Given my profession, it was only a matter of time before I conducted an interview with someone sitting behind bars.
But Mother Damian and Sister Juliana of the Ty Mam Duw monastery in Hawarden were not what I expected.
The nuns – members of the Poor Clare Colettine order – are far from prisoners, despite their rigorously ordered day and their vow of cloister, which sees them spend their lives behind monastery walls.
The bars are not punitive – they are a visual reminder of their vow, both to themselves and their visitors.
“We took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which all nuns do – but we also took a fourth vow of cloistering. We aren’t retreating from the world,” said Mother Damian, 63, a gentle-voiced woman in a brown habit. “Quite the opposite. We have a prayer line which is open to anyone anywhere in the world.
“We also have a ‘Clare Share’ bulletin that goes out once a week and a daily ‘Little Hearts’ message for people who want a bit of religious input in their lives.”
As well as their digital outreach, the monastery – a red-brick building nestled in a suburb near Hawarden High School – welcomes visitors from around the world and the nuns have produced a DVD about their daily lives.
Those who visit can enjoy the carefully tended front garden, complete with a monolithic carved cross, but the Poor Clares never will.
They have their own garden in their part of the monastery, which helps them in their vow of poverty by providing much-needed produce.
“It’s broad beans this year,” said Sister Juliana, 60. “We have other plants growing too, and we make herbal cures and different things.
“We rely on donations from people. One of the things we can’t do is plan meals ahead. Often we’ll have a bag of potatoes, some onions, a bit of cheese and a cabbage, so we make do.
“It’s surprising how cordon bleu you can make it. People kept asking what we ate, so we’ve actually written two cookbook pamphlets.”
Their day begins at 5.30am and ends at 7.30pm. It is divided by the ancient canonical hours, including vespers (evening prayer) and compline (night prayer).
A lot of time is given over to prayer, practical work in the garden, kitchen and craft workshop and contemplation.
The nuns have half an hour a day for their own recreation, and typically seek each other out for a shared activity like needlework.
Cloistering is much misunderstood, according to Mother Damian. “We’re not in here against our will,” she said. “We do find people don’t quite understand it. When people come here, one of the things they are most surprised by is that we are not unworldly.”
The expectation is the nuns will be immune to, and ignorant of, modern life while shut away from the outside world. This is not the case.
Sister Juliana has read up on the work of arch-atheists Peter Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. They keep an eye on current events through news websites and communicated distress at the kidnappings of 300 young girls by militant Islamic group Boko Haram.
“It’s painful,” said Sister Juliana. “The idea somebody could do that and profess a faith – to do that in the name of a faith, it is deeply upsetting.”
So what makes inquisitive, well-read and informed women live inside such a confined space and give up their old identities?
Even their names are chosen by their tiny community, often borrowed from canonised saints and significant religious figures.
Mother Damian was fascinated about the Poor Clares when she heard about them as a child. “I instantly knew this was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I never met anyone from the Poor Clares but I never forgot what I was told about them. I went out into the world and lived life.
“I did all of the things teenagers do. One day I was riding in a car with a friend, and she said ‘Oh, the Poor Clares live there’. I immediately contacted them and within 10 days I had joined. I never regretted it.”
Mother Damian became a postulant, during which time the community and the postulant herself will see if the specialised life of the Poor Clares is suitable for them. Sometimes it is not.
Sister Juliana said: “There’s not a single one of us who entered in through that door to whom God did not say ‘Come’. But they do not always want to hear.
“It is very sad to see that, because you can see the person struggling – they may have dreamed of becoming a nun and it is a terrible thing to see them realise that they do not like it.”
But the order is very accommodating.Widowhood, divorce, or what Sister Juliana describes as “certain mistakes made while young and perhaps under the influence of others” do not bar you from entering.
The Poor Clare Colettines have a strong link with motherhood – they provide prayers for pregnant women and those trying to conceive.
Sister Juliana said: “We get many prayer requests from people who tell us ‘we are not of your faith’ or who have no faith at all. Sometimes the important thing is to know that someone cares about you and is thinking of you.”
After two years as a postulant, Mother Damian became a junior, then a novice and then she cut her hair, dressed in bridal garb and took her full vows.
Nuns are famously consecrated to God – the wedding-like ceremony is a symbol of this. Sister Juliana said: “We wear a ring. We are aware of death, it frames our life. But it is not a terrible thing we look on with fear.
“When you marry, you exchange rings with the vow ‘Till death us do part’. I think these are five of the saddest words in the English language. Our vow is ‘Till death us do unite’.”
Their physical lives are simple, but their community life is rich. Although they live in white-walled rooms on second-hand furniture (“Comfort is not at the top of our list,” said Sister Juliana, wryly) the 13 Poor Clares are a tight-knit group.
“We have to be,” said Mother Damian. “Outside, if you have a dispute with someone, you can just walk away. Here we live with each other and we must work through our conflicts.”
It is a micro-community operating as a model for the larger community outside – both Sister Juliana and Mother Damian believe the tolerance, respect and
co-operation the sisters have cultivated behind closed doors sends out powerful “waves” into the wider world.
When asked if they missed anything, both nuns had to stop and think.
“Not much,” said Sister Juliana. “I find it difficult to think of anything at all."
Do they have cravings for chocolate biscuits? “Well,” said Sister Juliana with a twinkly-eyed smile. “You’d be surprised how often people donate Kitkats. God provides.”
l The Poor Clare Colettines are running three days of free craft sessions this weekend. They run from 9.30am-4pm on Friday, 10am-5pm on Saturday and 11am-3pm on Sunday, at the Ty Mam Duw Monastery in Hawarden.
For more information, call 01244 531029.
See full story in the Leader