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Monks and their monasteries go into retreat as recruits dwindle
By Jonathan Petre
Monks first arrived in Britain almost 2,000 years ago but they are now in danger of all but disappearing within a generation, figures suggest.
A growing number of Roman Catholic monasteries are being sold as their ageing communities are hit by death and plunging vocations.
.... The official figures show that the flow of new recruits reached a trickle in 2004, when just 12 men joined monasteries, and the trend has been downwards for decades.
.... Vocations to monastic orders fell from 107 in 1982 to 52 in 1990 and to 20 in 2000. The total number of monks in England and Wales stands at 1,345, many of whom are in their sixties and seventies.
The news is no better for nuns, who have experienced a parallel decline and now total 1,150.
....Moreover, the average age of people entering both monasteries and convents is climbing.
An analysis of the 12 women who joined enclosed orders in 2003 found that three were aged between 31 and 35, five between 41 and 50 and four were over 50.
At Prinknash Abbey near Stroud in Gloucestershire, a Benedictine monastery set in the heart of the Cotswolds, the reality of the situation has hit home particularly hard.
The monks, who are famed for their manufacture of incense, are having to abandon their imposing, four-storey modern abbey because their numbers have dwindled to 14 while the building was designed to accommodate 60.
The community is to swap the abbey, with its own chapel and substantial library, for the 16th-century manor house on the 300-acre estate that it occupied before the modern building was completed 33 years ago.
....Prinknash's situation is far from unusual.
A group of Capuchin Franciscan friars in Solihull, West Midlands, have put Olton Friary on the market, and the 30-bedroom property is expected to fetch £4 million.
The Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in the Malvern Hills have put their neo-Gothic building, which includes a vaulted church built in 1871 by E W Pugin, up for sale at £6 million.
With an average age of 65, the community's remaining 24 nuns, several of whom are in wheelchairs, are downsizing to a smaller house in Yorkshire.
A life of contemplation and prayer still appeals to some, however.
At the Carmelite convent in Darlington, the nuns are celebrating the arrival of new postulant, or trainee, Sister Maureen.
The 47-year-old former health service manager said that she had given up cigarettes and gin, and can only venture outside the convent walls a few times a year.
But, she added, she had not regretted her move out of the rat race.