By Tim Puet
Catholic Times of Coumbus
CLOISTER - Sister Marie Therese (far left) Sister Imelda Marie (center) and Sister Marie St. Claire (right)pray at St. Joseph Monastery in Portsmouth, Ohio. (Catholic Times/Jack Kuston)
PORTSMOUTH, Ohio (Catholic Times) - Any notion that cloistered nuns who constantly pray before the Blessed Sacrament and spend much of their lives in silence must live a solemn, somewhat grim existence quickly disappears on a visit to St. Joseph Monastery in Portsmouth.
Five of the six Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration who live there gathered for an interview last week with the Catholic Times — the sixth, Sister Mary Vincentia, PCPA, was excused because of age. Throughout the hourlong session, smiles and laughter were abundant as they talked about what made then decide to spend their lives adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and praying for the world beyond the monastery.
Mother Dolores Marie, PCPA, abbess, said the monastery has been revitalized by the presence of three young women who have become part of the community since 2003. The newest member, Sister Mary Immaculate, PCPA, is in the second year of a two-year novitiate in which she is preparing for her first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Their vocation decisions
Sister Marie Ste. Claire, PCPA, and Sister Marie Therese, PCPA, both joined the order at about the same time and took their first vows a little more than a year ago. The vows will be renewed each year until 2011, when both take solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for life.
Mother Dolores Marie, a member of the community since 1991, and the monastery’s mother vicar, Sister Imelda Marie, PCPA, a member since 1994, both came to Ohio in 2002 from the Poor Clares’ Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale, Ala., which was founded by Mother Angelica, best known as the founder of the Eternal Word Television Network.
All five nuns said the decision to enter the cloister wasn’t as difficult as it might appear to be because they felt an overwhelming desire to live the contemplative life.
"I found my Protestant friends understood my choice better and admired it more than my Catholic friends did," said Sister Marie Therese, an Alabama native. "It shocked so many people that a ‘normal girl’ who was very much into acting and the theater in high school would become a nun, but this was something I’d been drawn to for years, partly because my dad worked for EWTN."
"I was looking for love and realized the world couldn’t offer everything I was looking for," Sister Imelda Marie said. "I had plenty of friends in Louisiana where I grew up, and I know I could have gotten married and been happy in that life, but it just wasn’t what I was called to do.
"In this hidden life, you don’t always see or know whether your prayers have been answered, but as you trust more and more in God’s love, you find yourself realizing that he will meet your needs, and that’s a liberating thing."
"I grew up Catholic in a part of Florida where there weren’t many religious or priests from which I could take an example," said Sister Mary Immaculate. "I said the Rosary daily and prayed to find what I was meant to do. When I was 16, I began to realize the Lord wanted something more for me, and I wanted to give more for God. He has done so much for me and was calling me to serve him with an undivided heart."
God wins them over
Sister Marie Ste. Claire described herself as "a southern California girl who mostly likes Ohio but misses the beach."
"The Lord kept inspiring me with this desire to give him everything, even though I kept fighting it," she said. "Eventually, I came to realize God had given me his whole self in the Blessed Sacrament and I wanted to return that gift by giving myself to him. ...
"I went to college in New Hampshire with the idea of going to med school, but instead, that’s where I made the decision that led me here. After my first visit to St. Joseph’s, I knew Jesus was here. A friend at college used to say I’d marry the first guy who asked me, and he was right, but not in the way he expected."
Mother Dolores Marie came to the Poor Clares from a career in retail merchandising and said the last thing she would have anticipated while growing up was becoming a nun.
"I never was involved with religion until I went to work at EWTN as a set designer’s assistant," she said. "When I saw the nuns there in their habits, I was terrified. I tried my best to avoid being introduced to Mother Angelica, but it happened.
"I was caught up in a lot of worldly things, but in time I found myself increasingly drawn to spending time with the Blessed Sacrament. I’d go there sometimes not to pray, but just to be in the presence of Jesus. At first I didn’t realize I had a vocation, but in time I realized God was calling me to his service."
When Mother Dolores Marie was transferred to Portsmouth, there was concern that the monastery would have to close because of the declining health of the four elderly nuns who lived there, but the addition of the younger sisters eliminated that threat.
Local postulants wanted
Sister Mary Vincentia is the last of the older nuns remaining at the monastery. Two others are at the Mohun Health Care Center in Columbus and one has died.
