Br Clark Berge SSF

Hilfield Friary is a special home: it’s a religious community that embraces vowed and non-vowed members, holds ecology, spirituality, and hospitality in a close embrace.

Br Clark Berge SSSF

What is life like at Hilfield Friary?

Br Clark Berge SSF lives at Hilfield Friary in Dorset, which part of the Society of St Francis (SSF). Its members seek to live out the Christian life following the inspiration of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. 

Hilfield Friary is a special home: it’s a religious community that embraces vowed and non-vowed members, holds ecology, spirituality, and hospitality in a close embrace. For the whole of its existence, it has stood out as a different kind of place. One hundred years ago this year, Franciscan brothers came to Hilfield and began a life of prayer, working on the land and offering hospitality to guests. Hilfield has always included people who haven’t taken vows as members of a religious order as part of the community, some on a more or less long-term basis, others who were more transient. One of the early leaders of the community referred to the wayfarers who came to stay as “brothers” and there are lots of stories of wayfarers, brothers and paying guests mingling together. No one was sure who was a bishop, and who was a wayfarer. In other words, it has always been a “colony of heaven.”

Who lives at Hilfield Friary?

Today, we are a community of four friars, and about 18 other people. Some are single, young volunteers who are here for a gap year, some are older people, married and single, who find their way here and live for several years; some are still here after 10 years. One 80-year-old resident came when he was 16. Our youngest resident is two years old. Her parents came as single volunteers about 10 years ago! Obviously, over the years Hilfield Friary has developed a rich community life welcoming people with different life experiences. 

At the heart of our life together is the chapel, and all community members gather for the Sunday Eucharist. The rest of the time community members are free to join the brothers as they wish. Our Franciscan spirituality is Gospel-based, Eucharistically centered, and embraces all creation. 

A very important part of our life outside chapel, yet no less sacred and part of our worship of God, is our conservation work. We work to develop habitat for other species by laying hedges, digging ponds, damming streams. Overall, it is a harmonious life. The humans live with a diverse range of animals—a herd of 10 cattle, some Dorset sheep, chickens and 5 pigs. Our current “farm-crisis” is the chickens have started to eat their own eggs! Caring for animals is never dull; we get to know the individual animals, living together in a sustainable way. We also practice awareness of wildlife—plants and animals—and work to conserve the precious wildlife that shares the 50 acres we all call home. We lay hedges to give habitat for different creatures, put birdhouses on the walls of our buildings, rotate grazing animals to give the wildflower meadows the best chance of blossoming abundantly. 

Living in Community

In many ways, we are a community that consciously chooses to do things differently from the rest of the world. Most notable perhaps is living with a regular pattern of daily worship! On bad days it can seem like a lot of work, the worship and the chores competing for our attention. But community life is also deeply rewarding, and the shared effort of working out our various challenges provides times of solidarity with each other as well as forcing us to grapple with the question: what is God doing here? The answer of course is to open our hearts and minds to these days, these times, these people. 

Being Franciscans, we are always ready for a celebration—birthday cakes at tea, evening socials, buffet suppers, games in the courtyard, walks in the countryside. Other distinguishing characteristics of our life include a commitment to “slow food” making and preparing what we eat from scratch—baking bread, butchering animals, growing and prepping a lot of vegetables and fruit. We are not self-sufficient, valuing the sense of also being part of other networks that tie us into society. We are not an island unto ourselves, but an integral part of the world. Conscious of our part in the larger economy of things, we tackle some of the pressing issues of our day as immediately as possible. Moving away from carbon fuel, especially gas and oil, we have a bio-mass boiler to provide heat and hot water. Care for that requires us to shovel woodchips, and other regular maintenance. Solar panels produce a considerable part of our electricity needs, and we can sell some of the excess back to the national power grid. One of our cars is electric, nourished from the solar panels. As finances make it possible, we will get more electric vehicles. 

