During the cold January blues many will be dreaming of a warm tropical island getaway – there is something in our psyche that makes islands seem so appealing and romantic. While our ideal island may contain sandy beaches and palm trees, it is worth considering that many of the world’s most interesting islands are also sanctuaries of the Catholic faith. Here are five holy islands throughout the world which have become outposts of eternity for many who seek spiritual restoration.
San Giulio Island, Italy
This tiny island only measures 275 by 140 meters and yet is filled with fine buildings, winding alleyways and the impressive Basilica of di San Giulio. The island is named after the St Giulio (St Julius) who lived in the 4th Century. There is an ancient legend that the island was the lair of a serpent who was finally banished by St Giulio.
San Giulio has an ancient monastic foundation dating from the 5th Century. Sadly many older buildings were demolished in the 1840s to build a new seminary which now dominates the island. Following the closure of the seminary the building was empty for some time until 1976 when it was taken over by a group of Benedictines who renamed it Mater Ecclesiae Abbey. Today the community live a contemplative life, welcome pilgrims and retreatants and bake locally renowned St Julius’ Bread.
The community have developed mediation walks on the island which are lined with reflective readings from scripture in an aim to help visitors enter more deeply into the peace of the place.
Papa Stronsay, Orkney Islands
Papa Stronsay is a bleak island where very few trees grow and the highest point is only 14 meters above sea level. The entire land mass is less than 0.3 square miles. There are no mains services and access to the island is via a six minute boat ride from neighbouring Stronsay. Whilst being on a gulf stream results in higher than average temperatures, the strong winds add a chill factor that would deter the less hardy. This isn’t a description that immediately appeals and yet the island has a unique charm and is home to a vibrant and growing community of monks.
In 1999 Papa Stronsay was purchased by The Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer, which at the time was a religious community within the Society of St Pius X. In 2008 most of the community were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Today the Golgotha Monastery is home to around 25 monks. Their rule is based on that of St Alphonsus Liguori, although they are not linked to the Redemptorists. Their liturgy is in Latin with all Masses being celebrated in the Extraordinary Form.
The earliest monastic remains on the island date back to the 8th Century and so the Monks of Papa Stronsay have reunited the island with its ancient role. It is encouraging that such a community is flourishing in our Church at this time.
Reichenau Island, Germany
Famous for its distinctive Romanesque Churches and frescoes, Reichenau Island is situated on Lake Constance and is reached by a causeway. In 2000 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and today attracts thousands of visitors each year. The earliest monastic foundations date from 724 but the abbey lands were secularised in 1803.
In 2001 a small community of Benedictines was re-established on the island and continues today to provide a contemplative focus for the many visitors and pilgrims. The community hopes to restore the sacred heartbeat of this holy island and encourages retreatants and pilgrims.
Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire
With boats leaving Tenby every thirty minutes during the summer, Caldey has become a popular day visitor destination. Today the island is home to a community of Reformed Cistercians (Trappist) who came from Belgium in 1929.
Religious life returned to the island in 1906 when a group of Anglican Benedictines sought to restore male religious life within the Church of England.
The project received wide support at the time from prominent Anglo Catholics, including Viscount Halifax. However, the Abbot, Aelred Carlyle, encouraged the community to consider being received into the Catholic Church. The secession of the Caldey community finally took place on February 21, 1913. Due to the financial pressures caused by the extravagant building works, the community moved to Prinknash Park, Gloucestershire in 1928. The island was then sold the Cistercians who remain the present incumbents.
The community now has about 20 monks although numbers fell dramatically in the 1980s and there was the threat of closure. A well-known holiday company expressed interests in buying the island at the time. Fortunately the community thrives today and a number of men are exploring their vocation.
There are ancient monastic foundations on the island and the Norman St David’s Church is claimed to be the oldest Catholic Church building still in use in the UK. In addition visitors and pilgrims can explore the 13th Century priory church of St Illtyd and some very fine undisturbed beaches. The monks work on their dairy farm and produce perfume and chocolate which can be purchased in the island shops. There is a Post Office which sells unique Caldey postage stamps and a tea room to cater for the thousands of visitors each year.
Despite its popularity, it is possible to find peace and solitude on the island and pilgrims and visitors can view the monastic church and take part in the Offices from the gallery at the west end. The community also run a retreat house for those who wish to stay longer and absorb the atmosphere of this special place.
Shaw Island, Washington State
Named after a US Naval Officer, John Shaw, the island is the smallest in the San Juan archipelago. It has a population of just 240 but for many years the island has been known as the ‘Nun’s Island’ because of the three religious communities who have lived alongside the resident islanders. Shaw is idyllic and home to the oldest school building in Washington State as well as many exclusive houses. The island’s farms and woodland are legally protected from further development, creating a timeless idyll.
For many years Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist maintained a presence on the island and operated the local store and the rustic wooden ferry dock. Islanders recall these sisters who welcomed the ferries and ran the dock with Franciscan efficiency. The Franciscan sisters finally left in 2004 when other work called.
The Monastery of Our Lady of the Rock is situated in the middle of the island and is home to a contemplative Benedictine Community. The sisters are virtually self-sufficient and sell produce from their 300 acre farm within the local community.
Founded in 1977 the community mostly use Latin for their offices and mostly celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Today the sisters wear the traditional Benedictine habit and are a distinctive site across the island. The superior is well known as she travels around at speed in her SUV. They also provide guest accommodation for those who wish to stay for longer.
The third and smallest religious presence is provided by the Religious Sisters of Mercy who run a guest house. For many years there was some animosity from the local residents as the sisters allegedly build the guest house without planning permission in the restricted development area.
Today many retreatants and pilgrims visit the island to experience its timeless beauty, simplicity and peace. It is also a glimpse into a bygone America
This list is not exhaustive and there are many islands which could also be added. As Catholics it is important that we build virtual islands into our own busy lives. We all need refuges away from the storms and trails of this world within which to become spiritually reinvigorated. How will you make space in your life during this January?