On Valentine’s Day, here’s a tale to warm your heart. A story of love under pressure, with the Bar Convent playing a key role.
“The Belgian Soldier, Philippe Magnery, was married to Emilie Degueldre at the Church of the English Martyrs. A little Wedding Breakfast was given afterwards at the Convent. The newly-married couple drove to Kensington St, where a small house had been provided for them by the Refugee Committee. The parties had been engaged before leaving Belgium.”
So notes the Bar Convent daily diary for December 1914, which can be found in the convent archives. These diaries served a very practical purpose, enabling the sisters to keep track of important visitors, school field trips, dates and times of exams and so on. Looking back, the diaries also present a unique perspective on life throughout this period, locally, nationally and internationally, seen through the eyes of the Community at the Bar Convent.
Particularly during this centenary year of the end of the Great War the diaries are a detailed record of daily life in York during this devastating conflict, the worst experienced by ordinary British citizens since the Civil War of the 1640s. However, the entries are often very brief, with little or no context. In the case of the intriguing entry we opened with, very little further information is given. Why is a Belgian wedding taking place in York? Why is there a Belgian soldier here in the first place? How did the convent become involved in this?
As the German forces advanced through Belgium in the summer of 1914, thousands of Belgians fled to the safety of nearby Britain. Approximately 250,000 Belgians arrived into ports all around this country between August and December 1914. A Belgian refugee who had settled in Torquay was even said to have inspired Agatha Christie to create her beloved fictional detective Hercule Poirot. Large numbers of Belgian refugees made York their temporary home during this period, and the garden village of New Earswick housed a number of families.
Equally, the convent had a specific role to play in the war effort that can cast further light on our intriguing entry. As early as September 1914, the sisters had made an offer to have a military hospital at the convent. This was approved by local military authorities and by 16 October 1914 the first wounded soldiers had arrived at the convent’s hospital, which had been set up in the newly built Concert Hall, still used by the school today. It flourished until late 1917, served by the sisters, nurses from York County Hospital and several volunteers from the local VAD. Nearly 400 patients were treated there during those three years.
Initially the convent treated wounded Belgian soldiers, brought to Britain from the Front, and it is quite likely that Philippe was one of these. Although we know very little about Emilie, it is wonderful to know that the convent was able to help in their long-awaited wedding. The entry also hints at the local networks with which the convent was linked – the nearby Catholic Church of English Martyrs where the ceremony took place; the use of the Convent for the wedding reception; the local branch of the Refugee Committee who were able to arrange accommodation for the couple on Kensington Street.
Philippe and Emilie remained in York until at least 1917, giving birth to 2 daughters: Helen, born in late 1915; and Emilie, born in the summer of 1917.
No further records of the family have been found after this date – perhaps they returned to Belgium? If you know any more, please get in touch! Nonetheless, it is lovely to find these tiny pieces of information that can give us a sense of the huge impact that the convent, and the sisters themselves, were able to have on the people and the community around them.
Please note, access to the archives and library is by appointment only, and at the discretion of the Congregation of Jesus. If you would like to use our collections, please email our Special Collections Manager, Dr Hannah Thomas, at firstname.lastname@example.org