La Retraite Convent & School

La Retraite Convent and School was situated in Oxford Street. The building is now a care home.

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The Congregation was originally founded in Brittany in the late 17th century for the work of retreats. Five sisters were sent to England in 1883 by their Mother Superior,  to “Go where there is no church and build one there”. They first settled in Sevenoaks, Kent and opened a boarding school. In 1887 they learned, from the Sacred Heart Fathers of Glastonbury, of a property for sale in Burnham, where there was no existing Catholic Church. This  single storey house was ‘The Rookery’, owned by the Tucker family.

The Rookery, o.s. 1844-88

The sisters moved in with a small number of boarders and eventually expanded the property to include a chapel and a boarding and day school for 180 girls. The chapel was built in 1888 as a condition of the granting, by Dr Clifford, the Bishop of Clifton, of a request by the sisters to found a convent in his diocese. The first mass was said there on 29th September 1888. The first resident priest , the Reverend H.V. Lean, was appointed in 1900.

Scans courtesy of Ann Popham.

The convent o.s. 1894-1903
The convent, o.s. 1921-43

As the school expanded, neighbouring Rose Farm, on the corner of what became Jaycroft Rd,  was acquired (1935) and became the domestic science department. A preparatory school and residential accommodation for 6th form boarders was also added. St Joseph’s Primary School had also been opened on the site in 1891.

New schoolrooms and games courts.

By 1967 the parish had grown sufficiently to merit its own Parish Church, which was built a little further down on the opposite side of the Highbridge Road.

The boarding and day school continued in the old building until 1984. When the school closed the Rose Farm building was adapted for  a community of 10 sisters. During the works the original foundation stone of the building was found, with an inscription of ‘1697 J.C.’

Priory Gardens was cut through and flats for retired people were built on the northern part of the site. The remainder of the old buildings were adapted to become a nursing home. The chapel can still be appreciated in its original form on the Oxford St frontage. The old  burial ground also still remains within the Priory Gardens housing development and can be accessed by the public.

Scans of postcards courtesy of Ann Popham.

Information from ‘La Retraite, Burnham-on-Sea Centenary’ booklet, courtesy of Pat Nicholls.

One famous pupil of La Retraite was June Guesdon Joliffe. Born in London to the Welsh civil servant John Mayne Jolliffe  and his Tasmanian wife May Guesdon , June was sent to Brittany when she was two for a salt-water cure for tuberculosis of the spine. Upon her return, she was sent in 1928 to La Retraite, which she described in her 1956 novel Every Eye.

After secretarial college in London, she was taught literature by Kenneth Allott  while working with him. She married Ronald Dundas Orr-Ewing in 1941 and they had a daughter, Victoria, in the following year, but they were divorced in 1951. In 1953, she married a fellow writer, Neville Braybrooke (1923–2001).

Under the pen name Isobel English she published her first book, The Key that Rusts, a year after she was married.  Every Eye followed two years later and in 1961 her final novel Four Voices. She published numerous short stories and a collection of them, Life after All, appeared in 1973 and won the Katherine Mansfield Prize. A single unstaged play, Meeting Point, was published in The New Review.

English’s many literary friends included Beryl Bainbridge, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith, who described her tone as “very sagacious and very original – a voice of our times, ironical and involved.” She died of leukaemia on 30 May 1994 and was buried in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green, London.

Above information from Wikipedia

Please share your memories by leaving a comment in the box below.

29 thoughts on “La Retraite Convent & School”

  1. Hello, reading the information provided about the convent I’m just wondering if there’s anymore information or names about the 5 sisters who was sent on their mission in 1883?
    I have found some limited information about the care home that was built around 1986 and closed in November 2022.
    with thanks, Barry

    1. Hello Barry and thanks for your posting. I will contact our member who has much information on this convent.

    2. Hello Barry. A few brief facts: The two Sisters who brought the group from Sevenoaks to Burnham were Mother de Melicourt and Mother Cathelineau. There were six other Sisters and twelve boarders. The statue that they brought with them from France is now in the atrium of our church, Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Burnham. Mother Cathelineau was the niece of Sister Victoire who was guillotined during the French Revolution for sharing prayer tokens with soldiers.
      There is a great deal of history regarding the La Retraite Sisters, and I have a talk on the subject, as well as trying to compile it into a booklet.
      When the Convent and school closed all the buildings were used to develop the Care Home, After two owners, the Home was closed and we await any developments on the site.

  2. WOW, there’s some great history here in regards to the convent. Does anyone happen to have any history or the names of the 5 sisters who was sent on their mission in 1883?

