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Sister Jennifer, at the railings of the Descalzas convent in Ronda. Ñito Salas
Sister Jennifer prays for more time in her Ronda convent
Crisis in Spain's convents

Sister Jennifer prays for more time in her Ronda convent

Every year, some twenty monasteries or convents close in Spain due to a shortage of novices; in Ronda, a community of four nuns, led by a sister from Gibraltar, is doing its best to stay afloat. Last week they appeared on British TV

José Antonio Guerrero

Ronda

Friday, 24 November 2023, 17:11

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The hand of Saint Teresa of Ávila attracts dozens of pilgrims every day to the small convent of the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Ronda. The legendary relic is the same left hand (with the little finger missing) that Franco kept by his bed in Madrid and which, after the death of the dictator, was returned to the convent in Ronda from where it had been stolen by militia at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Sheathed in a silver glove, the jewel of this Ronda convent is believed to have miraculous powers. And in recent years it has been particularly revered by women with fertility problems who want to get pregnant.

"We have an album full of photos of children and some very miraculous ones, like the baby of a 46-year-old woman who had been married for 25 years without getting pregnant," says Sister Jennifer, the prioress, a cheerful Gibraltarian who prays that Saint Teresa will now lend them a hand again and work another miracle.

This one affects the 'fertility' of the convent itself, so that it may continue to live on instead of joining the black list of monasteries that close forever: around twenty every year, according to the Spanish episcopal conference.

The small community living in this convent founded in 1924 is made up of four nuns of four different nationalities: Sister Isabel, 83, from Malaga; Sister María José, 43, from Vietnam; Sister Teresa, 60, from Kenya; and Sister Jennifer, 62, the British nun from Gibraltar who has been in charge of the group since Covid began to take its toll and the family was reduced to just four, one of them with growing health problems caused by old age.

Ñito Salas

"There were 16 of us," says Sister Jennifer, who is well aware that Rome's directive to close monasteries and convents with fewer than six residents is hanging over their 16th-century building.

Number of monks and nuns in each monastery or convent

Cuando hay menos de 6, el monasterio tiene que cerrar

2013

12.6

2014

11.2

2015

11.1

2016

11.5

2017

11.5

2018

11.7

2019

11.6

2020

11.5

2021

11.5

2022

11.1

Number of monks and nuns in each monastery or convent

Cuando hay menos de 6, el monasterio tiene que cerrar

2013

12.6

2014

11.2

2015

11.1

2016

11.5

2017

11.5

2018

11.7

2019

11.6

2020

11.5

2021

11.5

2022

11.1

Number of monks and nuns in each monastery or convent

Cuando hay menos de 6, el monasterio tiene que cerrar

2013

12.6

2014

11.2

2015

11.1

2016

11.5

2017

11.5

2018

11.7

2019

11.6

2020

11.5

2021

11.5

2022

11.1

Number of monks and nuns in each monastery or convent

Cuando hay menos de 6, el monasterio tiene que cerrar

2013

12.6

2014

11.2

2015

11.1

2016

11.5

2017

11.5

2018

11.7

2019

11.6

2020

11.5

2021

11.5

2022

11.1

"It is true that in just a few months we were reduced to four, but a convent cannot be closed overnight. They are going to give us a reasonable amount of time to see if things pick up again," says Sister Jennifer, who is busy with a thousand tasks to combine her spiritual life (mass, prayers, readings, adoration of the Jesus Christ, meditation...) with her real life (administration, shopping, paying the bills, answering the phone, making her famous cakes and even acting as a nurse). All while trying not to make it look like there are more tasks than hands.

"We should be in bed by twelve o'clock, but there are always things to do!" she adds.

153 closures in ten years

The ageing demographic of nuns and the lack of new callings are leading to the closure of dozens of convents in Spain, a former 'powerhouse' of cloistered nuns that is in decline. Although there are still 712 active monasteries and convents, the empty-church phenomenon in Spain is spreading as its communities grow older and are unlikely to be replaced.

Number of monasteries in 2022, by sex

677

35

men's monasteries

women's monasteries

7,440

454

nuns

monks

11 monjas per monastery

13 monks per monastery

Number of monasteries in 2022, by sex

677

35

men's monasteries

women's monasteries

7,440

454

nuns

monks

11 nuns per monastery

13 monks per monastery

Number of monasteries in 2022, by sex

35

677

men's monasteries

women's monasteries

454

monks

7,440

nuns

11 nuns per monastery

13 monks per monastery

Número de monasterios en 2022, según sexo

677

35

men's monasteries

women's monasteries

454

monks

7,440

nuns

11 nuns per monastery

13 monks per monastery

Some of these time capsules rich in history and art are resisting their fate in their tiny communities while others have thrown in the towel. For example, the monastery of San Plácido, in Madrid's Malasaña neighbourhood, pulled down the shutters last May after four centuries of monastic life. Ten Benedictine nuns lived there before the pandemic, but they were reduced to five in 2022, almost all of them in their nineties, with no replacements in sight and with an added problem: they did not accept nuns who were not born in Spain.

Change since 2013

Source: Conferencia Episcopal Española

This is thankfully not the case of Sister Jennifer's community, which only exists thanks to foreigners like her. The three members from outside Spain do everything, including running the bakery, where they make homemade cakes that they sell to cover their expenses. The menu is mouth-watering, their range of cakes, biscuits and sweets including magdalenas, pastas, roscos de San José, cortadillos, coquitos, mantecados, bizcochos, tortas, hojaldrinas, pestiños... and yemas de Santa Teresa, which are similar to the famous Yemas del Tajo, typical of Ronda.

