St Anne's Abbey
The abbey of St Anne in Acre is home to what is at present the Holy Land's largest community of Benedictine nuns, under the leadership of their Mother Superior Dorothea of Bethany.
In the year 1104 Baldwin I conquered Acre for Christendom; by the year 1105 the walls of what would become the convent of St Anne were rising from a part of the city lately burnt to the ground, and nuns were gathering around the widowed and wealthy Countess of Nevers (née Richilde de Saint-Omer), who would be their first abbess.
The Countess was at the time under the impression that she was returning to the Holy Land to die. She intended the founding of St Anne's to be the last act in a life which had been notable for its foolish deeds as well as, in later years, its pious ones. She certainly didn't expect to live another twenty-three years as abbess and see her little flock grow to include more than thirty choir nuns and a dozen lay sisters.
Perhaps because since its earliest days St Anne's has attracted ladies of a certain standing who wished to leave the world, but not all the way, its abbess was in 1148 reprimanded by the papal authorities for the fashionable dress of her nuns and the unnecessarily comfortable life they lived. Her successor was chastised likewise in 1159. However, with the passing of the generations the nuns more or less mended their ways, and have attracted no more such criticism.
The fall of Acre
Shortly before Acre fell to Saladin in 1187, a group of some forty nuns of St Anne's took ship for Tyre. They were inspired to this action by the appearance of the saint herself in the dreams of their abbess (pro tempore) Fidelia of Acre three nights in succession.
Their remaining sisters, mostly the elderly and infirm and those caring for them, and some for whom their oath of stability meant more than their lives, met various unpleasant fates at the hands of Acre's conquerors. They are spoken of now as "our martyred sisters", and letters have been written to Rome proposing the canonisation of the bravest of their number, Sr (something), who was cut down (something something something really gruesome).
In light of its large and pleasant common areas, and beautiful gardens, the abbey was commandeered by one of the city's lordly Egyptian occupiers to house his harem. Some of the improvements made to the property during his tenancy have been retained (e.g. the enlarged baths and the intricately-carved screens replacing previously plain shutters) on the grounds that it would be the wrong kind of piety to go to unnecessary expense in order to appear humble. It is understood, however, that the frescoes have been covered in fresh white plaster.
The exile in Tyre
The nuns of St Anne's spent most of the four years of their exile in the erstwhile summer palace of a lady who had long been a friend to their order. Bits of it fell down at irregular intervals. There were two fatalities, also an outbreak of lice, of which no one who was there ever speaks.
It should not be thought they were without good fortune: during this time they formed a greater community with a similar group of refugees from the convent of St Lazarus in Bethany, under the leadership of Abbess Dorothea, who has since the death of the old Abbess Ioveta in 1178 been regarded as the first among their order in the Holy Land.
When Acre was re-taken and the capital re-located there in 1191, the Benedictine nuns of Bethany and Acre re-established their community likewise, with Dorothea as abbess and Fidelia as her prioress. They brought home with them certain relics of great holiness which they had held in secret safekeeping, most importantly the bones of St Martha of Bethany. These were smuggled out of Bethany in hempen sacks, and repose now in a magnificent gilded casket donated for the purpose by one of the abbey's benefactors.
The church at St Anne's is a place of pilgrimage as never before; and the sisters, whose numbers grow steadily, are pleased to serve as hostesses to pilgrims low and high, as indeed St Martha herself was hostess to Jesus Christ.
The "blue sisters"
In token of their new unity, and in celebration of the resilience of their community, upon their return from Tyre the nuns of St Anne's cast off the slightly differing black garb of their two traditions. They now dress alike in a new habit fashioned by Mother Dorothea's decree and derived from a visionary dream in which one of their number saw rank upon rank of sisters receiving the benedictions of the Queen of Heaven, clad in the same supernal blue which she wore upon her throne.
The habit for choir nuns consists of a woolen tunic and scapular the shade of lapis lazuli, with a white linen guimpe and underveil, and a matching blue veil secured by a silver coronet. Lay sisters wear a darker, more serviceable blue, with sleeves cut less generously. Their fractionally shorter veils are held in place with circlets of braided white cord. Each sister, be she lay or choir, wears upon her left hand a silver ring, save the abbess, whose ring and coronet are of the finest gold.
When they venture out onto the streets of Acre, these nuns cut highly visible figures, and have been dubbed the "blue sisters".