Holy carp: how fish farming saved a Polish nunnery – The Guardian

Sister Faustyna is a little hunched from the strain of the Christmas rush. She has spent every day of the past few weeks outside in the cold, running up a few steps to the scales with bags full of fish, weighing them and handing them out to customers. At Christmas, Poles are obsessed with carp, a freshwater fish that is mandatory on every Christmas table, traditionally served fried or jellied with vegetables.

In Staniątki, where Benedictine nuns live as they have done for centuries in 800-year-old St Adalbert Abbey, the customers pay whatever they think appropriate for their festive fish. “It’s a voluntary contribution,” says sister Stefania Polkowska, the abbess on a mission to save her nunnery from ruin.

For this idyllic medieval abbey, in a village of roughly 3,000 people, 16 miles south-east of Kraków, is also the site of financial trouble. Where 60 nuns used to live, only 13 are left, and most of them are well over 70. Despite that, the nuns are welcoming and generous, treating their guests to homemade gingerbread and tea.

Sister Stefania at her fish pond



Sister Stefania at her fish pond

In 2009, when sister Stefania arrived in Staniątki, the nunnery was being maintained with the retirement pensions of the older nuns and offerings collected during Sunday mass. The roof was about to collapse, the inside of the building was cold and damp, and some ancient frescoes were in danger of being lost.

“I prayed to Saint Anthony [patron saint of lost things] to help me find a way to save us,” says sister Stefania.

Her prayers were answered when, soon afterwards, she decided to clear two forgotten ponds in the garden. Inspired by a local fish farmer, the nuns started breeding carp – and the fish became an instant success. The customers, including Irena and Jerzy, whom I met queueing on a frosty Wednesday afternoon this week, say the carp taste great, but that supporting the nuns is what really brings them to Staniątki.

“Our beautiful building needs all the money we can get, and it’s never quite enough,” says sister Stefania.

Irena and Jerzy, with sister Faustyna and their bag of festive fish



Satisfied customers … Irena and Jerzy, with sister Faustyna and their bag of festive fish

The hustle and bustle of the fish trade contrasts with the contemplative stillness of the rest of the abbey, where, behind thick metal doors, the nuns spend most of the day in prayer. Their only recreation time is at 7.15pm, when they’ll often opt for a game of Scrabble. The 13 sisters also tend a large greenhouse and have cows, dogs, cats, a beehive and a donkey named Michał, who follows sister Stefania around like a dog. Their motto is Ora et Labora, pray and work.

Visitors can stay in modest rooms in a former school, gaining rare access to the private garden. They can interact with nuns outside, help with chores, or simply spend some quiet time in a beautifully renovated gothic church. The sisters are organising a contemplative New Year’s Eve celebration, but visitors of any faith or none are welcome at any time of year.

Simple en suite bedrooms cost from £20 a night, including three substantial meals a day (benedyktynki.eu). Staniątki is easily reached by train from Kraków

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