A woman from Ireland is scheduled to enter the monastery March 31 to begin her postulancy, a year of discernment which will lead to the novitiate if she and the community agree she is suited for a nun’s life.
The monastery, In existence for 52 years, still is looking for its first potential postulate from Ohio or the surrounding states. Mother Dolores Marie said that may be in part because of its location away from large population centers. This is one reason why the nuns hope to move elsewhere within the diocese.
The Poor Clares’ life is limited to the monastery, except for necessary errands such as visits to the doctor (or more recently, to look for land for a new monastery, Mother Dolores Marie said). But they’re hardly isolated from the world. For instance, they were quickly made aware of the shooting and stabbing of a teacher at Portsmouth Notre Dame Elementary School on Feb. 7 through several phone calls.
Life in a cloister
The nuns themselves can write home and receive letters once a month. At Christmas time, they are allowed to send and receive letters to anyone.
Family visits are allowed twice a year for two days each, but take place with nuns and their families on the opposite side of a wooden latticework grille. The nuns’ adoration chapel is open to the public daily from 5:45 to 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but when the nuns are at prayer during those times, they remain behind a wooden screen.
Pictures included with these stories are one of the few public glimpses the nuns have offered of their life in the monastery.
It’s a life lived in simple surroundings, which starts with a common wakeup time of 5 a.m. and continues through "lights out" at 10 p.m. Additional adoration occurs Wednesday and Saturday nights, with each nun assigned an hour on Wednesday and 90 minutes on Saturday.
Mass is at 7 a.m., usually with Father Joseph Klee of Portsmouth St. Mary Church, and the day proceeds through a set schedule which includes the Church’s Office of Readings, the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Franciscan Crown devotion to the seven joys of Mary, the Stations of the Cross, and set times for work, study, recreation, and free time.
Lunch at noon is the main meal of the day, with toast and peanut butter generally for breakfast, and a sandwich or cereal at supper. The main meal usually consists of a protein, a starch, two vegetables and fruit. Meat is eaten on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and on Church feasts and solemnities. Snacks and desserts are limited to Sundays and solemnities.
The monastery’s main source of revenue is the packaging of altar bread which comes from an outside supplier. That means the monastery is visited nearly every day by a United Parcel Service truck. At one time, the sisters made their own bread, but that stopped as the sisters got older.
The practice of silence
Most of the day is spent in silence; indeed, the word "Silence" is posted throughout the monastery. It’s not an absolute silence, since the nuns are permitted to speak to each other about things that are necessary during the day. Greater silence is observed from after 8 p.m. night prayers until the next morning.
The silence also is broken occasionally by one of the monastery’s three dogs — Jewel, an adult schnauzer, and Pippin and Merry, two black Labrador puppies.
Talk is done quietly and kept to a minimum, but as Mother Dolores Marie put it, "If something funny happens, we laugh. We don’t expect anyone to be inhuman or oblivious to the situations around us. We are not experts at silence, but we continually work at it and try to renew ourselves in our efforts to attain it."
She acknowledged that the sisters sometimes became as distracted as most laypeople do while praying. "It is part of the human condition," she said. "Especially when you have repetitive prayers, it is hard not to wander off to some other subject or thought. So we have to have humility and realize we are not capable of anything without the help of God. ...
"Sometimes it is easier than others to pray, but the point is to keep doing it, keep making the effort, no matter how we feel about it. We may feel that we haven’t prayed one bit, but in the mind of God, it may be the most fruitful time of prayer we have offered yet."
Testing the call
Any single woman who is between 18 and 35, has a high school education, is a Catholic in good standing, and is in good physical and psychological health is eligible to join the Poor Clares.
"I would encourage any young woman to spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to help discern the direction of her life," Mother Dolores Marie said. "You have to have a longing for a life of prayer, specifically a life of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
"A contemplative life is not for everyone, but it is a rich and fulfilling one, and I would encourage anyone who feels such a calling to not be afraid, but to listen to what God may be saying."
The convent also has a Web site, www.stjosephmonastery.com, can send and receive e-mail, and receives Portsmouth’s daily newspaper and the Catholic Times. Mother Dolores Marie monitors the various means of communication and informs the other nuns of significant events in the Church and the world.
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