Nun who left everything to marry a monk was ‘unhappy’ in ‘hermit’ life, Sister says

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One brief interaction changed their lives forever: Sister Mary Elizabeth, born Lisa Tinkler, belonged to the Carmelite Roman Catholic religious order when she brushed sleeves with Friar Robert Opala, a Carmelite monk, in a convent in Preston, Lancashire. The 50-year-old described feeling “chemistry” which Robert clearly felt too as just a week later he asked for her hand in marriage. Although Lisa found it a difficult decision to make, one Sister who knew her has told that she had always felt the former nun was unhappy at the convent. 

Lisa, who was brought up in Middlesbrough, lived a devout life as a nun, having joined the at just 19 years old. In 2006, The Times reported that she became the youngest fully professed Carmelite nun at just 31 years old. 

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief programme, she described her life at the convent as akin to that of a “hermit”. Lisa would only see her mother four times a year, spent around an hour speaking each day, and lived a life of solitude, “always on her own in a cell”. 

Sister Teresa, who knew the pair well and has been a nun at the convent in Preston for more than 60 years, told  that she had a hunch that Lisa had outgrown the convent. 

The 88-year-old said: “I’m very fond of Sister Mary Elizabeth but I did feel that she wasn’t happy here. She reminded me of a butterfly trying to get through a closed window back into the garden. I think probably she’s done what was the right thing for her.”

This all changed when Robert asked her to leave monastic life to be his wife, despite him not knowing her birth name or even the colour of her hair that was hidden beneath her veil for years. 

They first felt a spark after they had been left alone eating, Lisa accidentally brushed his sleeve as they left, feeling a “jolt” go through her. She said: “I just felt a chemistry there, something, and I was a bit embarrassed. And I thought ‘gosh, did he feel that too?’ And as I let him out the door it was quite awkward.” 

A week later, she received Robert’s note asking her to marry him, and then took the plunge to reveal her newfound feelings to the prioress (the monastic superior nun) who was initially in disbelief that she could have fallen in love so quickly. 

Then in November 2015, she left and “never went back as Sister Mary Elizabeth”, a decision Sister Teresa said most of the other nuns were sympathetic towards. 

“Everybody’s conscience is their business and I think those two did what they thought was the right thing for them to do. One or two are still upset and feel that she should have stuck it out but most of us are sympathetic towards her.”

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The pair told the they both still miss elements of their monastic life with Lisa saying she would return to being a Carmelite nun in a heartbeat if it were not for Robert. 

Sister Teresa explained how a nun can choose to leave the Carmelite Order: After five to nine years, the Sister will make their final vow, known as a Perpetual Profession, and be given a gold ring which signifies her commitment to her Lord and becoming a “full member of the Congregation”. 

“You have to get permission from Rome to leave,” she continued. “The final vows used to be carried out after a shorter period of time but now it’s about nine years before you make your final vows because you promise to be a nun for the rest of your life. 

“If you find you can’t carry on with it, you can get released from those vows. But then the convent way of being would in all charity have to make sure that some sort of provision has been made for you, that you find somewhere to live with a job and that sort of thing.”

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She added: “[Lisa and Rober] fell in love and they weren’t planning to leave officially but in the end I think she couldn’t stand the tension any longer. But they did do everything properly after that, they both had all the necessary provisions.”

They now live in the village of Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire, where Robert, who grew up in Poland, is a Church of England vicar. Lisa is now a hospital chaplain of which Sister Teresa said she was “always fond”. 

Although it has not been an easy journey, the couple said that their love for Christ has remained constant, still “at the centre and comes before everything”. 

“All through your religious life, you’re told your heart is supposed to be undivided and given to God. Suddenly I felt like my heart was expanding to hold Robert, but I realised it also held everything else that I had. And I didn’t feel any different about God, and that was reassuring to me,” Lisa added.