LONDON — Tyburn Convent is situated in the heart of London, at the end of the busiest shopping street in Europe, Oxford Street, and facing the city’s Hyde Park. There is endless noise from the never-ending throng that passes the front of the convent, where, paradoxically, a special peace reigns inside its walls.
The name “Tyburn” is known to Catholics the world over. Tyburn Tree was the gallows where, during the years of intense persecution, 350 British Catholics were martyred, often hung, drawn and quartered, starting in 1535 with John Houghton, prior of the London Charterhouse, and ending in 1681 with Oliver Plunkett, the archbishop of Armagh. Both men — and many others brought to Tyburn Tree — were declared martyrs and saints by the Church.
The convent has a special veneration for these martyrs. The Benedictine community, the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, was founded by Frenchwoman Marie-Adèle Garnier (Mother Marie de Saint-Pierre) in the Parisian quarter of Montmartre (Mount of the Martyr) in 1898. The community is dedicated to adoring the Blessed Sacrament. In addition, the London monastery is also dedicated to preserving the sacred memory of the martyrs who suffered their earthly fate a mere stone’s throw from the convent’s chapel.
All day and all night, except during Holy Mass, the Tyburn Sisters adore the Holy Eucharist exposed on the high altar. Enclosed, contemplative Benedictines pray and offer reparation for the world, and, hidden and unknown, for the city surrounding them.
Benedictine Mother Marilla is the mother general of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre. She oversees the running of the order’s 12 monasteries worldwide. Last fall, the Register met up with her at Tyburn Convent to find out more about the mission and vocation of her order.
What, in essence, is the contemplative vocation?
I often describe the contemplative life like this to people: The Church is the Body of Christ. On this body we have the feet: These are the missionaries who travel to distant lands to spread the Gospel. We have the hands: These are the apostles who serve, for example, the poor, the sick and the needy. We have the mouth: These are the preachers who proclaim the Gospel and evangelize and teach. But the contemplatives, who are they? They are the heart. What is the function of the heart? The heart pumps the blood throughout the body. It keeps the body alive and brings it nutrients through the blood, which it pumps. The blood is prayer. Contemplatives pump prayer throughout the Church so that the Church and the world may continually be fed by the graces we seek to draw down through our prayer, adoration and contemplation. Around the heart is the rib cage. What is the function of the rib cage? The rib cage protects the heart so that the heart can perform its function. The rib cage is like the grille in our chapel. Our cloister is there to protect our life of prayer and contemplation.
Tyburn Convent is situated in the center of London. What is the convent’s relationship to the wider city?
People often comment that when they enter the chapel at Tyburn Convent they can hardly believe that they are in the very center of the great city. This sense of silence is even stronger inside the monastic enclosure. In the morning, the sound of chirping birds in our garden is much louder than the traffic. However, the minute we step outside, we are very conscious of the inner-city rush. For most sisters, I would think that they perceive the relationship of the convent to the wider city on different levels. The first level would be an awareness of the faithful who live in the city. Then, on a more practical level, we have an understanding that we play an important role in the life of the city of Westminster.
London, like most cities, suffers many sorrows and miseries. There is much that is good, but there is also much that is distressing. We have the awareness that Tyburn Convent is like a lighthouse in the middle of what can sometimes seem like a dark, chaotic turmoil. Many people are drawn to this house of light, and they will come from the darkness and chaos outside to take a few moments of rest and respite before the Blessed Sacrament or in the martyrs’ crypt and very often before the tomb of our mother foundress, the Servant of God Marie-Adèle Garnier. After this refreshment, they feel strengthened to venture into the world outside.
Are you surprised by who turns up to pray at Tyburn Convent?
Tyburn is quite unique; it is not like our other monasteries, which are usually in the country or in quieter areas of town. The people who come here can range from ex-prime ministers to paupers. As far as I know, we still haven’t had a visit from Her Majesty the Queen, who lives just across the park. There are nearly always people in our chapel from near, far and wide. What amazes me are those who come for the night adoration — our Vigilants (members of the Tyburn Association of Adoration). Their zeal and love for the Eucharist is incredible. They never seem to tire of it; just the opposite, the more they adore, the more they want to adore. Some would do night after night of adoration if they were able to.
Tyburn is the site of the martyrs. How conscious is the community of this link?
