Abbess Bernadette Smeyers

 Mother Bernadette Smeyers of St Cecilia's Abbey on the Isle of Wight, died on 17 September at the age of 102. Mother Bernadette was the oldest Benedictine Abbess in the world. The fifth of a Belgian civil servant's eight children, she was born Marie-Madeleine Elise Eugenie Smeyers at Louvain on August 5 1903. She was educated by the Paridaen sisters at Louvain until the family followed the Belgian Government into exile after the outbreak of the First World War. She was next sent to St Mary's Abbey, Mill Hill, in London, then became a boarder at the Benedictine community of Pax Cordis Jesu, which gave up its school at Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight, and transferred to St Cecilia's. After a period at home she followed her elder sister, Alice, into the community when she was 23. As Sister Bernadette, she taught philosophy, served in the sacristy and the refectory, worked on the poultry farm and became an excellent calligrapher. Within seven years she was made prioress, and became secretary to both the chapter and Abbess Ambrosia Cousin, whom she succeeded in 1953. During her 34 years as St Cecilia's second abbess, the community was particularly lively, with much laughter in the parlour and conversation conducted in a mixture of English, Irish and French accents. Mother Bernadette threw herself into everything, ensuring that St Cecilia's avoided many of the traumas experienced by other monastic foundations in the aftermath of the Vatican Council. Her twice-weekly conferences for the community were practical and unsentimental. Always ready to listen and to take the initiative, she showed an interest in the making of altar bread, bookbinding and art work; and introduced courses in Greek and Hebrew. She also presided over the redesigning and reordering of the abbey church, the introduction of vernacular readings and the abolition of dress distinctions between lay sisters and choir nuns. But she never wavered in the conviction that the Latin chant should be retained. In response to the repeated requests by conciliar documents, and to Pope Paul's issue to bishops of a booklet of simple chants for parish use throughout the Church, she increased the singing of chant at the Divine Office and at Mass. This led her to arrange for a weekly practice for the congregation with two nuns, as well as the launch of the community on a recording career in 1974. Their first recording sold out within three weeks. The second impression was sold out in six months. Between 1980 and 1992, the abbey produced ten further recordings - starting a trend for religious communities around the world from Downside in Somerset to Silos in Spain, to issue recordings of plainchant. Another of Mother Bernadette's great achievement was the establishment of the first Benedictine community in Bangalore, India. She was took part in the first meeting of Asian monastic superiors in Bangkok; and, when the writer Thomas Merton died there, she joined in the uninterrupted recitation of 150 psalms around his body. Mother Bernadette decided to offer her resignation in 1987, when she was 85 years old, before she became too incapacitated. She said it was one of her hardest decisions, but rejoiced in the election of a successor half her age, and settled happily into a quieter rhythm, peeling apples for bottling and attending classes taught by younger nuns. She continued to head the procession with Mother Abbess for Mass and Vespers, and attended all the offices except Lauds and Vigils to the end, genuflecting and walking without a stick. The night before she died, from a stroke, she had a fall. She told the nuns who helped her up: "I was just oing some gymnastics."

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