Scholars date the origin of the female branch to the Order’s foundation in Jerusalem in the 11th century and to the first consecrated nuns of the Hospital of St Mary Magdalena. The nuns were needed in the hospitals to tend the female pilgrims and patients and were led by the Servant of God Agnese of Alix. Over time they increased in number and organisation; they continued to embrace the ideal and charisma of the Order of St. John and to spread out across most of Europe to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Holland and Rhodes.
Other historians give the year 1153 as the official date for the establishment of the Order’s female branch: it was then that Pope Eugene III approved the Sijena convent community, founded by Queen Sancha of Aragon, widow of Alfonso II, and her daughter Dulce. Thus one of the oldest communities of nuns in Christendom was born. At the beginning they were exclusively relatives of the Knights of the Order with the specific mission to pray for them all and for the Grand Master. As in the other monasteries in previous centuries, the nuns were called “Sorores” (like “Fratres” for the Knights).
The Monastery of St Ursula in Valletta, Malta was founded by Grand Master Verdalle in 1582, in the Grand Master’s Palace in Birgu, which had been left vacant since the Order established itself in Valletta. In 1595 the monastery was transferred to Valletta. The nuns were equal in rank to the chaplain brothers of the Order, observed the rules of the cloister, and were under the Grandmaster’s jurisdiction. In their religious solemn profession the nuns vow to observe the Rule of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, following the practice established at their foundation, which continues uninterrupted up to the present day.
For over 800 years the nuns of the Order of St.John of Jerusalem have been praying for the Order’s members and until the 19th century they were under the jurisdiction of the Grand Master. They have provided the Church with admirable models of sanctity such as St Ubaldesca Taccini (1136-1206), St Toscana Canoculi (1280-1343), St Flora di Beaulieu (c. 1300-1347). The beatification process is underway for Sister Patrocinio Chillida Manes and Sister Visitacion Solè Yvern, Spanish civil war martyrs.
“The mission of the Order of St.John of Jerusalem religious,” wrote the Servant of God Primitiva del SS. Sacramento, “is to give glory to God through personal sanctification, by observing the Holy Gospel, their vows, the Rule and the Constitution, by practising hospitality in the manner consented by papal enclosure and by praying for the sanctification of our brothers the Knights”. Despite being an enclosed order, in accordance with their tradition the Spanish nuns manage a house close to the monastery in which spiritual retreats are organised for visitors and parishioners.
The Spanish monastery of St Jean d’Acre at Salinas de Añana was founded when the Order was still present in Acre in the Holy Land. In Valletta, the monastery of St Ursula is one of the Republic’s historic monuments and a milestone in Malta’s religious life.
Please pray for the nuns as they carry out their spiritual tasks. And please give generously to support their continuing work.
For further information on the Order of Malta’ nuns on Malta: