Most people won’t have heard of the Bar Convent. What is it, and how long has it been there?
The history of the Bar Convent goes back to 1686 when a Catholic girls’ school was founded on this site. Mother Superior Frances Bedingfield was given £450 to set up a girls’ school in York. She picked this site, and the only fly in the ointment was the fact that it was still illegal to be a Catholic, dating back to the time of Henry VIII. Everything about it was illegal. York is the most Anglican city in the North of England. On the spot she picked, 40 years previously, they’d stuck the head of a priest on a spike. It was a dangerous place and a dangerous time to be opening a Catholic girls’ school. They carried on, hidden in plain sight, for about 150 years until the laws against the Catholic faith were lifted.
How did they hide it?
They were very clever. There’s a secret chapel in the middle of the convent which was completed in the 1760s. You can’t see anything of it from the outside. Even if you get into the garden, you don’t see any sign of the domed ceiling: what you see is a grey tiled roof. There’s one roof inside another: a gold embossed dome ceiling hiding beneath a grey tiled pitched roof. The building also has eight entrances and exits so the sisters could escape if they needed to. It had all these safety features built in. Secrecy is in the building’s bricks and mortar. That carries on to this day: although it’s a gorgeous Georgian frontage, in York particularly with so many classic buildings, people don’t know what it is. It doesn’t really advertise itself.
But you’re keen to change that.
Within the realms of it being a Grade I-listed building. We can’t put up a massive sign, so we are doing everything from social media to word of mouth. It stopped being a school in the 1980s, so there’s a popular guest house on site. We also have regular exhibitions, a café and conference rooms. We’re collaborating with York St John’s English students so they have access to our library. We’ve just appointed an outside archivist for the first time.
Has he found anything interesting?
He’s found convent diaries written by the sisters going back to the First World War when the convent took in wounded soldiers from the trenches and Belgian refugees. It was a convalescent home, and it goes through day by day the entirety of the First World War. I think, because it adapted and changed, it has survived. This is all driven by the sisters themselves. They have pushed through all of this: they’ve always been a progressive movement from the 1600s and understand the need for change.
What’s the most common misconception people have?
people think it’s very austere and are surprised to learn the sisters here don’t wear habits; that they’re just in normal civilian clothes. They are daunted, but the sign on the door sums it all up: ‘The Bar Convent is open to those of all faiths and none’, and that’s very key to what it does.
What’s the plan going forward?
We’ve got events starting with York Literature Festival in March and are involved in flower festivals taking place in York in July. We’re also looking to mark 100 years of the end of the First World War in November. We want to have more of a rolling exhibition space, a document of the month from the archives, things in our shop. Lots of different things; we’re trying to pull together all the different strands under one roof.
To learn more about the Bar Convent, visit www.bar-convent.org.uk