She was one of the last debutantes destined to live a life of luxury, but then she had a calling from God. Sister Agatha tells Sarah Freeman about her extraordinary life.
“You know I brought this place to the brink of bankruptcy, but thanks to Paul Getty’s millions I managed to save it,” says Sister Agatha by way of introduction. They’re not the first words you expect from the mouth of a former Mother Superior of York’s Bar Convent, but then Sister Agatha is no ordinary nun.
It’s the accent which hints at her previous life, the one where she was christened Shirley Leach, lived in a 23-bedroom mansion and was among the last of the debutantes, presented to the royal court before almost certain marriage to an eligible bachelors.
“I grew up in Sibton Park in 43 acres of North Downs countryside,” she says, holding court in one of the convent’s comfortable if not terribly luxurious sitting rooms. “It was the 1930s but we were completely cushioned from the Great Depression. It was in so many ways idyllic.”
Now 85, Sister Agatha has been persuaded to tell her life’s story, which would make the basis for a Catholic version of Walter Mitty were it not all true.
“When I tell people it was a desire to make gravy that made me become a nun I am only half joking,” she says with the same mischievous look she no doubt had as a teenager. “During the war our home was requisitioned by the Army and the staff were let go. My mother was a terrible cook and when eventually we could entertain again, it was decided that I should enrol on a domestic science course.”
The cookery school happened to be in the grounds of a convent and it was there that Sister Agatha learnt more than how to whip up a warm salad to later wow the WI with.
“My boiled carrots with white sauce were talked about as if I had walked to the South Pole alongside Captain Scott, but my culinary education came to an end when I told my mother how much I was enjoying the teachings of the nuns. She made me leave before I had learnt how to make an apple turnover.”
The Leachs were a proud Church of England family and before her head could be turned by Catholics her mother had other plans for young Shirley.
“My father had died when I was very young and she was determined that my three elder sisters and I should marry well. She was very aware of how easily one’s fortunes can change and marriage was our passport to security.”
One by one, Sister Agatha’s sisters, found husbands and when she was 16 it was decided Shirley would be one of the 400 girls presented at Court in an archaic tradition which would officially mean she was eligible for marriage.
“All I remember was that King George VI appeared to be wearing too much make-up and the whole ceremony was gone in a glance. A few years later the debutante scene had vanished as if it had never been. It had been such an important date in the social season for the country’s elite few. but it was right that it went.
“Around the same time I was sent to a finishing school where I really struggled being around girls whose only thought was how to balance a pile of books on their heads. It was so divorced from reality that I refused to attend classes and eventually one of my sisters had to come and collect me.”
That might have been sign that Shirley Leach was destined for a very different life from most of her peers, but despite converting to Catholicism even she still believed that she would settle down and have a family.
“I got engaged to a wonderful man called Jeremy. He was studying agriculture at Cambridge and I honestly thought I would be a farmer’s wife. Then a friend who had just got married said, ‘It’ll be your turn next Shirley’. I had already learned my marriage vows heart, but there was something that made me think, ‘No, I’m not sure it will be’.”
It was while writing a letter to Jeremy, that Sister Agatha says she has her moment of clarity.
“I stopped mid sentence and rote the words ‘there is no point for I am to become a nun’. It was there in black and white. I was so upset by the thought God was taking me away from the man I loved that I was sobbing.”
Sister Agatha admits that now that Jeremy, his parents and her own family thought she was mad, but also assumed that she would see sense.
“Giving up my old life wasn’t easy. It was incredibly difficult knowing that I would never at a whim be able to have tea with friends, that I couldn’t wear fashionable dresses or saddle up my horse if I had a sudden desire to go riding.” Instead she had to rise at 5.40am each day in preparation for first mass at 6.45am and embrace the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“It’s funny because at the time I had no idea what poverty was, as for chastity I had always been in love with one boy or another and apart from my mother I don’t think I had ever knowingly been obedient to anyone.”
However, despite her own fears and her family’s doubts Shirley Leach did become Sister Agatha and in the 1970s was posted to York where the Bar Convent was facing uncertain times.
“Since it had been founded in 1686 there had always been a school attached to the convent, but then came a massive reorganisation of the education system. We didn’t tick the right boxes and I felt there was no option but to sell the school and save the convent. The only problem was that without it we had no income.
“Various experts devised plans to turn some of the convent buildings into a cafe, museum and conference rooms, so that’s what I did. The problem was that we had wildly overestimated how many people wanted to use these lovely new facilities. One day one of the sisters said all the money we had got from the sale of the school had gone. Every single penny.”
In typical Sister Agatha style she was down but not out and while taking the train to see her sister in Scotland she happened to get chatting to a man who it later turned out looked after the funds for the art collector and philanthropist Paul Getty.
“When he realised the convent was in trouble he asked if I would like an introduction. I said I was free the next day. As soon as I met him, I asked if we could get the boring bit over first and I told him we needed £250,000. He was a bit taken aback as he said no one had ever been so direct with him before, but he agreed to give us £125,000.”
Over the next few years Getty gave numerous donations to the convent which is now on a secure financial footing and has made good on those original plans.
“I am reaching now what a supermarket would call my sell-by date, but if there is one thing I know it’s that life is so precious that we can not afford to waste a moment of it. There is always so much we can do, and always something we can do better.”
With that she is off. She needs to pack for London where she is due to appear on Graham Norton’s Radio 2 show.
“Exciting isn’t it? But I have been told to remember that he is there to interview me, not the other way round.”
A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha with Richard Newman is published by John Blake priced £7.99.