It is in what could be considered the middle of nowhere, definitely off the beaten track, though admittedly there were a lot more people around in the 13th century.
In rural Suffolk you can find the ruins of a medieval Franciscan friary, founded in 1277 and in use until 1538. I assume it was closed at the instigation of King Henry VIII as part of his battle with the Pope. Most of the buildings were torn down at that time, the land converted to orchard and pasture – and indeed as we wandered by there were sheep in the field.
I was drawn to the ruins though, drawn to contemplating what life was like where now those sheep now idly graze. We seem to have lost that sense of commitment and calling, of people leaving home and family and dedicating their lives to others. Or maybe what we have lost is the sense of divine vocation as a motivation for service. Those today who want to serve others turn to secular, non-governmental organizations not the church.
In England you can find monasteries and convents that have been abandoned due to Henry VIII and his policies. But that doesn’t explain the situation in North America. In Montreal, where I grew up, and the rest of the province of Quebec, the Roman Catholic Church has been in decline for decades. Not only is church attendance down more than 80% from my youth, but young people are no longer attracted to the religious life, are not interested in becoming priests or nuns. The Grey Nuns, for example, sold their mother house in Montreal to Concordia University for use as a student residence. The building had room for about 1,000 nuns, which made sense when it was constructed in the 19th century. There aren’t nearly that many Grey Nuns across Canada now, let alone in Montreal, and there are no new recruits. The average age of the nuns living in the mother house at the time of the sale was 85.
Across Canada, and probably across North America, convents and monasteries built to hold a few hundred now have six or seven aging “religious” still in residence. Sometimes closure can be delayed by an influx of younger people from places overseas, such as the Philippines or Eastern Europe, but it seems inevitable that most of the remaining institutions’ days are numbered.
Those huge buildings come from a different time, when the church was held in high esteem, when employment options were far more limited and if you wanted a good education the only place to find it was through a church-run school. Back then most of what we have come to accept as the responsibility of government was carried out by the church, part of a natural calling to Christian service.
Many of the world’s greatest educational institutions got their start as church-run schools. They may have drifted from their roots, but there is no denying their beginnings. The same holds true for health care. My children were born in different cities, both in hospitals founded by Roman Catholic nuns. There may not be anything Catholic left about the care, but the original intention was to show Jesus’ love through health care. I suspect that at least half the hospitals in Canada were started by religious groups. When it came to social services the church did it all. That’s not the case anymore.
So when I think of Greyfriars Abbey and the once thriving Franciscan community there, I wonder if Henry VIII did them a favour. I am sure the shuttering and demolition of their Abbey came as a shock, but, unlike today’s Roman Catholic leaders, they didn’t have to witness the slow decline of the institution they loved.