Modern Roman Catholic Hermits

Sister Petra Clare is a hermit, formed in the Benedictine tradition. She is currently making a pilgrimage to study the liturgical and monastic life of the Orthodox Church. The renewal of hermit tradition was initiated at Vatican II, but we have a long way to go to restore its communal forms, the lavras and sketes which still ensure the fullness of the tradition in the eastern church.
Petra Clare
“Sister Petra Clare’s family were local farmers from Cardington, Nr. Shrewsbury. She attended Coalbrookdale County High, Shrewsbury School of Art and Leeds Polytechnic, specialising in Graphic Design. After a short period freelance, she spent a year doing ecclesiastical embroidery in a vestments workroom, and from there went into religious life. During this period she trained in the icon, the traditional painting of the church, working in egg tempera on gessoed board, with gold leaf. For 16 years she was resident in Scotland, at Sancti Angeli Benedictine Skete, a small religious house following the Benedictine rule which she ran single handed for most of that time. She is now on a leave of absence, back in Shrewsbury, to study the icon in it’s Orthodox liturgical context. She paints icons on commission for Churches and individuals.”
Petra Clare icon
See also:

“I watched today the You Tube video “Selling God’s House” about Sister Irene Gibson, a hermit in Ireland. She had bought some land to build a hermitage on, a little while before I set up the Skete in Scotland. Like me, she did not want to be alone in the isolated, individualistic sense, but wanted to be part of a community of like minded nuns. Like me, she envisaged a life in which the Sisters, lived alone during the week and met at weekends, for a long walk (spatiamentum), the Mass and fraternal support. Both of us were forced by circumstances, at a similar time, to close ventures in which we passionately believed, and to which we had given our whole lives.
I very much liked Sister Irene, whom I met on two occasions. I would have liked to have joined forces with her, however we were developing, in different directions. She would become part of the Tridentine family within the Church, long before the rite was re-integrated under Pope Benedict, although her way of life was deeply rooted in the early Irish monastic tradition.

I was much more part of the “Novus Ordo” – the Latin rite I became involved with was the updated Solesmes version, and I felt there was a good case for liturgy in the vernacular. I was much more influenced by the Orthodox model, which has always retained a vernacular liturgy, integrated with the more ancient languages. It was the combination of not being gifted as a singer – so unable to fully participate in choir, while being gifted abundantly as a painter which drew me to the Orthodox model, because they had retained a sense of iconography as an intrinsic part of both the liturgy and monastic practise.

Looking at it now, I feel that parallel issues drew us, as women with a solitary vocation, to outwardly different resolutions. Neither of us equated solitude with a ‘do-it-yourself’ religious life in isolation, and both of us sought a community life in which a solitary vocation would be an integral part. Our problem was ‘Where do we fit into the community of the Church? How do we find spiritual nourishment for our vocations?’ This problem faces all women consecrated or professed under the provisions of canons 603 and 604. No guidelines have been put in place to integrate women with a solo consecration, nor to nourish their vocations.

Although it was a big move for the hierarchy to recognise these ancient solitary ways of life and re-insert them into the life of the Church during Vatican II, I doubt whether the fathers of the Council had foreseen the pastoral and religious gaps which would be exposed by re-introducing a fourth century way of life into the late twentieth century milieu! This gap has its roots in the formal separation of clergy and religious life governance during the Gregorian reforms in the 11c. When the new canons were introduced, together with canon 605 which fosters new religious communities, the bishops – for the first time since the Middle Ages – were directly responsible for a form of religious life!

This was a shock for both sides – clergy and religious! Bishops did not know anything about the job and were not particularly keen for extra responsibilities. Religious, on the whole, simply shrugged and said it wasn’t their job either: their responsibility stopped at the doors of their communities or – at widest – extended to the Congregation. Occasionally, a religious community has fostered a closer relationship with a particular hermit or virgin, but such exceptions are few and far between. Very often, soon after the virgin has made her commitment the guidance of the church dries up. The result has been, with a few exceptions, a no-man’s land of ‘do-it-yourself’ formation and quasi-religious life.

On the whole the pattern seems to be that the Consecration or hermit profession works well in its first stages. The consecrating Bishop has an interest in his charge, and makes provision for formation (usually very basic), presides the profession, and sets up a minimalistic support system, which usually means appointing a spiritual director and/or some oversight from a religious community or the Vicar for religious. The new Sister feels part of the church, thrilled to be engaged in the renewal of consecrated life.

However problems often arise with a change of bishop or parish priest or if the consecrated person changes diocese. The new bishop may have only the vaguest notion of 603-5 and be fully occupied with clergy issues. A bishop or parish priest may disapprove – on principle – of a solitary religious not attached to a community. A priest is supported within his own clergy group and focussed on his ministry to the laity: he may see a solitary religious as either a support or a threat. Suddenly the consecrated person can find herself in a no-man’s land, with no real reference for religious obedience, no ongoing formation or religious support, and no real insertion point into either parish or religious community.

This is certainly more of a problem for women than men. A good proportion of men entering hermit life are priests, and this gives them a certain inbuilt security which is not available to women. Also, because men’s religious communities have traditionally given retreat space to parish priests, and traditionally allowed laymen on retreat within the religious enclosure, professed male hermits continue to benefit from this support and the closer practical and spiritual support of a peer group. Women’s communities, on the other hand, not only keep lay women strictly outside the enclosure, but there are stricter canonical barriers between groups of religious women themselves. The level of religious support men can give each other is therefore much greater than that allowed to their female counterparts!

What can be done to give adequate religious formation and support to women professing under the new canons? I will take this up in the next section.

Sister Irene Gibson made Profession as a Consecrated Hermit in 1990 and lived for 18 years on the West of Ireland in a Hermitage she had built with the help of benefactors. In 1997 she returned to holy Tradition. As a result of there being no Latin Rite Liturgy in the Mayo area, Sister Irene sold Mount Tabor Hermitage in 2012 and moved to Athlone town to her new Holy Family Hermitage within walking distance to the Latin Rite Mass. She has qualifications in Herbalism, a masseur and an experienced Iconographer, and has been writing Icons since 1997.
See further:
“Selling God’s House” was produced in 2003. It tells the story of a hermit nun, Sr Irene, who, with the local bishop’s blessing, built a small hermitage for women on the West coast of Ireland between 1992-95. Around 1995 she was given special graces. With spiritual guidance from a local traditional Catholic priest and in view the crisis in the modern Church, she returned to the Holy traditional Mass and teachings prior to Vatican II. Always remaining faithful to her vows, she nevertheless found it increasingly impossible to have easy access to the traditional Sacraments. With so few priests offering the Latin Rite Liturgy in Ireland, it was rarely celebrated in her private oratory. With no regular Mass, like minded candidates were not encouraged to join her. In 2003 she therefore made the difficult decision place the the Hermitage on the property market. It was sold in 2012 and Sr. Irene moved to Athlone in the heart of Ireland within walking distance to the Tridentine Mass where she continues her life of prayer and sacrifice in her new “Holy Family Hermitage”. To this day she remains faithful to the unchanging Magisterial of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The documentary can be viewed on-line at:


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