussion about the Cistercian life and what it means to be an enclosed nun in Ireland today with Sr Sarah Branigan (Vocation Directoress) and Sr Michelle Slattery (Novice Mistress).

You can listen to the podcast of the programme HERE.

The Abbey's website is HERE and Facebook page HERE.


UPDATE: Part 2 was broadcast on 20 October 2013.

St Mary's Abbey - Glencairn


The Cistercian Community of St Mary's Abbey Glencairn
St Mary’s Abbey, Glencairn is the only Cistercian monastery for women in Ireland.  The monastery is located in the Blackwater Valley, about 3 miles upstream from Lismore, County Waterford.
"At the heart of the monastic life is the search for God; here at Glencairn, we seek God and follow Christ in a life of prayer and community, solitude and simplicity, work and hospitality. We follow the Rule of St Benedict, an ancient source of monastic wisdom that continues to guide many people in search of an authentic spiritual path in today’s world."
As the sisters outline the Cistercian Order arose as a reform movement within the Benedictine tradition in the 12th century who were seeking for a simpler way of life - a return to the deserts of the world to seek a space for God. 

The first Cistercian monastery was established in Citeaux, France in 1098 by Saints Robert, Alberic and Stephen and Sr Sarah tells us of the history of the early foundations. Early in the Cistercian tradition, women sought the Cistercian way of life and the first Cistercian monastery for women was in Tart, France, a daughter house of Citeaux, founded by St Stephen in 1125. St Malachy brought the Cistercians to Ireland in 1142, to Mellifont, County Louth. St Mary’s Abbey, Glencairn is the first Cistercian monastery for women in Ireland since the Reformation, founded in 1932 by Holy Cross Abbey, Stapehill, England. Today, there are 37 Cistercian nuns in the community of St Mary’s Abbey, Glencairn.

The life of the Cistercians is under pinned by a number of foundations including
  • a zeal for the Opus Dei (the Work of God) which is the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the Divine Office) which is one of the focus' of St Benedict
  • the ethos of simplicity which defined Citeax with its emphasis on poverty, simplicity in liturgy, manual work and a guarded interaction with the secular world so as not to displace the main focus of their lives as being a constant search for God.
  • St Bernard and other writers of the Cistercian tradition have emphasised experiential quality of monastic life; effective spirituality stressing relationship with Christ; stressing fraternal communion and also a strong Marian devotion with the order and each abbey of the order under the patronage of Mary.


Sr Michelle takes us through the life of a novice as women discern whether they are called to the life of a cistercian nun with the community in Glencairn including what daily life is like, the study and prayer life undertaken. Sr Sarah then continues to share with is the meaning of the monastic vows stability, obedience and conversion of life as well as the day to day life at the abbey.

From the Abbey's website:

What is Cistercian Spirituality?

“Cistercian nuns seek God and follow Christ under a rule and an abbess in a stable community which is a school of mutual love”. These words, from the Constitutions of our Order, point to some key elements in our spirituality.

Cistercian: “Cistercian” comes from the word Cîteaux, in Latin Cistercium, which means “marshy place” or “swampy place”. Cîteaux, in France, is where the Cistercian movement began in 1098, as a reform within the Benedictine monastic tradition.

Nuns and monks: there are both men and women Cistercians. We live in single-sex communities, but the two branches form one Order. There are Cistercian communities on all five continents: they follow the same lifestyle, adapted to local situations.

Seek God: the heart of monastic life is seeking God. From earliest times, some Christians have felt called to go apart to lead a life more intensely focused on God. They separated themselves from the distractions of regular society, and went away to a remote or isolated place more conducive to prayer and consciousness of God. There they devoted themselves to seeking God and union with God. The first people to practise this kind of lifestyle went literally into the desert, in Egypt. We follow in their footsteps, and so do not engage in any outside apostolate. The purpose of a Cistercian is to seek God.

Follow Christ: Cistercian life is a way of living the Gospel. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is fundamental in each sister’s heart. Christ is our model: we strive to be conformed to him in his obedience, humility, patience and poverty. He is our King, whom we try to serve. And he is our Beloved: we seek intimate union with him in prayer.

Under a Rule…: this means the Rule of St Benedict, as interpreted by Cistercian tradition and contemporary understanding. There are three key elements in the monastic day according to this Rule:



(1) Liturgy: Seven times a day we meet in the church to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours, consisting of psalms, Scripture readings, and prayers. By this we offer praise to God, we ourselves are sanctified, and we intercede for all people. We celebrate the Eucharist daily; it is the source of our communion with Jesus Christ and with one another.

(2) Lectio divina: quiet, meditative reading of the Word of God in Scripture, which leads to contemplative prayer and shapes us to live by the Gospel.

(3) Work: Through our work we support ourselves, and have something to share with the poor. In Glencairn we produce eucharist bread and greeting cards for sale, and we have a farm which is now mostly dedicated to tillage (barley) with some cattle. Other work includes care of the sick and guests, the upkeep of the monastery, administration and formation work, gardening, and many other tasks.
Living “under a Rule” means that our life is disciplined. The purpose of this discipline is to make us free: free from selfishness and unhealthy desires, free from things that do not help us on our journey to God; free to have hearts open to give and receive genuine love.

…and an abbess: the abbess is a central figure in the monastery. She is believed to act as Christ’s representative, and so ministers to the whole community with pastoral care, teaching the sisters by word and example, and encouraging them in their monastic vocation.

Community: Cistercians maintain a balance between solitude on the one hand, and community living on the other. Solitude and silence provide us with a climate for prayer and encounter with God. Community relationships are the place where love is put into action. Unity of spirit, sharing of goods, and bearing one another’s burdens are hallmarks of a Spirit-filled community.

Stability: we make a vow of stability, which means that we commit ourselves to live always in this particular community, and will not normally move to another one. Stability is the “for better, for worse” of monastic life. Our other vows are fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.

School of love: St Benedict called the monastery a “school of the Lord’s service.” The early Cistercians called it a “school of love”. On our spiritual journey we are always pupils. Learning to love with the heart and mind of Christ is an ongoing task, which will occupy us all the days of our life.

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Some external Youtube videos on Glencairn.




An investigation by U.S. television producer Phil O'Connor into the decline of the Irish Church brought him, together with the Religion and Ethics team and camera crew to Ireland in late May of this year where they made a further television feature on contemporary monastic life as lived here at St Mary's Abbey.

Originally broadcast in the U.S. Sunday a.m. 24 July 2011 on PBS television on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.


An audio slideshow by Irish Times photographer Bryan O'Brien featuring images of Theresa Kottayail from Kerala, India as she took her first vows as a junior professed sister in the enclosed Cistercian community of nuns at St Mary's Abbey, Glencairn, Lismore, Co.Waterford, Ireland in December 2011. She took the name Sr Robert and was the first sister from India to complete her novitiate in the rural Irish Abbey.

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