BY DAVID V BARRETT
CATHOLIC NUNS in the south of England are mourning the death of the world’s oldest abbess.
Mother Bernadette Smeyers, Abbess of St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight for 34 years, died on September 17 aged 102.
The oldest Benedictine abbess in the world, Mother Bernadette was responsible for issuing the first British recording of plainchant by nuns and for establishing the first Benedictine community for women in India.
The fifth of a Belgian civil servant’s eight children, she was born Marie-Madeleine Elise Eugenie Smeyers at Louvain, Belgium, in 1903. Her family fled to England at the outbreak of the First World War. She was educated at St Mary’s Abbey, Mill Hill, London, then became a boarder at the Benedictine community of Pax Cordis Jesu on the Isle of Wight, which later moved to St Cecilia’s at Ryde. At 23 she followed her older sister Alice into the community, and in 1931 was professed a nun.
Sister Bernadette taught philosophy, served in the sacristy and refectory, worked on the poultry farm and became an excellent calligrapher. She was elected prioress, and became secretary to Abbess Ambrosia Cousin, who she succeeded in 1953.
She was to remain abbess, known affectionately as Notre Mere, for 34 years. Sister Bernadette’s two greatest achievements were the surprise launch of a recording career for nuns and the establishment of a community in India.
She insisted on the singing of Latin plainchant at the Divine Office and Mass at the abbey. In 1974 the nuns recorded an album of Gregorian plainchant, which sold 3,500 copies in six months. The nuns went on to record 10 further albums between 1980 and 1992.
Sister Bernadette was asked to found a house in India by Dom Bede Griffiths of Prinknash, Gloucestershire, and Dom Benedict Alapatt, an Indian monk of St André, Bruges.
Seven nuns were trained at St Cecilia’s as potential members of the new community. While they received their monastic formation in contemplation, doctrine, patristics and liturgy, as well as English, French, Latin and plainchant, the abbess sent two of her nuns to India, where they chose a site at Bangalore for what was to become, in 1994, the Benedictine Abbey of Shanti Nilayam.
Mother Bernadette stepped down as abbess in 1987, aged 85. In her retirement she continued heading the procession for Mass and Vespers, with the current abbess, genuflecting and walking without a stick.
On her 100th birthday Mother Bernadette received messages of congratulation from the Queen, the Belgian king and Pope John Paul II.