The bodies of nuns who have served the North Belfast community over the better part of a century have been exhumed from their burial plots for removal to other graves as the Poor Clares monastery prepares to close.

For more than a week, gravediggers have been opening the nuns’ graves at the monastery on the Cliftonville Road. It’s believed the operation involves the exhumation of the bodies of 21 nuns who served in the monastery since it was set up in 1924.

We understand that a small number of the nuns’ remains have been returned to their families for burial, while the majority have been reinterred in a plot in Milltown Cemetery on the Falls Road.

The North Belfast News exclusively revealed last month that the monastery was set to close. Dwindling vocation numbers meant that only five sisters remained in the convent, three younger Filipinos and two octogenarian Irish sisters

Some Catholics who contacted the North Belfast News this week said they were disappointed that they had not been allowed to pay tribute in any way to the nuns and they expressed concern that the monastery will now be sold off.

However, a source within the Catholic Church denied plans to sell the monastery in the wake of the reburials. Local councillor and Belfast Deputy Lord Mayor Tierna Cunningham said the news that the nuns have been exhumed over the past week will come as a “massive shock” to local people.

“I'm totally shocked at the news of the Poor Clare nuns being exhumed, as will be most people from this community,” she said. “I recently met the Poor Clare sisters when the news was breaking of the closure of the convent on the Cliftonville Road. Their dignity and composure at this awful time for them was just inspiring. Now this further news that those sisters buried in the convent cemetery over the last 88 years are being exhumed and reinterred is shocking.”

The Sinn Féin Councillor also asked what the plans are for the land now all traces of the religious order are to be removed from the site.

“It poses huge questions as to what the Catholic Church intends to do with the convent which was modernised at great expense in recent years,” she said.

“The people of this parish and further afield will be heartbroken to see the Poor Clares convent finally close on August 29.

“We made every effort to save the Poor Clares but even when the sad news of the closure came no-one had even contemplated the prospect of today's shocking news."

A spokesman for the Diocese of Down and Connor confirmed the exhumations had been taking place.

“As has been the case with other Poor Clare convents in places such as England and Wales, once the sisters leave the convent the remains have been reinterred,” he said.