The Society of Our Lady of the Isles
The Society of Our Lady of the Isles (SOLI) is a small Anglican religious order for women. It is arguably the most remote community (by location) within the Anglican Communion. It is located on the island of Fetlar in Shetland, and is part of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The Rule of the community is a mixture of Franciscan and Cistercian, but with heavy Celtic influences.
The community dates its origin from 1984 when the Reverend Mother Mary Agnes arrived on Fetlar to live a contemplative and isolated life of prayer. She took over a simple cottage with a small barn suitable for conversion to a chapel. Others began to visit, or stay, and in 1988 the Society was named and came into existence as a group, rather than an individual. Mother Mary Agnes was formally recognised as Superior by the Church in 1993.
Shetland is a large, but remote island group that is politically part of Scotland. The main island may be accessed from mainland Scotland by ferry or aeroplane. From the Shetland mainland a 20-minute ferry journey is necessary to the island of Yell. Travellers must then cross this island by road (18 miles), and take a further ferry journey (25 minutes) to Fetlar.
Since opening, new convent buildings have been developed. The main convent house is a safe and secure modern building, and a new chapel has been built on the convent site, dedicated to “Christ the Encompasser and all his Angels”. At present four sisters live in community, of whom two are life professed (having taken final vows). The life professed sisters live in isolation (as hermits), joining with the rest of the community only for daily Compline (Night Prayer), weekly choir practice, and the Sunday morning sung mass. The other sisters live as Oblate sisters. A fifth sister lives in the daughter house located at Bridge of Walls on the mainland of Shetland. A version of the community’s Rule is followed by a number of ‘external oblates’, who support the community, and live under simple promises, but not full monastic vows.”
“The Society of Our Lady of the Isles is a religious community of the Scottish Episcopal Church and is currently based on the Island of Fetlar, in the north of the Shetland Isles. Prayer is at the heart of the community’s existence and its rule is partly Celtic and partly Carthusian, enabling a life of solitude within a community.
The origins of the Society go back to 1984 when The Reverend Mother Mary Agnes came to Fetlar to live a life of prayer. In time she was joined by others and the Society was founded in 1988. Mother Mary Agnes was installed as Mother Guardian in 1993 and ordained a priest of the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney in 1998. She is the author of four books which tell the story of the community’s life.
At present the community consists of two sisters in life vows; two Companion Oblates – women who live in their own homes on the island of Fetlar; External Oblates, who live at locations across Britain and who keep a Rule of Life inspired by the Community; and many members of the Caim, both men and women, across the world who wish to be associated with the Society.
However, the increasing frailty of one of the sisters has required a partial relocation of the Community to the Island of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Isles, where there is more assistance available than is possible on Fetlar. Sister Mary Aidan moved into sheltered care at Haroldswick on Unst in May 2014 and the Trustees of the Community have agreed that Mother Mary Agnes should also eventually move to a house elsewhere on Unst.
The Companion Oblates will remain on Fetlar and, in the meantime, Mass in the Chapel and the prayer offices will be maintained – as far as possible – as normal.”
“The Society of Our Lady of the Isles (SOLI) is a family style Anglican/Episcopalian community adapting to the particular setting of Shetland.
Over the years the religious life, here on the island of Fetlar, has developed from one woman living the solitary life into a group of women who, in support of each other, continue to deepen two strands of the SOLI vocation, that is, the two separate callings which dovetail and are complimentary.
The first is found in the living out of a lifestyle under a hermit rule within which are made the three monastic vows. The hours of the Divine Office, that is, Mattins, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline are said throughout the day by each Hermit of SOLI in the oratory of her hermitage. Compline is said in chapel when any visitors which to attend. The hermit attends Mass several times a week with her oblate-companion sisters and also shares a weekly choir practice. She may, if she wishes, meet with visitors over coffee after the Sung Mass on a Sunday, otherwise the hermits only see persons requestings to speak with them by arrangement. They are responsible for their own hermitage cooking and domestic arrangements, each has a workroom and tends a small garden around her hermitage if she is able.
The second calling within SOLI is that of the Oblate-Companion who living by independent means makes promises under an individual plan of life (rather than taking vows) giving her life to God in a mutually supportive role. Also, like the hermit, she takes her share in the work of SOLI through added to this participates to some degree in island life. In her living out of a more communal type of lifestyle she shares Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as some of her work and recreation with her fellow oblate-companions. Notwithstanding, she too treasures a core of solitary living within her home and garden.
Finally, there are added to the order a group of friends whom we call the Caim (Caim is a Celtic word meaning ‘encompassment or the circle around’) who live, work and pray, each in his or her own home-setting, thereby forming the family circle around SOLI.
However, out of these core and well-established members of the Caim has grown the additional vocation of the External Oblates – those who have felt the calling to deepen their spiritual lives by a stronger relationship with SOLI; people who because their circumstances in life do not allow them to test their vocation (to the hermit or the oblate companion life in Fetlar) ask to live by a personal rule of life, as approved by the Mother Guardian, within their own homes.
The SOLI community see themselves as privileged guardians of a small corner of God’s creation, carrying forward the ancient Christian monastic tradition now re-established in the Shetland Isles. The planned renovations to our buildings at Aithness are almost completed, so far creating three dedicated hermitages and a common meeting area for the community, friends, and visitors.”
Mother Mary Agnes’ books:
“A Tide that Sings” [Triangle, 1996]
In 1984, Sister Agnes, an Anglican Franciscan nun, went to live alone on the remote Shetland island of Fetlar, her days filled with prayer, work and the rhythms of the sea. This book tells the story of the divine coincidences which brought her to the island.
“The Song of the Lark” [SPCK Publishing, 1998]
“The Song of the Lark” tells the story of the growth of a “family in God”. When Sister Agnes, an Anglican Franciscan nun, began a new life on the remote Scottish island of Fetlar, she laid the foundations for a small community. They are ordinary people who have dedicated themselves to a simple life of prayer and work. The book is illustrated with Sister Agnes’ own drawings of island life.
“Island Song” [Triangle, 2001]
“Island Song” continues the intriguing story of Mary Agnes. Receiving a call to bring the religious life back to the Scottish islands, Mary Agnes begins living as a solitary nun with no income on the remote Shetland island of Fetlar, is joined by one or two others, and finds herself at the head of a new community, writing a rule of life and ordained to minister to the needs of the new community.
“For Love Alone” [SPCK Publishing, 2003)
This is the fourth book in a series which continues the story of the religious community which the author founded on the remote Shetland island of Fetlar. Mother Mary Agnes tells the story of the spiritual life of the community, weaving together recent events and the theme of love.