‘I felt there was something missing’ How business owner who had it all gave up lavish lifestyle to become a friar on a remote island

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When Shani Ashley married her husband Craig, it was made all the more meaningful as her mum Anne Sanderson walked her down the aisle and her dad Martin Sanderson conducted the service.

And it was seen as a momentous occasion as, for many years, Martin’s family felt they had been sacrificed as part of his transition from a successful businessman – who in his 20s owned a thriving graphic design business, an impressive home, a BMW car and a motorbike – to a humble man of the cloth.

The 57-year-old divorced Anne in 1993, sold his successful business and left for Scotland’s remote Isle of Arran to live in solitude before eventually, becoming a Capuchin Franciscan Friar.



Martin when he first became a friar in 2002

But as Shani, 32, exchanged her wedding vows with marketing manager Craig, 40, at Our Lady and All Saints Church in Otley, West Yorkshire, in front of 40 guests, with Martin, an ordained deacon, declaring them husband and wife, it showed their lives had come full circle.

Shani, who manages Age UK, where she lives in York, said: “On the eve of the wedding, Dad and I had a heart to heart and spoke about everything we’d been through, how proud he is of me and how much he believes in me.

“It was a very personal service, Dad talked about all we’d been through, also joking about Craig and I and having everyone in stitches. He was in his element and spoke for about an hour and a half.

“It was the proudest moment for him.”



Shani and her dad Martin Sanderson

Shani said: “I thought he was all consumed by God. It felt like God had taken him away from me.”

Before finding religion, to outsiders, Martin had a wonderful life.

After falling in love with Anne, 54, a therapist and administrator, they ran away to Dumfries, Scotland, in 1987, to marry in a register office, going on to have Shani in 1988.

But, after a blissful three years as a family, Martin felt himself drifting away.

“I’d achieved everything I’d always been told would make me happy,” he said. “I had a home, a family, a good job and money, but I felt there was something missing.”

He continued: “So, I spent more and more time at work. We were winning big accounts, which was my focus. This caused stress and tension in my marriage.

“Instead of facing my problems, I ran away, expecting them to just magically sort themselves out.

“I wore different masks to fit in. I’d be the man in the pub, getting the round in, or the successful businessman – but, I was starting to feel very down.”




He continued: “I would sleep in the office and, eventually, in 1991, I moved back in with my parents as Anne and I were not getting on.

“I’d become the worst thing to me – a weekend dad. I’d pick Shani, who was then three up, we’d have a lot of fun and then she would ask why I wasn’t at home, saying, ‘I need you Daddy’. She’d scream and cry. It was like ripping our hearts out, as father and daughter.”

Deeply depressed for the next few years, Martin felt drawn to the Catholic church where Shani had been baptised into her mother’s faith.

And there in 1991 – despite having no religion, he had an epiphany.

“I remember walking and seeing a carved figure of Jesus hanging from the cross in front of me, tortured and suffering, and I just connected with it. I broke down and started to cry, ‘Help me, Jesus,’” he recalled.

After that, Martin started studying the bible and praying. Finding religion, he felt he was stepping out of the darkness and into the light.

But, unable to repair his rift with Anne, in 1993 they divorced.

“At the time, I was reading scriptures about rich young men who’d given their wealth to the poor and it felt like that was what I’d been searching for,” he said.



Martin and Shani when she went to visit him at the monastery

So, he sold his business, and gave his money – save for £2,000 – and house to Anne and Shani. Then, aged 29, he left for the Isle of Arran, on the north west coast of Scotland, where he stayed for two years in a rented cottage, leading a solitary life.

“I wanted to go away, miles away from anyone, so I could get my head around everything. It was hard for everyone to understand, me finding Christ and giving up all my money,” he said.

“Although I was not living as a hermit, which is a vocation for some Catholics, I lived a hermit-like existence, in solitude, and mostly apart from the rest of society.

“It was the back of beyond and I had no phone or television. I really went back to basics.”

She said: “I reconnected with God, prayed, meditated, read the bible, walked in the forest, in the mountains and listened to the ocean.

“When the money ran out, I supported myself by painting and making jewellery, which I sold at a craft fair in the town.

“And every Sunday I would go to the phonebox to ring Shani. It was very painful. She didn’t want to have a conversation with me.”

During this time, Martin felt an affinity with the story of Francis of Assisi, the son of a rich man, who sold everything to raise money for the church, then living as a hermit and creating the First Order of Franciscans.

So, he returned to York in 1996 to become a member of the Catholic Church – which he could do, despite being a divorcee, as his register office marriage was not recognised by the church.

Living with his grandma, he supported himself with odd jobs in cafes, bakeries and supermarkets, but Shani, then age eight, found it hard to accept him.

She recalled: “Everybody was upset with him.



