A more serene environment than the Daughters of Divine Charity Convent, tucked away in rural Norfolk, would be difficult to imagine.
So cut off are the resident nuns from the ills of our modern world that the last time some of them lived among us, flared trousers and tank tops were in fashion and The Beatles topped the pop charts.
How, then, would these modestly-dressed brides of God handle the arrival of their new house guests, a gaggle of brash young women, boasting tattoos and piercings and more usually found stumbling drunkenly around nightclubs while scantily dressed?
Party girls and nuns collide – all under one holy roof – for a new series for Channel 5. Bad Habits, Holy Orders, starts next week. Pictured left to right: Gabbi, Paige, Tyla, Sarah and Rebecca
From the moment the women arrive, wearing thigh-high boots and swearing like dockers, it’s evident the nuns will have to draw on their oft-rehearsed virtues of patience and tolerance
The collision of these polar opposite worlds under one holy roof is played out in a new series, Bad Habits, Holy Orders, which starts next week on Channel 5.
From the moment the women arrive on the convent’s doorstep, wearing thigh-high boots and mini-skirts and swearing like dockers, it’s evident the nuns will have to draw on their oft-rehearsed virtues of patience and tolerance.
‘They are dressed very provocatively and I think it’s wrong,’ remarks Sister Francis, deputy head nun who has been at the convent for 47 years. ‘Promiscuity now seems to be the norm, rather than a relationship of love and trust.’
Singling out Rebecca Cheng, 19, a nightclub podium dancer from Newcastle who admits her life is a merry-go-round of one-night stands, Sister Francis is taken aback by her skirt which sits, ‘ten inches above her knee’.
Sister Linda, pictured left with Sister Anna, says it makes her ‘disgusted’ that people cannot control themselves
Sister Linda, a slightly more worldly middle-aged woman who even uses Facebook, goes further: ‘It makes me disgusted that people cannot control themselves. I mean, come on, we are not animals, where is the love in all this?’
The rest of the clan include Tyla Edwards, 22, a podium dancer from Leeds, Sarah Lawrence, 19, a club hostess from Surrey, Gabriella Ryan, 21, a lingerie model from London and Paige Wallace, 23, a secretary from Bristol, who all signed up for a ‘spiritual journey’, no doubt hoping it would involve yoga on a beach in Bali, not Hail Marys in a basement chapel.
With such diametrically opposing views on how women should conduct themselves, surely the nuns – committed to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience – and these very liberated young women cannot cohabit for a month without some serious culture clashes?
After all, head nun Sister Thomas More, 85, is wearing shoes she’s had for 30 years, making her footwear older than her guests.
Reformed: The girls have toned down their fashion and our trying to fit in at the Convent. Pictured left to right, Gabbi Ryan, Paige Wallace, Sarah Lawrence, Tyla Edwards, Rebecca Cheng
What ensues, however, is a near Damascene discovery for the girls that, as their parents have no doubt long tried to tell them, there really is more to life than boys, booze and near-naked selfies.
Their precious phones are confiscated at the outset of their two-week stay, depriving them of their constant fix of social media. The teens and 20-somethings are then told there must be no noise after lights out at 10pm.
They are also instructed to join the nuns for prayers in the chapel each morning at what they consider the ungodly hour of 7.15am – a time of day when some of them are more likely to be found stumbling home from a night out, or doing ‘the walk of shame’ after a one-night stand, than giving praise for a new day. Hours in between getting up and going to bed are devoted to yet more praying, cooking and cleaning the convent.
And with such a dramatic change in lifestyle there was bound to be resistance and conflict, like the day the women sneaked off and bought a bottle of vodka – despite being told that alcohol is banne
d – while out shopping with the nuns.
And the night they asked for a pass-out to explore the nearby village of Swaffham, later returning to the convent roaring drunk.
Sing-a-long: Rebecca and the Sisters enjoying recreation time at the Convent
However, the nuns’ reaction, disappointment rather than anger, at their behaviour and the disrespect they had shown, had a profound effect on the young women who quickly repented, poured the vodka down the drain and apologised profusely. ‘They asked if we would forgive anything and we said we would,’ says Sister Francis. ‘We wanted them to feel loved by us, and by God, and the idea of forgiveness seemed to be new in their lives.
‘Every era has its problems and for this one it’s social media and the pressures it puts young people under to project an image of themselves. It’s hard for older people like me to understand.
‘With us they could be themselves, rather than playing to the public gallery.’
Sister Michaela, 23, who is originally from Eastern Europe and has been at the convent for only a year, agrees: ‘We showed them there’s another way of life and that they don’t have to be partying every night to be happy.
‘It’s not bad to go and have a drink but not remembering the next day what you did last night, that shows a lack of dignity and respect for yourself.’
Sober karaoke: Rebecca and the Sisters Michaela (blonde seated) and Sister Danuta (brunette nearer the piano) enjoying a sing-song during recreation time at the Convent
Indeed Rebecca, who admits on camera to rarely remembering nights out, is a good example.
Nothing in her home life, with two supportive parents who run a shop and a younger brother, seems to shed any real light on her waywardness.
And when she talks about the impact her staying out partying six nights a week has had on her relationship with her father, with whom she ‘barely speaks’, the tears come thick and fast.
It is Rebecca, most resistant at the start and utterly terrified of the crucifix in her room, who, the nuns are proud to acknowledge, has the biggest epiphany as the series unfolds. ‘I feel 100 per cent happier and am really grateful for my time in the convent,’ she says, speaking several months after filming ended. I don’t go out nearly as much, which is a good thing as my friends have since told me they were thinking of cutting all ties with me because I was always getting drunk.
Smartening up: Gabbi, Rebecca, Sister Linda, Paige, Sarah, Tyla, Sister and Sister Renata after the girls’ make under
‘I used to walk around at home eyes glued to my phone but now I actually talk to my family. I even went on holiday with them in the summer, to Malaysia and Singapore. That’s a big improvement on my behaviour two years ago when they booked flights for me to go on holiday with them and I announced, at the last minute, that I was staying at home with my then boyfriend.’
To her parents’ relief, the other change is that Rebecca has ditched her life of promiscuity in favour of a monogamous relationship with a young man she has been dating since March.
‘There have been no more one-night stands for me,’ she says. ‘It feels good to really get to know someone, and for them to get to know me.’
But what’s proving harder for Rebecca is how to carve out a rewarding career with a clutch of C grades at GCSE and no A levels. Despite the impact that living with nuns had on her, taking holy orders is not among her ambitions. The same goes for the other girls, unsurprisingly, given that recruitment of nuns is at an all-time low and the Swaffham convent has only welcomed one British sister into the fold in the past 30 years.
Down time: With lights off at 10pm, the girls and the sisters get used to reading by candle light
Tennis time: Gabbi, Sister Anna, Tyla and Sister Renata
Sarah, meanwhile, has swapped club hostessing for a responsible job as a personal assistant and moved out of the detached home where she grew up with h
er parents and into her own flat.
After the convent she didn’t go to a nightclub for three months and ditched her habit of drinking up to ten vodka and lemonades and a bottle of wine every night.
‘I actually went to my GP because I had tummy pain and he said that drinking like I did would definitely lead to health problems because my tolerance was so high.
‘Now I have a big night out no more than once a month. My parents are so happy that I had what they jokingly refer to as “my calling” and say that it could not have come at a better time.’
Gabriella, a dancer and model, who spent her pre-convent days pouting in sexy lingerie for her 20,000 Instagram followers, has decided to put her ten grade As at GCSE and her A levels to use by enrolling in a drama degree.
‘When you’re seen as a sex object it makes it harder to be taken seriously, because people think that’s all you can do,’ she says.
‘But I’ve always wanted to be a serious actress.
‘I spent my life thinking I had to please men, but the nuns gave me a different outlook, they want us to be happy and respect ourselves.
‘I worried they would judge me for what I do and how I look, but they didn’t and we developed the most genuine bond and friendship.’
Being in the confines of a convent has, it seems, spurred Paige (left) on to fulfil her ambition of seeing the world. Within months of returning home she had taken a job in retail on a cruise ship and is now sailing the oceans
That there is more to life than taking selfies and hoping thousands of strangers will compliment your appearance is nothing that Gabriella’s parents – her father runs a financial advisory business and her mother is a gymnastics coach and children’s author – haven’t told their daughter many times before.
But, somehow, hearing it from women who have devoted their lives to God had an impact that no amount of parental support, or pleading, was able to achieve.
‘The nuns helped me to realise that we’re all different and special and that I’m good enough just as I am. I left the convent feeling like a weight had been lifted off me.’
Being in the confines of a convent has, it seems, also spurred Paige on to fulfil her ambition of seeing the world. Within months of returning home she had taken a job in retail on a cruise ship and is now sailing the oceans.
‘I used to do whatever I felt like, without caring about other people’s opinions,’ she says. ‘Since my time in the convent my family has remarked on me being less selfish and not so materialistic.
‘Life is for living, not just recording on Instagram, so I decided to stop just thinking and talking about travelling and get on with it.’
Tyla, meanwhile, who spent a staggering £40,000 a year on designer clothes, shoes and bags, has learnt to be more frugal and pick up bargains in charity shops after being taken to one in Norfolk by the nuns.
While she came out with good intentions to offer her services in charity shops and soup kitchens, she admits she hasn’t yet got around to doing either.
The former office manager has her own house, opposite her mother, a mental health nurse, who is divorced from her father, an IT company boss.
Tyla’s greatest ambition is to work in TV and she’s hoping that appearing in the series will lead to her big break.
However, she acknowledges, there have been other perks.
‘One of the sisters sent me a postcard for my birthday,’ says Tyla, squealing. ‘I now have nuns as friends – that’s something I never thought I’d say.’
And the feeling is surely mutual.
‘They are wonderful, beautiful people who we think about in our prayers,’ says Sister Francis.
‘The girls opened my eyes to how intelligent, confident people can go the wrong way in life and, of course, we want to know how they’re getting on, so we stay in touch via a group chat on WhatsApp called WWSS – What Would Sister Say?’
How thoroughly modern. The influences, it seems, have cut both ways.
Bad Habits, Holy Orders starts on Channel 5, Thursday, October 19, at 10pm