The Mersey Monastery Murders
St. Basil’s Monastery, 1912 - 1992
Brother Charles, the Abbot of the abbey church of St. Basil, sat in his office, little more than a broom cupboard in size, finalising the abbey’s accounts for the previous month. Once a grand series of buildings, the original abbey had been virtually destroyed in the 16th century during King Henry VIII’s reign, under the edict that led to the dissolution of the monasteries. This was part of his revenge against the Roman Catholic Church for the Pope’s refusal to allow him to divorce his queen, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to provide him with a male heir. The Act of Supremacy, passed in 1534 (woe betide any English noble who voted against Henry’s wishes), would lead to the Reformation and the creation of the Anglican Church, with Henry as its head.
Once a grand collection of buildings, the Benedictine monastery at one time comprised the church, a dormitory, cloister, refectory, a superb library, and even a school where the monks would provide a basic education to some of the local children, boys only of course. Girls were not considered to be in need of formal education during the Middle Ages. Any such education they did receive would be undertaken at home, and might have included instruction in reading, sewing, and for the lucky daughters of the wealthy, the ability to write. Following the dissolution, all that remained of the original buildings was the shell of the church and a few ruined walls.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the church was renovated, a new dormitory was built and a new though small community of Benedictine monks once again took up residence at St. Basil. Standing in open ground, a few miles from the modern city of Liverpool, the ‘new’ monastery was very different to the original, which existed when the population of Liverpool stood at only a few hundred, and the borough, (it didn’t become a city until 1880), comprised mostly agricultural workers.
Now, in the early years of the 20th century, the partially rebuilt St. Basil once again provided a school for the local children and the monks whose needs were few, led a self-sufficient life funded mostly by the sale of the produce, vegetables and fruit, grown in their gardens.
The church, open to all, was generally well-attended and the monks of St. Basil had become a familiar sight around the modern suburb of the city known as Grassendale, which was gradually growing into an affluent community where the well-off members of the local population were keen to build their mansions and grand villas.
Brother Charles’ eyes were growing tired. He finally decided that working on the accounts would be a task best suited to being completed in daylight, and not bent over his desk working by candlelight. At the age of seventy-five, his eyes weren’t quite as good as they once were. He rose from his straight-backed, hard wood chair and stretched. The clock on the wall that faced him informed the Abbot that it was almost nine p.m. Time to put the papers and the books away and retire for the night; he took a minute to arrange the ledgers and receipts, etc., ready to continue in the morning.
Daily life began early for Charles and the small community of twelve monks who lived, worked, and shared their lives with him in their small religious community. Their day began at five a.m. each day, which explained why all the other brothers in the community were already asleep in their cells. Satisfied all was as it should be, Charles stepped towards the doorway and suddenly felt a crushing pain in his chest, accompanied by further pains, which seemed to begin in his neck and extended down his left arm.
Charles cried out, but there was no one to hear him, no one except his God, who swiftly reached out to claim the soul of his devoted follower. As Brother Charles breathed his last, and the darkness rushed out to envelop his final seconds on earth, he had no knowledge of the fact that—as he fell to the floor—his flailing arm had knocked over the candle that burned upon his desk.
The gentle flame of the candle managed to ignite the carefully placed pile of receipts on the desk. Within no more than sixty seconds, the flames had spread, consuming everything they touched, which eventually included the body of the faithful servant of God. Unfortunately, the dormitory, which was at the rear of the church, where the rest of the monastic community slept, was too far away for anyone to hear or see the conflagration—until the flames, fanned by the wind, reached in through the opened burning roof. Quickly, they spread to the adjoining buildings. Soon, they engulfed every building within close proximity.
By the time one of the brothers woke to the awful sound of the church roof collapsing in on itself, all that remained standing apart from the dormitory was the small school building. The local fire brigade, such as it was, made up mostly from volunteers from the neighbouring area, and was small and inefficient. They had no up-to-date firefighting equipment and could do more than pour water upon the ashen remains of the monastery buildings, in hopes of preventing a stray spark spreading flames to any remaining buildings.
Soon after the fire, St. Basil once again lay wrecked and disused, and would stay in its distressed state for almost a century before life returned to the abandoned monastery. In 1992, a new religious community rose, like a phoenix from the ashes as the Priory of St. Emma was established, complete with a restored rebuilt church that looked even more gothic in appearance than its predecessor, along with a small mixed-gender community of monks and nuns, unusual but not unknown among the Benedictines.
With hard work, led wonderfully by its new Prior, Father Gerontius, the priory soon flourished; the tragedies of the past that appeared to have haunted the site of St. Basil, became nothing more than distant memories. The millennium came and went, and the small community grew and quickly became fully integrated into the community of Grassendale, an enclave of wealth in the suburbs of modern Liverpool. The good works of the monks and nuns that made up the growing religious community endeared them to the local populace and to the outside world. The Priory of St. Emma, which by tradition the locals still referred to as the Monastery, gave off an aura of a community at peace with itself and with the world. All of this, therefore, made the events that would transpire in 2006, even more difficult to believe.
The Priory of St. Emma, April 2005
Spring had arrived early, or so it appeared to the members of the community at St. Emma. The first week of April had begun with an unseasonal warm spell, temperatures creeping above average for that time of year.