We are sitting on the place of sacrifice of not only the greatest martyrs of England and Wales but also some of the greatest martyrs in the entire Church. The older Catholics in England know our Tyburn martyrs, but it is true to say that many of the Catholics who are new to this country do not know anything about Tyburn. One of my great joys is to see the expressions of our postulants and aspirants who come from other countries as we show them the martyrs’ crypt and explain to them how and why they died: the look of sudden surprise, then horror at the barbaric cruelty, then wonder at the courage of those that died here, even to the point of being lighthearted and comedic about their torturous deaths; then, at the end, there is the look of pride — not the bad pride, the good pride; pride in our martyrs who refused to change an iota of the truths of our faith; pride that we live on this spot; pride that we belong to this religious house which honors their memory. Many of the sisters, like the many visitors who visit the crypt, are moved to tears by some of the last words of the martyrs. “Good Jesu, what will you do with my heart?” “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, be to me a Jesus.” “Jesus convert England.” “Jesus, have mercy on this country.”
How does this historical context influence your sense of mission?
Our mother foundress was expelled from France only three years after our congregation was founded. They were forced by the 1901 French Laws of Association to leave Montmartre in Paris to take refuge in England. But she and our first mothers courageously followed the spirit of the English martyrs and said, “On the mission — not in exile!”
The Tyburn Martyrs encourage us with this same spirit whenever we make a new foundation, whenever we are sent to far, distant lands to adore the Lord in that country and to bring down graces for that country. All the sisters give up their families, friends and homeland to do this. But like the English martyrs, we understand what is at stake: It is souls that are at stake, souls for the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus.
The Eucharist is central to all you do. Why is that?
This question is like asking, “Why is the sun important to the Earth?” Our mother foundress, the Servant of God Mother Marie-Adèle Garnier, knew that we would not be like other Benedictines. It is the devotion to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus exposed and raised on high in all our chapels across the world that makes us different. From the beginning the Sacred Heart called our first mother to this intensely Eucharistic life. These are her words in 1897, only a few months before the foundation of our congregation in 1898:
“The desire to respond to the call of the Heart of Jesus living in the Eucharist has inspired this little work. In revealing his Sacred Heart to Blessed Margaret Mary, Our Lord frequently asked for souls, who out of love for him, would spend themselves in reparation for the way he is insulted and abandoned in the Most Holy Sacrament, for these souls will never be as numerous as his Heart desires. Hence, a religious family specially vowed to the worship of the Heart of Jesus living in the Eucharist can hope to draw to this ideal a great number of souls having this special attraction, and so be able to offer to the Divine Reality the solace he continually yearns for in his love for us.”
What has adoration taught you about the gift of the Eucharist?
The more we are before the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus exposed in the monstrance the more we yearn and desire to be before him. The more we adore him, the more we love him. The more we learn about him, the more we realize we have much more to learn. The more we receive him, the more we realize we cannot live without him.
Whenever we make a foundation of a new monastery, the first thing that we begin to establish is the Holy Mass and the adoration. We never truly know if a foundation will be successful or not. I have been on four foundations, and it never ceased to amaze me how, as soon as we place our Eucharistic Lord on the Eucharistic pillar for adoration, the people come.
The Eucharist is like a magnet. Even non-Christians comment on how they feel a strong peaceful presence at our monasteries. This is the Lord. He draws all of us to himself, and his presence emanates from the Eucharist.
Another aspect that we are very conscious of is the grace that flows from the Eucharist. Often the sisters are asked if they could give spiritual direction. This always strikes us as a very odd question. Why would you want us to give you spiritual direction when you can sit before the Lord himself in the Eucharist? Before his very presence we receive so much grace and instruction and healing.
When you are outside the convent, how reverent do you think today’s Catholics are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament?
We are not often in parish churches, so we do not often see how people act before the Blessed Sacrament outside of our own chapel. When we do pop in to visit a church on our way to some necessary business, I am actually quite edified to see people reverently praying before the tabernacle. This may be different during the main Sunday Mass times, but outside of normal times you find quite a number of people before the Blessed Sacrament in the city churches. This is more so than, say, 20 years ago.
