When 15-year-old Eleanor Stewart arrived at Wantage’s Icknield School (now King Alfred’s) in 1959 – few people would have predicted her future career path.
But three years after she moved to Childrey, the teenager announced to the consternation – and unbridled hilarity of her mates – she intended to become a Nun.
Eleanor’s incredible story from Nun to Mum is detailed in her books, Kicking the Habit and New Habits, which tell how Sister Eleanor moved to Liverpool in the 1960s – at the height of Beatlemania – to work as a midwife in one of the most deprived areas of the city.
She draws back the curtain on the hidden life of the convent and the remarkable diversity of the women who have felt themselves called to God. From learning the art of turkey plucking, to attending births in appalling poverty-stricken conditions, to being reprimanded for her use of tampons – seen as ‘not appropriate’ for a nun – Stewart gives an engaging account of life behind her long white habit and veil.
With many similarities to the TV series, Call the Midwife, Stewart tells how being surrounded by fertility and watching umpteen babies being born, she started to yearn to be a mother herself.
After nearly eight years as a nun, she left the convent, and – in her own words – “went a bit wild,” picking up an STD on the way.
When she finally met the man of her dreams, her past caught up with her and she realised she would never have a child of her own. Instead, the couple faced a battle to adopt two children.
Eleanor Stewart has fond memories of moving to Childrey in 1959, after she and her family returned from Hong Kong.
She spent one term at Icknield School, where poet laureate John Betjeman’s wife Penelope gave RE lessons to all the Catholic pupils.
Stewart recalls: ‘Eight years in a convent was a wonderful time in my life but when I left I caught hold of the tail end of the swinging sixties and swung on it with gusto.
‘My monochrome life exploded into a dazzling polychrome existence and for a time I lost my head. I have no regrets but had to take responsibility for the consequences of my wild life. Infertility is hard to come to terms with and the adoption process is no walk in the park, but thanks to a brave and loving husband, my children and my grandchildren are my reward.’