Tributes paid to the Norfolk nun who became an international celebrity
PUBLISHED: 17:38 27 December 2018 | UPDATED: 17:48 27 December 2018
ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHIC © 2009
Tributes have been paid to the “inspirational” and “totally unique” nun, art critic, and television presenter, Sister Wendy Beckett.
Sister Wendy died on Boxing Day aged 88 at Quidenham Carmelite Monastery, where she had lived separately from the Carmelite Order for decades.
A woman of contradictions, Sister Wendy practised a lifestyle of frugality, living as a hermit in a caravan on the monastery grounds alone with her impressive collection of art postcards. Yet in the 1990s she also became an international star, famed for her insightful and imaginative BBC programmes and books, including Sister Wendy’s Odyssey and Sister Wendy’s American Collection.
Sister Stephanie Walters, prioress of Quidenham Carmelite Monastery, said: “Sister Wendy lived alongside us for over 40 years and was a good friend, an inspiration and totally unique.
“With her openness to God in her writing and programmes she could communicate the love and mystery of God through art and literature to many who may not otherwise hear of it. Christmas was a beautiful time for her to return to her Lord and be with him.”
Born in South Africa in 1930, Sister Wendy joined the Sisters of Notre Dame aged 16, then went to Oxford University.
Banned by her mother superior from speaking to fellow students, she read in her room. She was amazed when summoned by her final examiners and Professor J R R Tolkien led the panel in a round of applause. Her congratulatory first class degree had one of the highest marks ever awarded, joint with Harold Wilson.
Later she returned to South Africa to teach, but after a series of epileptic seizures that were put down to stress, learnt she suffered from epilepsy. She gave up teaching for a life of solitude in 1970.
The monastery at Quidenham offered to let Sister Wendy live within its grounds, and the Bishop gave her permission to become officially one of the ancient order, a “Consecrated Virgin under the protection of the Sisters of the Carmelite Order”.
In 2010 she said of solitary life: “This is the greatest imaginable bliss. It wasn’t only that I wanted a contemplative life, I needed it.”
She famously followed a formidable routine, often waking up shortly after midnight to pray. She told the Eastern Daily Press in 2009: “I come up for Mass and that is the extent of my movements during the day. I do not talk to anyone; I stay silent in my caravan, although it has degenerated downwards to be a mobile home. Unless there is some business or a message to be answered, I am just blissfully silent and alone.”
Rt Rev Alan Hopes, Roman Catholic Bishop of East Anglia, said: “Although Sister Wendy lived as a hermit in Quidenham, her influence and impact on many, many people across the world was enormous as she spoke simply about the love of God expressed through art. I am sure that her influence will go on through her writings and her recordings.”
Her friendship with fellow Norfolk celebrity and Catholic Delia Smith is said to have led to her discovery by publishers and television producers.
Despite her often witty and irreverent style, Sister Wendy spent much of her time in prayer and contemplation, and was prone to making grand statements. In one, which is frequently quoted by fans, she said: “The experiential test of whether this art is great or good, or minor or abysmal is the effect it has on your own sense of the world and of yourself. Great art changes you.”
Former England cricketer and television presenter Phil Tufnell worked with Sister Wendy on the BBC’s One Show. He wrote: “So sad to learn of Sister Wendy’s passing. We made an unlikely pairing on One Show but enjoyed every second in her company and she taught me a great deal and we had some giggles along the way. Will miss her very much.”
Sister Wendy’s character was such that she was not afraid of death. In an interview with The Independent in 2006, she said: “I’m not longing for death. I’m a great one for hoarding books I want to read. I’ve got a pile I’m keeping for Christmas and so I don’t want to die until I’ve read them. They all look so good.
“I enjoy life, but believe firmly that when we die we will pass into a joy that we simply can’t imagine.”