Three hundred years have passed since mistress Frances Long purchased a house and garden outside Micklegate Bar, York (above) and thus began a nervecentre of Catholicism, as Terence Sheehy reports NEXT month, The Bar Convent, York, will celebrate its 300th anniversary. Established on November 5, 1686, it is the oldest active post Reformation convent in England. It was the first school for girls in the country, but in a recent state reorganisation of education in York, it gave up its traditional school role. All the facilities at the rear of the historic convent have now passed into the ownership of the Diocese of Middlesbrough to become a voluntary aided Catholic comprehensive school, releasing the original "front street" convent premises for alternative usage. The Bar Convent has now taken on another educational role as a public museum and associated youth centre for young visitors to the historic city. The Bar Convent Museum, an educational charity, will open in the Summer of 1987 and will take visitors on a pilgrimage of discovery through the history of Christianity in York and through the 300 turbulent years in the life of the Convent. An audio visual lecture theatre, catering facilities, and a shop will be included in the Museum. The Bar Convent Youth Centre will offer high quality, supervised accommodation and facilities for school parties wishing to make an extensive visit to York. This new facility in the city is designed to accommodate up to 46 young people aged 7-16 years and accompanying staff and will be available the whole year round. Full board, B/B, packed lunch and dinner, £12.50. The history of the Convent begins on November 5, 1686, when Mother Frances Bedingfield, alias mistress Frances Long, purchased for £450 a house and garden just outside Micklegate Bar, York, and the nuns of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary have remained on the site ever since. Mother Bedingfield, whose portrait hangs in the Great Parlour of the Convent, was a remarkable woman. She faced visits from pursuivants and was three times imprisoned for her faith "in loathsome holes, dark and verminous" and in 1696 she withstood a violent mob-attack on the Convent. Though it was illegal to do so, the nuns opened a school for "young ladies of Roman Catholic families", but they kept a low profile, wearing slatecoloured gowns, caps and hoods instead of religious dress, and when they died they were buried in nameless graves outside Holy Trinity Church. To the people of York they were just the "Ladies of the Bar", going out to feed and nurse the poor. They were a small and struggling community, eking out their livelihood by keeping cows, pigs and hens. About 1760 the school began to prosper and Mother Ann Aspinall embarked on an ambitious building plan. She chose as her architect Thomas Atkinson, who had been working on Bishopthorpe Palace. Together they demolished the existing house and rebuilt it more commodiously round an open court-yard, which was later roofed in.
In the centre of the complex they built a beautiful baroque chapel which is completely concealed from the outside observer, for Catholic chapels were still illegal.
By the end of the 18th century the community and school were well established, and when the French Revolution struck the Church in France, the Bar Convent was able to offer hospitality to emigre priests and refugee nuns. In the next century the Convent played its part in the history of expansion. Two Irish girls, Frances Ball and Mary Aikenhead made their noviceship at York and returned to Ireland, Frances Ball to found the Irish (Loreto) branch of the Institute, and Mary Aikenhead to found the Congregation of the Irish Sisters of Charity, whose Hospice for the Dying in Hackney is world famous. The York nuns undertook new work. They taught in St George's Primary School, which was established for the children of Irish immigrants, and later they ran a local Boys' Brigade. The two world wars made their impact on the Convent. In world war one the concert hall was converted into a hospital ward, where 400 wounded soldiers were cared for. In the second world war the Convent received a direct hit in the airraid of April 1942: five nuns were killed and the east wing buildings were destroyed. Change came to the school too. In the inter-war years the boarding and day schools were amalgamated and in 1929 received the status of Direct Grant Grammar School. In 1985 education in York was reorganised, and the Bar Convent Grammar School became part of All Saints Comprehensive School. The Bar Convent Museum and Youth Centre is certain in the New Year, to capture the imagination of the thousands of young Catholic school children who descend on York each year to do special "projects", on the Cathedral, York City, the Castle Museum, the National Railway Museum, the Viking Exhibition, and the historic medieval Shambles of York and its Catholic history. The high powered and well briefed PR and press consultancy now being used by the Bar Convent to promote their new centre does not seem to be aware of the miraculous history of the Convent.
At the time of the Gordon Riots, the Protestant mob in York attacked the Convent, determined to set fire to it and its popish nuns, The very courageous superior of the time, assembled her nuns in the chapel, put the host in the monstrance and raised it above the heads of the mob at the door.
It is said that St Michael the Archangel, sword in hand, appeared in a fleeting apparition above the monstrance, and the crowd fell back and fled in fear, leaving the Convent and their nuns unharmed. The incident of St Michael deserves a special place in the current press releases of the Bar Convent, York.
Next year will see some startling new initiatives in the spiritual life of York and the Bar Convent, which will be published in our issue of January 2, 1987.