Three nuns living in a convent in Halle in Flemish Brabant are defying an order from the Vatican to close the convent and move elsewhere. The nuns, aged 30, 60 and 90, are the sole remaining occupants of the convent, with no new adherents expected. “Because we’re not attracting fresh blood, Rome wants us to close. But we’re not silly girls. We’ll remain here and convert to beguines.” As well as the diminishing number of nuns present, the Vatican has also ruled that the age differences between the three nuns are too great.
In the Catholic church, beguines are women who take up the cloistered life but without taking holy orders. Belgium has a history of widespread beguine activity, with whole neighbourhoods in Mechelen, Bruges and Brussels, among other towns, where beguines used to live in community, often running schools and hospitals. Beguines are a lay group, and have no formal link with the Vatican authorities. The last Belgian beguine, however, died in 2013.
Sisters Marie-Madeleine, Marie-Angela and Imelda achieved some popular fame last year, when the programme Oh My God on Vijf TV took five worldlier young women and introduced them to the life of a nun. The three are members of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, known as Sacramentines, founded in the 17th century as a branch of the Dominican order. The convent in Halle was founded in 1903 when a convent in Bernay in Normandy was ordered by the French government to close. Thirteen of the Bernay nuns came to Belgium.
The Vatican has meanwhile sent a Dutch bishop to Halle for an inspection, but the sisters remain unmoved. “Our doors will remain open for single women,” they told La Libre. “Widows, divorcees, unmarried women, everyone is still welcome.”