One of the things many people ask about is who has the power in the community? We are very egalitarian, and decisions are discussed by the community as a whole at monthly meetings. Planning for each day happens at a morning diary meeting. Once the community has decided a course of action, it often falls to the elected leader, the Guardian, to see the decisions are implemented. It is important that designated department leaders for land and animals, vegetable and other gardens, building maintenance, hospitality for guests and the kitchen are able to oversee their work as they see fit.

A short video about Hilfield Friary

How did Hilfield Friary begin?

On 21st December 1921 Giles founded the Brotherhood of St Francis of Assisi here, to minister to homeless men. Major Lloyd was bursar, renting a cottage. In 1923 Brother Douglas replaced Giles. Arthur De Winton joined in 1923 and Kenneth in 1925, printing on the community’s press. The farm was too much, so in1925 the Vardy family rented a cottage and farmland leaving the community 17 acres and 3 houses. For the rest of the 1920s, Douglas worked with wayfarers in the garden, with bees and by selling produce in Dorchester, to pay the bills. This tiny group, Douglas, Arthur, Kenneth, and Charles became novices in 1931.

In 1936 Fr Algy, our other founder and quite different to Douglas, came as Guardian, while Douglas was largely away organising Homes of St Francis. Kenneth lived here until his death in 1991, doing many missions, while hundreds of brothers and residents came and went. A drawing of 1937 shows the community in action, an ‘electric plant’, swimming pool, and a basic wooden guest house. That year the BSFA merged with the Society of The Divine Compassion to form SSF. A 1939 census lists as living here- 11 friars, 12 novices and postulants, many of whom would join the Ambulance Corps, and over 30 residents. During the war, Owen started a school for maladjusted boys in Juniper House. It continued at nearby Hooke till 1992, keeping close links with us.

After Mr Vardy died, a national appeal bought the buildings and 21 acres. The rest of Flowers Farm became a separate entity. The cemetery was established, where 111 brothers and residents now rest. In 1964 Leo House was built on the site of the Industries Hut, and then Douglas House for Guests. Simon was estate manager. There were 28 professed brothers, as well as some novices, in 1966, and 13 brothers and 2 novices in 1985.The 1960s saw changes in chapel, now with a central altar and fewer offices.

Joining in 1940, Christopher ran the Home in the original Farmhouse until he died in 1969., Martin Sharp, Allan Wippell (here ‘39 –‘97), and other residents lived in the ‘Home’ for decades. We were once called Batcombe Friary, or the Home of St Francis, Cerne Abbas, but in 1976 became Hilfield Friary. There were many visitors, and school groups. Brothers on mission hitchhiked. While hundreds of brothers came and went, often for a year as novices before being posted elsewhere, some spent decades here. Sydney grew vegetables, Matthew made baskets, Patrick made habits, then was bursar, Roger kept bees. Vincent made habits and from the 1980s to 2020 created The Secret Garden. In the 1980s Juniper housed novices, Douglas guests, and Bernard men in rehabilitation. Wayfarers stayed in Giles house, with many at Christmas. Some ended their days here. Nobby Clark, one of the best remembered, left an autobiography. Over the years Scouts camped on our land. Almost every August since the 1960s the Family Camp and the Youth Camp have used our marquee, one camper never missing a year. 

By 2004 rural homelessness declined and there were fewer brothers. In 2006 Samuel re-established the community, at first called the Hilfield Project, to care for the land, as the climate crisis deepened. Douglas House became the house for young German volunteers, among others. Guests now stayed in Leo. By 2010 couples, and children, were living here long term as community members. Clark Berge became Guardian in 2018. Today there are 4 brothers here, with 20 other Community members.

Visiting Hilfield Friary

We welcome visitors and especially encourage young people age 18-30 to come for a year to share our life as volunteers. Some come professing no faith and discover God and the spiritual life. Some come for the conservation and find their idealism fortified with practical experience. Some come for the religious life and discover incredible richness in the gardens and woodlands. We are a gentle community. We hope you’ll come to meet us.

Society of St Francis
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