Churches and wells were used by the general population for worship. Priories and abbeys–monasteries in other words–in early Christianity served the same purpose they did in the later middle ages, in that they were places where actual monks and nuns lived. However, these monasteries were often founded by the same saints as the churches and wells.
If you recall from the video about St. Cybi two weeks ago, he is credited with the creation of a healing well on the Llyn Penninsula, but he established a monastery at Holyhead on Anglesey. The same was true of St. Seiriol, who had a well at Penmon but also established a monastery there and on Puffin island. Also working in the same time period on Anglesey alone were St. Meched and St. Caffo, both of whom founded monasteries of their own.
In this time period, the church as a vocation was not only popular by modern standards, but commonplace. People could join a monastery or a convent at any time in their lives. Often they did so later in life, after already marrying and having children. Priests in this time weren’t necessarily celibate either. In the Irish church, in fact, being a nun or a monk was not necessarily a barrier to marriage. Scholars refer to Irish monasticism as ‘permeable’ in that the monasteries were open to allowing students and children within the walls for an education, without requiring them to become monks. These students were then allowed to leave and live within the community, and were welcomed back in their old age to retire in peace. This style of monasticism allowed for the monastery to connect with, and become a part of, the community at large and likely was one of the reasons Ireland so easily converted to Christianity.
This permeability appears to have been less true in Wales, but one scholar writes that “When thousands left the world and became monks, they very often did so as clansmen, dutifully following the example of their chief. Bishoprics, canonries, and parochial benefices passed from one to another member of the same family, and frequently from father to son. Their tribal character is a feature which Irish and Welsh monasteries had in common.” In other words, “religious sites tied to family lands tended to be run like family businesses between a small number of land-owning Welsh families.”
These are very different qualities from the monasteries in the later middle ages, which were centrally organized according to the rule of St. Benedict, for example, and owed allegiance to mother houses in France or Italy.
There is only one convent of nuns dating to the 6th century, which is that of St. Gwenffrewi, known more commonly as Winifred. It’s her story and the well and abbey she founded, that we’ll be talking about next week.