Jennifer's favourite delicacy are her delicious 'lenguas de gato', but at two and a bit euros a dozen the numbers don't add up. However, she has no plans to put the price up. "Everything is very expensive: oil, flour, eggs... but people deserve to be able to eat something sweet, don't they?"

Ñito Salas

So how are they making ends meet? "I have no idea - it's a mercy that never ceases to amaze me. We don't owe anything to anyone. Don't ask me how we do it, because I'm not sure. But the Lord has his way. People are generous. If something is worth 5.50, they give you 6 euros and tell you to keep the change. It's 50 cents and that's how we get by. The people from Ronda and those from elsewhere are all very kind and have respect for the nuns."

As if that were not enough, the busy mother superior has now taken to making necklaces with little crosses and bracelets with knots of St Francis. "If it's a euro, that's a euro that comes in. If we didn't make them, nothing would come in," she says.

Michael Portillo

Lately the convent has been receiving a steady stream of foreign visitors. In the summer, former Conservative politician Michael Portillo, a celebrity in the UK for his television documentaries combining tourism and train journeys, visited the convent. Portillo, who has a home in Carmona (Seville) and is the son of a Spanish Republican exiled in England, went to the monastery in Ronda, attracted by the hand of Saint Teresa, and told its story in his new series Portillo's Andalucía, aired on the UK's Channel 5 last week.

"People come asking about the arm of Saint Teresa. I no longer bother correcting them. Here we have the saint's hand, H-A-N-D! Her arm with the rest of her incorrupt body is preserved in the monastery of Alba de Tormes," explains Jen, as her friends from her native Gibraltar call her. There, she was a young and carefree girl who never imagined that Saint Teresa, the founder of the Discalced Carmelites, would one day cross her path.

Born into a Gibraltarian family of Greek origin on her mother's side (her second surname is Licudis), Sister Jennifer del Corazón de Jesús, as she is now known, used to be a teenager who loved spearfishing, who never missed a party at one of the British-style social clubs on the Rock and who left school at fifteen because she "couldn't stand" the school nor the teachers. "I wanted independence, and look how well I did, I locked myself away; I couldn't have been more independent," she laughs.

She explains that although she was a churchgoer, she was not at all devout. "I used to go to mass but the mass didn't really go with me."

This was until she was invited to a spiritual retreat for a weekend and accepted just to stand up a potential boyfriend. "He was a boy I liked and I went on the retreat just to make him miss me." That weekend trip changed her life. "I found what I was looking for, the truth of God."

After a few years that she describes as "learning the ropes", in which faith came and went like a boomerang, Jen immersed herself in the spirituality of Saint Teresa and her soul mate, Saint John of the Cross, until she decided to become a nun.

The Ronda convent.
The Ronda convent. Ñito Salas

"I was going to go to London, to the Discalced Carmelites in Notting Hill, but a priest told me about the community in Ronda. My idea was to go to England because I was better at English and I thought that if I had to study in Spanish I would die, but it wasn't like that."

Jennifer landed in Ronda at the age of 24 and has been at the convent for 38 years, the last three as its leader. "When I was chosen I thought it was nonsense. I laughed, but I said to myself 'the Lord will know what he's doing'."

And what happened to the boy she left behind in that social club? "My friends told me that he was still single," she laughs again.

Sister Jennifer now has her work cut out to keep open what has been her only home since 1985. She is not losing hope of making it at least to 15 October next year, when the convent will celebrate the centenary of its foundation on St Teresa's day in 1924.

Jennifer also hopes to stay open for the sake of Sister Isabel, as the nun, now in her eighties, is losing her memory: "She has been here for more than 60 years and knows where her cell is, where we pray, where mass is, where we eat... this is a small convent, if you move her to a bigger one, she'll get lost."

The mother superior is ready to sacrifice herself for Sister Isabel, to look for money and new religious callings and leave no stone unturned, although she admits that the decision is not hers.

"The Lord has helped us and I hope he will continue to help us because this convent is very much alive."

So alive that they receive a daily flow of 300 pilgrims wanting to see the hand of Saint Teresa.

Whenever a Gibraltarian comes by, Jennifer switches to her best English accent and catches up on local news or shares her worries about her recent hernia operation... and Brexit. "Oh Brexit, my goodness. I'm having a hard time. After 28 years in Ronda, they gave me permanent residency in Spain and now they've taken it away and I have to do the papers again; what a hassle this Brexit is," she laughs.

Jennifer has been asked many times whether she feels Spanish or British, whether her King is Felipe VI or Charles III.

"Without wishing to offend people, I feel Gibraltarian. But I have to say that Ronda has welcomed me with incredible affection, and we still joke about whether Gibraltar is Spanish and all that stuff... We laugh a lot, but I don't get involved in politics," she says, gesturing with her left hand, the same left hand of Santa Teresa that she guards, and the same one she will use to keep her convent open.

Ñito Salas

Saint Teresa's hand, the convent's treasure

Everyone who goes to the convent asks to see the relic, even if they only go to buy cakes. "Pilgrims come from all over the world; this month we've had Portuguese, Polish and American." The saint's left hand is kept in a little chapel next to the turnstile where the cloistered nuns sell their cakes to the public. It is put on display on the altar during the daily mass. Sheathed in a silver glove, its fingers decorated in precious stones, the hand is said to be responsible for miracles, such as returning fertility to sterile women or curing a child's leukaemia. A devout Franco kept it by his side for 40 years as a talisman that he said brought him 'baraka'.

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