How the Daughters of Divine Charity became involved in making a four-part documentary for Channel 5 is still something of a mystery to ourselves. Apparently Fr Christopher Jamieson OSB and Sr Elaine Penrice fsp from the National Vocations Office receive many requests from TV and Radio to ‘roll out religious’ and these are declined. Somehow a group of young ladies from the Crackit Company said all the right things about changing the world to intrigue Fr Christopher. This led to him supplying lists of Convents that could perhaps answer their needs: Sisters with a range of ages who were willing and able to take in five girls who were wishing to go on a spiritual journey to change their lives.
They met us and we agreed in principle to the idea, but running a school in Swaffham for all age groups and having five unruly post adolescent girls was not compatible in many people’s opinion. The children were fine with the idea and dreamt of being budding actors, certain staff also thought that this was a golden opportunity to advertise our school as we were struggling to become a Free School. There were warnings from many that we were putting ourselves in great danger by being on reality TV. Did we not understand that the Sisters would be made to look old fashioned, out of touch and also who was really interested in religious life in this day and age as they had such bad press recently.
All this negativity affected us and we decided that it would be safer to stay clear of such exposure. However, the Crackit Company liked us and as they needed to sell their idea to Channel 5 we agreed to help them out with the taster session. The result was that Channel 5 wanted our Sisters as we are blessed with young Sisters and Novices from a wide cultural background as well as having some fairly seasoned religious, and of course we come with the full uniform. It was agreed amongst us that the advert would seek five girls who wanted to change their lives by going on a spiritual journey. Fr Christopher was on the selecting panel for neither the girls, nor the Sisters, were to meet before the experiment took place.
The Daughters of Divine Charity have run a Boarding School in Swaffham for over a 100 years so they were not easily shocked by the sight of the five scantily dressed girls dragging their luggage up the path. After setting out the rules in true school fashion – no drinking, no smoking, no chewing gum, silence after 10.00pm – the girls were released to make friends and get used to their single, though fairly Spartan rooms and life in a Convent.
We had a definite structured plan for the girl’s two week stay at Sacred Heart and each Sister had volunteered to lead a meditation, a work experience or a creative activity. In true classroom fashion we decided that the girls would be kept busy all the time as the devil finds work for idle hands. On the whole the girls were ready to try most things, though the experience in the chapel was quite out of their comfort zone. They recognised that they had a spiritual side but had not really grown to be familiar with this reality. It is a shame that none of the meditations made the screen for both the Sisters and the girls worked hard at the daily half hour prayer session. The camera crew were certainly fixated on statues and the room chosen for the daily grilling of individuals in the parlour was adorned with religious icons. None of us enjoyed the Big Brother type bearing of one’s soul and looking down the barrel of the lens or being asked to comment on and analyse what had happened and how the girls had changed, but I am sure that this would have gone down well with OFSTED. Fortunately only snippets of the daily hour saw the light of day. This was really the only time that the cameras were intrusive; the crew just seemed to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time, including nearly every meal time. We were followed everywhere and it just became the norm to be filmed. The editing revealed that there was some type casting of individuals. Sr Thomas More was the elderly benign grandmotherly figure, I was the strict Headteacher, Sr Michaela and Sr Anna, being their age were their role models and Sr Linda was the fun loving aunty figure.
The girls accepted very quickly that the Sisters loved them unconditionally and wanted them to gain self-respect, so a bond of trust was quickly established. There were highs and lows and sometimes it felt as if we were on a roller coaster but the overall experience was one of joy and hope.
The girls learnt about managing life without mobile phones, being accountable for their actions, appreciating their families, and the power of forgiveness and self-discipline. There were many scenes that did not make the final entertainment, but amongst some of the life-changing events were the symbols of life experience and purchasing the vodka. It was only when Sr Michaela, aged 23, revealed that her mother had died two months ago that their frivolous attitude changed and they embraced Sister with real compassion. This was truly a turning point for all five girls and it was actually God’s grace and no planning on our part that touched their hearts.
Like naughty children this reality check did not last for long and on a trip to the local Charity shop, a couple of the girls escaped to buy a bottle of vodka. Apparently some of them regularly drank a bottle a night and were left legless and mindless. They soon regretted their childish behaviour and during a pottery session a surreal conversation took place about what would happen to young people who broke the rules. It was left to the Headteacher to explain that they would be expected to say sorry and then they would be forgiven. That idea of forgiveness seemed to be alien to their mentality. However, they pondered on it and when the inevitable time of reckoning came they talked vehemently about their rights. On camera, alone, and faced with five very articulate young ladies it was the moment when I said to myself Sr Francis they (all those who had advised against taking part) will say we told you not to take part in a reality show! When Tyla stormed out of the room and came back in with an empty bottle the editing crew missed the irony of the comment, ‘I am more upset about you throwing away the drink than purchasing it in the first place’. This was another turning point in their understanding of our Christian ways and there were many more to come. We cannot say that the girls embraced religion but they definitely became aware of their spiritual side and they tell us that when they are in doubt of how to behave they ask themselves what would the Sisters do.
We are in touch with these lovely girls; we have seen them make changes in their lives and we are all very proud of them. They helped us as a Community to work together for God’s greater glory. The response to the programme has been truly amazing with so many people ringing or writing to us for prayers, help or support. We truly believe that this was God’s work and that we have been able to follow our foundress, Mother Franciska Lechner when she exhorted us to ‘make God’s love visible’.
Sr Francis Ridler, FDC
Sacred Heart School, Swaffham