Life behind the wall at Carmelite Monastry

03:41, Aug 21 2014
Carmelite Monastery
PEACEFUL: The main quadrangle at Christchurch's Carmelite Monastery.

Along a main road in Christchurch, 15 minutes from the city's centre, a block of land is enclosed by a high stone wall. Most passersby wouldn't know this is the Carmelite Monastery, home to 10 women - nuns - who have committed their lives to contemplative prayer and a deep relationship with God. Shut off from the world, they pray for us.

For this story, Carmelite Sister Cushla borrowed our reporter's camera to document scenes of the nuns' daily life, offering the world a glimpse behind the wall.

Mother Dorothea Mary of Jesus is sorry to hear the Captain Cook Tavern has closed.

The former Otago scarfie studied social work and education, hung out at "the Cook", and didn't believe in God.

"In fact, I couldn't bear Christians!" she says.

Today, she speaks from behind an iron grille, at the Carmel of Christ the King Monastery in Christchurch. She is dressed in the traditional habit of Carmel: brown and white, with a black veil. The black veil represents service until death, the lifelong promise a woman can make, usually six years after entering the Order.


This is a story of happiness. An examination of the human experience of cloistered nuns, and of the power of The Contemplative Life.

Mother Dorothea is the Christchurch Carmel prioress, the elected leader of the sisters. She has been "behind bars" since 1981, residing within the stone walls of the 2.5 hectare block which constitutes the monastery in Halswell.

Her junior, Sister Cushla of Mary Immaculate, entered in 1999, and is one of the younger sisters at the monastery.

With a beatific smile, Sister Cushla says the habits are actually quite practical. "You can hook it up and deliver cattle in these!"

She describes their daily routine; a timetable which includes more than six hours of prayer and spiritual readings, five hours of work, and about two hours of recreation. She admits it can be hard to adjust to the Carmelite lifestyle.

"If you haven't got up at 5.30am for most of your life... then it's not easy."

To read the rest of this story and view Sister Cushla's images, click here.