  3. My two sisters both attended the school, and both got good results. I didn’t attend (being a boy) but one of the nuns very kindly gave me extra Latin lessons, and helped me pass Latin at O level. Some of the boarders seemed to be rather upper-middle-class girls from the West Indies and Ireland. I and some of my friends used to raid their grounds for conkers, despite being told to desist. As soon as we were discovered we would be a lot more careful that year, and post a lookout who then had to accept that he’d get only second-rate conkers from those of us doing the collecting.

  4. I was a boarder at la retraite from 1943 to 1954. I have happy memories of my time there especially mother Paul Mary, miss Crombeke and others. Now 85 years I would love to be in touch with other oldies that I was at school with. Helen Matt’s, Judith Barber were two of my special friends.

    1. My wife, then Angela Lindsay Clegg was also a La Retraite boarder in those years, sharing a Rose Farm room with Mary Mason who suddenly passed away last Sunday, 19 March 2023, only a few days after her birthday when we telephoned her in New Zealand.

  5. I was at LR Burnham from 1952-1961
    Virginia Webster with my sister Antonia
    I have happy memories especially if playing hockey in the beach .

    1. Hi Virginia
      I am so sorry to hear about Antonia. I hope all goes well with you. I often think about the years at LR it was mostly happy days! I remember tennis after supper in the summer term, the courts were always in demand so we’d put racquets out before supper to bag the court! Pene, your sister Julia often one of the 4.
      I was at LR 1952 to 1961. My sister’s, Jill and Tessa also.

  6. Hello John, just looking at La Retraite information on line. We met again after many years at my uncle, Paul Mead’s, funeral. Happy New Year 2022!

    1. Happy New Year Sarah,
      I have very happy memories of when you came to see your relatives Mr. and Mrs. Mead who were Paul’s mum and dad. His mum used to make us tomato sauce sandwiches and I used to play football with Paul on the beach. We used the concrete stanchions of the shelter near the Reeds Arms as goal posts.
      Happy Times.

  7. J’ai un très bon souvenir de mon année scolaire 1961/1962 , j’avais 17 ans. Je pense quelquefois à toutes les recontres que j’avais faites. Ce fût une année heureuse.
    Fanchon KEROMES

    1. Thank you for your comment Franchon. It is nice to hear you have such happy memories of that year.
      Merci pour votre commentaire Franchon. C’est agréable d’entendre que vous avez des souvenirs si heureux de cette année.

  8. All my brothers and I were at the kindergarden. The nuns were very kind and it was there that my portrait was painted by Cecile Crombeke.
    My memories of the Burnham of that era are very fond

    1. Thanks for your comment Justin. May I point out to readers that the portrait Justin mentions can be seen on our Cecile Crombeke page under the ‘People’ menu.

    2. Justin, I remember you and Daniel in preparatory at Rose Farm. I have such happy memories of La Retraite with Sister St. James. I was Sarah Lockyer and we were in the same year group with Jane Young, Sonia Shearn and Peter Knightly.

      1. Sarah
        Apologies for such a late reply! How are you after all these years? Yes, Sister St James was wonderful and I don’t remember an unpleasant moment there.(John, is there a way we can be alerted to replys?)

        1. Justin! Good to hear from you. I have four children and took them to Rose Farm to visit Sister St. James (Sister Phyllis) when they were small – she was a delight and even wrote to me twice. Hope you are well and happy, Sarah

      1. Hi Penny. I remember you and your sister Julia
        Sadly my sister Antonia died in 2020 from motor neurone disease.
        I hope you are well.

  9. Hi, my Great Aunt Jane Francis MacLaughlin, stayed at the convent as a paying guest, lodger. The only fixed date I have for her is 1907 and I would appreciate it if you were able to find some record how long she lived there. Most of her long life seems to have been spent living in various institutions. Thank you.

    1. Hello Catherine and thank you for your comment. Unfortunately we hold very little information
      other than that which is already here but I will contact someone who may be able to help. It is a long shot
      but just may prove helpful.

      1. Catherine, We may be able to discover how long she was a lady boarder at LR, but it may take a few days. The lady boarders fees helped pay for the education of poorer girls at the school. I will come back to you.

  10. I had 3 aunts at the school but there is no date on the photograph. They were there 1903 till 1910.

    I wonder if they are in that photo? They were all there at the same time.

    1. Hello Angela.
      I will find the original document with the image and see if there is a date.
      Thanks for your comment.
      The image is dated May 1939.

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