Perhaps today, if you have managed to remain a practicing Catholic, you are a good Catholic. Also, the reverence with which people receive the Eucharist can often depend on the reverence of the priest celebrating the Holy Mass. We must all pray for priests so that they may love the Eucharist with their whole being. I also think that good Catholic media such as EWTN [the parent company of the Register] and also social media has played an enormous role in Eucharistic evangelization, and particularly so for young people. Contrary to this, of course, is the blatant sacrilegious ridicule of the Eucharist and Catholics in general. This we hear more about in our enclosure, although we have not seen it personally. What is of great concern to us is the stealing of Hosts by Satanists to use in black masses. What concerns us are the offenses committed against the Eucharist in secret as well as openly. This is becoming disturbingly bolder and prevalent, and it spurs us on to console the Heart of Jesus as much as we are able.
How hard is it to attract vocations?
It is becoming more and more challenging to attract vocations as the years pass. Most religious orders experience this. We have also experienced deliberate attacks to prevent vocations coming to us. The devil particularly hates our Eucharistic charism, so this should not be a surprise.
The most damaging attacks come through the internet, which aim to discredit or even slander the congregation, it’s history and even our saintly mother foundress in some way with abominable lies. There are some who deliberately go out of their way to discourage vocations from even making the first step of inquiry. This is not only damaging to us but to the person who is genuinely seeking God’s will in their life. This is something they will have to give account of at the end of their earthly life. In reality, what they harm, in essence, is the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus and the consolation that he would have received from those that would spend their life in adoration. They also do great harm to themselves.
Whatever they say about our congregation, one cannot deny that all our sisters love and adore the Lord in the Eucharist. Young women should know that when the Lord calls, it is not just to religious life in general. He calls each one to a particular religious family, and this calling is placed in our hearts before we are born.
Do not fear. The Lord knows what he is doing. He is really quite a good organizer, you know. The Lord has arranged since you were first conceived in his mind all of the necessary graces and gifts that you will require to accomplish the mission he has especially prepared for you. He has organized to the minutest detail all the graces of strength you will need to carry the crosses and burdens laid upon you in any state of life he calls you to. These graces and gifts are bespoke, they are tailor-made, and, what’s more, they have already been paid for, paid by the blood of Christ. Do not be afraid. The only thing you should be afraid of is not doing the will of God. What a shame it would be to waste these graces and gifts — what a terrible, terrible shame it would be to waste the blood of Christ. If we do not follow our true calling, we will never truly be happy.
Where do your vocations come from?
We have vocations in most of the countries where our monasteries are, including England. They are not always plentiful, but they are there. The poorer countries, such as [in] Latin America, seem to do better because they still have their faith [as part of the culture]. It should also be recognized that those from poorer countries are able to give up worldly goods easier than those in the West. However, that does not mean that they do not have to make sacrifices, too. Still, it is getting harder in Latin American countries, as well, because secularism has reached the far ends of the earth.
Are there plans for a men’s Tyburn convent?
It is one of our joys at present that there are two priests from Colombia who feel strongly called to begin a monastic congregation with the charism of our foundress. They became novices about five months ago. In England they have been dubbed the “Tyburn Monks,” but they wish that their official name should be “Adorers of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, Order of St. Benedict.”
We received confirmation that this foundation is of God when we almost miraculously stumbled upon a rule for monks written by our foundress. Many of the older mothers had never seen this rule, but they had always heard that it existed. We found it six days before I was due to fly out to Colombia.
The “Rule for Monks” outlines that they are to be like the apostles and bring souls to the Eucharist. This is quite distinct from but complementary to the mission of the Tyburn Nuns, which is to draw down graces for souls — so the monks are to gather the sheep, and the nuns feed and water them.
What is the greatest joy of your vocation?
I have been speaking to the sisters about this because the more I travel and visit different places (due to my duties), the more I thank the Lord for giving me our particular vocation. The more I think about my vocation, the more I am so very grateful that it has been given to me. Even good and holy places do not have the concentration on the Eucharist to the same extent as our congregation. Our entire life revolves around the Eucharist, around the Holy Mass, around the Liturgy of the Hours (which is, for us, an extension of the Mass), and especially around adoration.
This is our greatest joy: the Eucharist. I have not heard any of our sisters say differently. We are united on this point. The Eucharistic Heart of Jesus is our greatest joy.