Martin as a young man in the 1980s

“I kept him at arm’s length, as I was angry with him and didn’t even talk about him to my friends.

“My mum had remarried and I was close to my stepdad, so they felt like my family.”

Shani continued: “Then, when I was 14, Dad told me he was going to live in a friary in Oxford and study to become a Franciscan friar.

“It was a shock for me and I didn’t really want to talk about it, I wouldn’t tell my friends what was going on.”

Spending a year of postulancy, staying at the friary before he was officially allowed to join, Martin, then aged 40, became a Capuchin Franciscan Friar, which is a distinct branch of the Franciscan order, taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Meanwhile, Shani, then a non-practicing Catholic, distanced herself further from her dad.

Martin said: “She didn’t talk to me properly for years. She did not want to know me.

“But I promised I would always be there for her. We went through terrible times, but I knew it was the path we had to go down.”

While they spoke on the phone and exchanged occasional letters – even meeting for coffee sometimes if he went to York – Shani was not interested in any proper reconciliation.

She said: “I withdrew from him.”

Then, when she turned 23, her mum’s twin sister died and Anne’s marriage ended – all of which impacted on Shani.




“I started to suffer from bad anxiety and was feeling very depressed,” she said.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with who I was.

“I rang my father – I never phoned him, he always phoned me – and I just broke down. He got permission from the brothers to be with me and said, ‘I’m coming back’. He came to live with me and Mum, who had forgiven him, for a few weeks.”

She added: “We got to know each other properly, spending lots of time together.

“When he returned to the friary I was heartbroken. I really felt close to him as a daughter.”

After that, they enjoyed nightly phone calls and Martin, who was then living in a friary in Wales, was allowed by the order to invite Shani to stay.

“The first night was very eerie. It was in the middle of the Welsh hills, with no comfort. Everything was simple and basic, but I felt at peace there,” she said.

“When he was showing me around, it helped me to understand him.

“We would meditate, go on walks and I felt so peaceful and light.”

Shani visited her father more often, getting to know the brothers, too, and the friary soon felt like a second home.

“I began to talk about Dad to my friends,” she said. “He always says the moment he knew I’d accepted him was when we went to a coffee shop and he was wearing his robes.”



Martin has a coffee in York in his robes

In the meantime, Shani’s own faith was strengthening and she started going to church.

Then, one night in a York bar when she was 27, she met Craig.

They started chatting, exchanged numbers and swapped a few text messages, but nothing initially came of it.

Thinking it was not meant to be, Shani continued: “Six months later, I sent a message to a work colleague with the same name, but got Craig by mistake and we started chatting again.

“We arranged to meet and got on so well. He was open, non-judgemental, a nice positive person and I felt really at ease with him.”

Meanwhile Martin, who had always wanted to conduct her wedding, became ordained as a deacon in autumn 2018 after 17 years as a friar, so he could perform baptisms, funerals, preaching and marriages.

And in March 2019, after three years together, during a holiday in the Lake District, Craig proposed and Shani – who is now writing a book about her life called A Friar’s Daughter – accepted.

To their delight, their chosen church then gave permission for Martin to conduct the service.

Shani said: “Dad was over the moon. Working together to get our big day ready brought us even closer. I’d asked my mum to walk me down the aisle, so we were all so excited.

“Mum said this was how it was meant to be. We are a family, not a strictly normal family, but she said she will always be there for me and my dad.”

Looking beautiful in a traditional white dress, it was the most special day of Shani’s life.

“At the reception, at Chevin Country Park Hotel in Otley, Mum gave a speech and had everyone in tears,” said Shani, whose honeymoon in the Dominican Republic was cut short after five days by the Covid-19 lockdown.

“She thanked Dad for everything and the journey they’d been on and her partner, Tony, who she has been with for five years, also spoke.”

Shani said: “I arranged a special dance with Dad to Bruce Springsteen’s Secret Garden, as he’s one of his favourite artists. Then we danced the night away to Madonna and George Michael. He’s not your typical friar!



Shani and Craig while Martin conducts the ceremony

“He’s a breath of fresh air. He’s been through so much himself and spoken to so many people, he’s really able to empathise and is full of energy and positivity.

“I am so proud now to have him as my dad.”

For Martin, the wedding day was perfect.

He said: “There I am, an ordained deacon, waiting in the church in my robes, seeing the most beautiful person in the world dressed as an angel, walking down the aisle with her mum.

“With all that we’d been through, it was the most precious moment of our lives.”

Meanwhile, Anne, is delighted that her family is united again.

She said: “When Martin first realised that his vocation was with the church, it was a shock and I struggled to accept it. But as the years passed, it was clear that this was his calling and I supported him.

“It was always Martin’s dream to be able to perform Shani’s wedding ceremony, which also gave me the honour of walking her down the aisle.”

She added: “It was as though we had come full circle and everything was exactly how it should be.”



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