Ann Dover is a sparkly 83-year-old living in Petworth. But only a few, like her bank manager and solicitor, recognise her by that name. To everyone else, she is Sister Giles.
A few months ago, her second book, Circle Completed, was published, a sequel to The End and the Beginning which she wrote four years earlier, recounting her life as a member of an enclosed order of nuns, the Poor Clares, and the life she discovered outside when she left the convent at Arundel.
But, she insists, she didn’t ‘leap over the wall’. She remains closely associated with her order but, after an extended leave of absence to care for a dying friend, finally she was given dispensation from her vows of enclosure to live outside, although forbidden to wear her nun’s habit.
Her second book builds on the foundations of the first, illustrating how she has been able to make a new life while retaining the sense of her vocation.
She was 29 when she entered the order in 1958, signing up for its rules of poverty, prayer for mankind, and penance.
She had had theatrical training, had belonged to the BBC Repertory Company, worked as a secretary, and had broken off an engagement. She felt irresistibly drawn to a different life.
The nuns’ daily regime was strict. They wore brown habits and no shoes – except when they worked in the garden – and they never went beyond the convent grounds.
“An enclosed order is for penance and prayer so you could live as close to God as possible,” said Sister Giles, nibbling a ginger biscuit in the cosy two up, two down cottage which has been her home in Petworth for the past six years.
“How does that help the world? You never know who may be benefiting from other people’s prayers.
“What they would say you are doing to help the world is denying yourself pleasures and happiness so other people can benefit from what you are giving up. I absolutely believe that happens.”
In 1985, however, in her early 50s, she sought to continue living outside the convent permanently. Her sick friend had died, she had developed a sense of independence, had started to give talks – one, notably, to the inmates of Ford Prison – and to discover other people needed her care and counselling.
It had been with immense relief when the abbess of the convent had earlier recognised what she was doing outside was right for her and her personality. Now she had to choose a way of life and stick to it.
She still needed the support of the community but, having tasted freedom, she was motivated by what she could do. Her request for dispensation from enclosure was granted.
“I have tried to fulfil what I hoped was God’s inspiration,” she said.
In the process, she is the first to acknowledge, she has been fortunate. Generous offers meant she was never without somewhere to live. And a legacy from musician Shelagh Harper, for whom she cared for ten years until Shelagh’s death at 101, enabled her to buy the cottage in Petworth and invest for a modest income.
“I have had a wonderful life – the best of both worlds,” she said.
She still welcomes those who seek her guidance and gives her talks to all kinds of groups, sprinkling them with her sense of fun and mischief where appropriate.
“In a way I prefer talks to people with no faith,” she says. “They usually have it but they have forgotten where to look.”
One of her regular dates is at Duncton, where she is guest at the annual gathering of wives of retired parliamentarians.
She adds with a twinkle: “They pray for Parliament. I do say to them at times ‘I think you need to do a bit better’.”
n Circle Completed is published by The Memoir Club, reference ISBN 978-1-84104-521-4, price £9.99 and available at The Petworth Bookshop.