With the clocks having gone forward an hour to British summertime the previous weekend, Brother Ignatius and Sister Paulette were taking advantage of the slightly lighter evenings to plant vegetable seeds in the kitchen garden. They were surrounded by borders of daffodils, mostly yellow, but some were an unusual white, tinged with pink, at the petal edges. These borders, as well as being decorative, helped protect the young seedlings when they began to appear, affording them protection from strong winds blowing in from the coast. The daffodils would soon be replaced by tulips, the bulbs having been planted by Ignatius three years previously. They now grew each year and maintained a constant splash of colour in the kitchen garden. Every few yards, rose bushes stood, as yet bare, but with new growth buds already showing, ensuring a supply of beautiful flowers as the spring turned to summer. The floral borders, interspersed with various hues of pansies and violas, would surround the well-laid out kitchen garden with dazzling colour.
For now though, cabbages and cauliflowers were the order of the day, and the older monk and slightly younger nun, utilising a couple of kneeling pads to protect their knees, chatted amiably as they worked.
“I do so love the feeling one gets from planting these innocuous little seeds and then seeing them grow into full-grown plants in just a few short months, don’t you?” Sister Paulette asked her colleague as she tamped down earth over another row of cabbage seeds.
“Yes indeed, Sister,” Brother Ignatious replied. “Before I joined the order, I was a gardener by profession, and the way nature works has always fascinated me.”
“I always wondered if you had special skills in the garden,” the little nun, no more than five feet tall, said. “You always seem to know all there is to know about the best way to plant things and how to cultivate the growing crop.”
“I’m pleased you think so,” he said as he opened another packet of seeds. “Father Gerontius was quick to put me in charge of the kitchen garden once he became aware of my previous life.”
“Did you tell him about being a gardener?”
“Oh no, Sister, that would not have been the correct thing to do. The Father found out from reading my personal records once they arrived, and I was pleased to accept the responsibility when he offered it to me. I can be far more productive here in the soil than I could be, for example, working as a cook in the kitchens. I’d be more likely to poison someone than give them a healthy meal.”
The two laughed at Ignatius’ remark.
“It’s true that Father Gerontius always seems to find the right person for each job around the priory though, isn’t it?” Paulette asked.
“Yes, it is,” the monk replied, “but then, I suppose that’s why he was placed in charge of the place, after all. What did you do before taking the veil, Sister? You’re very young, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Paulette smiled, and laughed softly at Ignatius’ comment. “I think you’ll find I’m older than you think, Brother,” she grinned. “I’m actually twenty-four, but I have always been taken for being younger than my years. For what it’s worth, I always wanted to be a nun but, when I left school, they told me I had to be eighteen to begin my training to become a nun. So, wanting to make sure I could be useful when I eventually did take the veil, I went to college and studied horticulture for two years.”
“Aha,” said Ignatius, “so that’s why you ended up out here planting seeds with me.”
“I guess so. Father Gerontius told me I could be very useful helping in the gardens and, to be honest, I love it. It makes me feel close to nature and to God’s creation of earth itself.”
The pair continued the conversation for another ten minutes or so, until all the seeds in Ignatius’ tray had been planted. Ignatius looked up and saw the last remains of sunshine slowly melting into the distant horizon. Evening had fallen and the work could wait until the next day before they moved on to the next prepared seedbed.
“Time to give up for the day, I think,” the monk said, rising to his feet, placing his hands on his hips, and stretching his back to ease the stiffness that had formed in his muscles.
Sister Paulette gathered her small collection of gardening tools and placed everything in an old-fashioned wicker basket. Together, the two gardeners made their way from the kitchen garden to the refectory, where they’d partake of the evening meal ahead of taking part in evening prayers, before retiring for the night to their own rooms, or cells, where they would usually remain until morning.
The priory very much adhered to the standard layout of a typical Benedictine monastery, with most of the building situated within a cloister, or courtyard, which served as an area through which everyone passed on the way to various locations within the priory. The rebuilt church stood on the north side of the cloister, facing east, this being important in preventing the church from blotting out the sun from the courtyard. Next to the church stood the sacristy and the chapter house, where the monks and nuns held chapter meetings. In one marked difference from the traditional layout, the dormitories, one each for the monks and the nuns, stood to one side; the latrines were located close by, for obvious reasons. Apart from the church, the rest of the buildings had a more modern appearance as they’d been built with practicality in mind, not aestheticism, and the whole site had been created in an overall L-shaped formation.
The kitchen garden stood aside from the main buildings of the priory. To reach the refectory, Brother Ignatius and Sister Paulette had to exit the garden by walking to the end of the path they’d been working beside, and make a sharp left turn onto another gravel path that led through an archway of ornamental ivy to the gateway that led back into the courtyard.
As they turned, walking slowly and enjoying the sky, tinged pink by the setting sun, they could make out a shape on the path twenty or so yards ahead. As they drew closer, they could clearly see that it was the figure of a man. Worried, in case one of their brethren had fallen and been hurt, they increased their pace.
Brother Ignatious called out as they drew close. “Hello, are you alright? Is something wrong?”
They could see that it was indeed a member of their order, or at least a man dressed in the habit of the order, his back towards them, and his body curled up in a foetal position. Fearing the worst, that one of the brothers had fallen and hurt himself, or worse still, suffered a heart attack or similar, Ignatius placed a hand on Sister Paulette’s shoulder, and instructed her to stay where she was while he checked it out first.