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Bad Habits, Holy Orders: the inside story of the TV series

PUBLISHED: 15:22 03 November 2017

Channel 5 show Bad Habits was filmed at the Sacred Heart Convent in Swaffham. Pictured are sister Michaela Switaj and model Gabby Ryan. Picture: Ian Burt

Channel 5 show Bad Habits was filmed at the Sacred Heart Convent in Swaffham. Pictured are sister Michaela Switaj and model Gabby Ryan. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

As the Sisters in a Swaffham convent prepare to unveil the last episode of the reality show they signed up for, TV Editor Stacia Briggs discovered that it wasn’t just the party girls who learned lessons from the experience.

Just off the high street, but in many ways a thousand miles from the modern world, the Daughters of Divine Charity Convent in Swaffham is an oasis of calm in a hectic world.

Or it was, until the peace and serenity of the hallowed rooms and sacred spaces was shattered by a gaggle of young women who had applied to Channel 5 to take part in a reality TV show that promised them “a spiritual journey”. The journey, as it turned out, began with a trip along the A47.

The order of the Daughters of Divine Charity was founded in Vienna in 1868 and the first Sisters arrived in West Norfolk from Austria just before the outbreak of war in 1914 and established themselves in a house at Providence Row before moving in 1920 to their present home in Mangate Street where, by 1924, they were teaching 50 pupils.

Today, the Sisters run a school and nursery in the town and a care home in Hunstanton – in their words, they make God’s love visible and strive “to do good, to give joy, to make happy and to leave all to heaven”. When it comes to culture clashes, it’s difficult to imagine a greater one than that between the Sisters and their guests. But miraculously, the women all got on famously (with only a few small blips).

Bad Habits, Holy Orders, is a four-part Channel 5 series which ends next Thursday and involves a group of thoroughly modern misses entering a convent for a month in a bid to find what is missing from their lives, banishing social media, alcohol, swearing and immodest outfits in the process.

Gabbi, from Norfolk, is a selfie-obsessed model, 23-year-old Paige arrives in red thigh-high boots and a mini skirt showing her Nicki Minaj leg tattoo, Sarah is a booze-loving nightclub hostesse, Rebecca is a Geordie clubber who drinks to oblivion and Tyla is a podium dancer from Leeds who spent £40,000 on her appearance last year.

The Sisters receive a £25 a month personal allowance, have limited access to the internet, pray for around five hours a day, don’t watch TV, don’t wear make-up, don’t swear, own nothing of monetary value, are chaste and only very occasionally enjoy a rare glass of Lambrusco.

Sister Thomas More, 85, who admitted that she had shoes that were older than any of the young women who came to stay, said that she had not been particularly excited by the prospect of the convent being overrun with women whose consumption of wine didn’t stop with at communion.

“I really wasn’t sure it was a good idea but I was talked into it by some of the younger Sisters and I decided that if it would do some good for the girls and maybe for others in their position, then it was part of God’s plan,” she said.

“We are used to dealing with young people because we run a school so we’re not completely divorced from the reality of life for young women such as those that stayed with us, but it’s still a shock to see just how they were living their lives. I think it’s very difficult for young people growing up in today’s society.”

She explained that her own route to the convent had started when she was a teacher.

“I used to go dancing and out with my friends and had a nice life but at the back of my mind I knew that I wanted to join a convent, but it didn’t feel like a sacrifice, it felt like a gift. What we hope is that the girls went away realising that giving is better than taking and that life doesn’t need to be so…” Sister Thomas More searched for the words, “…over the top about everything. I hope they learned how to share and that possessions and vanity don’t bring happiness: happiness must come from within.

“I think they were frightened to stand out by doing what they felt in their hearts and that now they have a little more strength to do what is right. I am very glad that I took part because we did witness a change in them and they were such lovely girls with good hearts who have so much to offer the world.

“I have no regrets about my decision to give my life to God. No one’s life is ever happy all the time but I am surrounded by love: from God, from the Sisters, from the people we work with, so no, I have no regrets whatsoever.”

Sister Linda Pergagaj entered the Sisterhood at the age of 20, and after two years in noviciate – and like her fellow Sisters - professed the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. She has been with the Daughters of the Divine Charity for 27 years.

“I was 13 when I knew this was the life for me. I spent time with Sisters in Croatia and when I was 18 I was ready – I can’t explain how I knew that I wanted to be a Sister, all I can say is that God chose me and you can’t say no to God!” she said.

“I knew that this was what would make me happy. There are sacrifices to be made, but in many walks of life there are sacrifices that have to be made in order to achieve what you want – sometimes I struggle with the early mornings, but if I am very tired or ill, I will stay in bed. I listen to my body and know when I have to stop.

“When this idea of the girls coming to stay with us was suggested, I really knew that God was working through it and giving us a method to reach young people who need help and spiritual guidance. I never asked them questions about their lives, if they wanted to talk to me, I was always there, but my role was to listen without judgement.

“They melted my heart: my goodness, here we had five people out of the whole of England and it made me realise there are so many more that we could reach out to. It opened my eyes to the pressures that young women face. I can’t just say that I enjoyed it, because that’s not enough: I felt blessed and privileged to be part of it, I really felt that this was where I was supposed to be in order to help these young women – it was like proper mission.

“Those young ladies helped us as much as we helped them. When we saw them again months after the filming, we were so happy to be reunited because they became like part of the family – we will never forget them or what they taught us about ourselves.

“Eight of the Sisters and all five of the girls have set up a WhatsApp group on our mobile phones called What Will Sister Say. It means that there’s still a link there, that we can still all talk to each other and the girls can reach out to us if they need them. And we will be there for as long as they need us.”

Bad Habits, Holy Orders is on Channel 5 next Thursday at 10pm.

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