Sister Agatha at the Bar convent in York
Britain's busiest nun?
By Jane Downs
She received her calling when she was just 20. Whilst Mother Superior at England's oldest living convent, she met John Paul Getty and persuaded him to part with a sizeable sum to save it. York's newest Tourism Ambassador doesn't mind a challenge!
Meeting Sister Agatha Leach, you'd be forgiven for thinking she's a good ten years younger than her actual age of 77.
York's Bar convent dates from the 1760s
When I arrive in the entrance to the Bar convent in York, a place which has shaped Sister Agatha almost as much as she's shaped it, she's flitting about talking to staff and guests in a very energetic manner. She greets me warmly and leads me through several corridors and up a flight of stairs to a meeting room. Whilst I'm explaining that I'd like to talk to her about her recent award (she was crowned York's most prolific ambassador this spring) and then take some pictures, she's listening intently whilst somehow managing to organise rubbish disposal, enquire after the catering arrangements for a conference and tend to a house plant which looks a little peaky.
You get the impression that this is a lady who gets things done.
Born in Dover, Sister Agatha came to York in the seventies after she joined what was then the Institute of the Blessed Virgin. She still remembers clearly the day her calling came to her. She was just 20, and writing a letter, when it happened.
"I was just suddenly so sure. It was very clear that that's what I had to do. I finished the letter, though."
The entrance hall is ornately decorated
Beginning her religious training shortly after that, Sister Agatha discovered another passion - cooking.
"I worked in a school kitchen helping another sister make 50 puddings. I remember it was a very happy time. We worked in silence and if we were making an apple pie one day, the previous evening we would peel the apples to the accompaniment of spiritual reading. There is nothing like cooking to learn how to cook better."
A floor tile mosaic greets visitors
After being sent to York's Bar convent, she says she fell in love with the city. Although she quickly settled in North Yorkshire, her life was far from dull. During Sister Agatha's time as Mother Superior at the convent, big changes were afoot: and it wasn't all plain sailing. In 1985, the grammar school there became a comprehensive, something which highlighted a bit of financial naivety on her part.
"The school became a comprehensive school which was wonderful, but we were left with this very large building. I'd used up lots of money re-organising it, but I didn't realise that one would have to have staff to run it! People were asking me what we'd do: did I want the convent to continue? Thankfully, on one occasion at that time my nephew and I were on a train to Scotland and sitting opposite us was a Theologian. We started chatting to him, and when he got off we stayed in touch. It turned out he knew the millionaire Paul Getty, and when he learned of our financial problems, I was able to meet the man himself.
The Blessed Virgin statue at the convent
"I was very nervous, but I knew we wouldn't be able to keep the convent open if he didn't help us. I basically just came out with it. I asked him outright for the money we needed. He said no-one had ever been that direct with him and that he found it refreshing. He gave us the money... and here we are. I met a murderer on a train once, too. But we'd best not go into that."
Bar convent is England's oldest living convent, run by the Congregation of Jesus Charitable Trust. Established as a school for Catholic girls in 1686, on the current site. Now the convent houses a B&B, coffee shop and museum.
But as well as her involvement with the day-to-day running of the convent, Sister Agatha helps with the older sisters in the infirmary and works with the Haran Project, a Leeds-based multi faith scheme which cares for people with dementia.
It's a cause close to her heart: "It really is fantastic. They're hoping to build care facilities where people with Alzheimer's and other diseases can worship together, whatever their faiths and despite their health problems."
On top of all this, Sister Agatha finds time to promote York and all it has to offer. It was her commitment to the city that led to her being named the city's ambassador of the year at the 2008 Tourism Awards.
Sister Agatha Leach
At the awards, the chief executive of Visit York, Gillian Cruddas, said Sister Agatha "goes out of the way to do that bit extra" for the city, talking to journalists and travel writers and generally selling the city she loves with her infectious enthusiasm for it.
Surely she must be thinking about putting her feet up at some point?
Sister Agatha regards me with a mischevious grin. "Do you know what farmers and The Queen have in common?" she asks. "They never retire. And neither do nuns."
With that, she's off into the courtyard in hot pursuit of a plastic bag that she's noticed blowing about on the lawn. It's making the place look messy.
last updated: 20/05/2008 at 10:17