Poor Clare Convent (Gravelines)

Venerable Mary Ward, I.B.V.M., (1585 – 1645), who founded the community in 1607.

The Convent of Poor Clares at Gravelines in the Spanish Netherlands (now in northern France), was a community of English nuns of the Order of St. Clare,commonly called "Poor Clares", which was founded in 1607, by Mary Ward.[1] The Poor Clares were founded in 1212 by Saint Clare of Assisi as the Second Order of the Franciscan movement. It is an enclosed religious order which follows an austere lifestyle. After the Reformation and its consequence, the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 by Henry VIII, the only opportunity for recusant English women to enter religious life was to leave the country and join a monastery overseas.

In 1606 Ward departed England to enter the Poor Clare monastery at St-Omer, in the Spanish Netherlands, where she was admitted as a lay sister. She left St-Omer the following year to found a new house of the order for English women in Gravelines, which she did using much of her own dowry.[2] The convent was built within the town walls of Gravelines. The Chronicle of Gravelines, the journal of the community's history kept by the nuns, described the buildings as unfinished when they first arrived, with no furniture and little food. They lived in temporary accommodations but kept a monastic schedule as best they could, attending Mass in the local church, until the house was completed.[3]

Once a suitable structure was complete, the community established the formal enclosure, with a grille in the door between the cloister and the parlor where visitors were received. Inside, conditions were austere: the nuns wore rough, woollen habits, slept on straw mattresses, ate meat only at Christmas, spoke only when necessary and with permission, and spent much of the day in silent prayer and contemplation.[4] In keeping with the rule of St. Clare, the nuns supported themselves through the sale of their handicrafts, such as the making of vestments, but survived primarily on the donations of the people of the city.

Not suited to the contemplative life, Mary Ward left Gravelines in 1609, and founded the Sisters of Loreto in St-Omer, which became an international religious congregation dedicated to education. Elizabeth Tyldesley, Mother Clare Mary Ann was elected as abbess in 1615, serving until her death in 1654.[5] The success of the convent under her leadership led to the founding of dependent communities at Dunkirk in 1625, Aire-sur-la-Lys in 1629 and Rouen in 1644, at least one of which was composed of women from Ireland.

In 1795 the nuns from all four houses were expelled by the forces of the French Revolutionary Army in the course of their occupation of the Low Countries, and the nuns returned to England. The nuns of Aire-sur-la-Lys brought many possessions, including part of their library. The combined communities moved first to Haggerston Castle in Northumberland and in 1807 to Scorton Hall in Yorkshire. The nuns established St Clare’s Abbey in Darlington in 1857 and in 2007 merged with the Poor Clares at Much Birch, in Herefordshire, at which time they donated part of their library to Durham University.[1]


  • Lunn, John (1953), A Short History of the Township of Tyldesley, Tyldesley Urban District Council 
  • Catholic Record Society (Great Britain) (1914), Publications of the Catholic Record Society, Volume 14, Catholic Record Society 
  • Peters, Henriette (1995), Mary Ward: a world in contemplation, Gracewing Publishing, ISBN 9780852442685 

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