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Friday, February 6, 2009

"Sisters in Silence - Pueblo's Capuchin Poor Clares spend life in work, prayer"

I have no idea why "Ñ" appears throughout the article. And for some reason I am unable to post pictures with the article - it's causing my computer to lock up.


From The Pueblo Chieftain
By Loretta Sword

Time has a different rhythm here, following the cadence of silence and prayer. Clocks exist only to signal the hours when sewing machines hum, and when it's time to eat and sleep.

The value and purpose of life for the Sisters of Poor Clare are measured primarily by the time they spend on their knees in the tiny chapel of their monastery in Pueblo's Grove neighborhood.

Alone and together, they pray. Every minute of every day.

"Our mission here is prayer for all the people of the world Ñ even if they don't know us," explained Sister Francis, abbess of the Monastery of Our Heavenly Father. Located near Mount Carmel Church, the monastery was established about seven years ago in a home next door to the old Mount Carmel School.

The seven nuns who live here are unaware of life outside the tiny monastery's walls, including the recovering alcoholics and addicts who meet day and night in the lower level of the old school.

The lone TV and radio at the monastery are silent except during the week after Christmas, when the nuns are allowed to indulge in religious programming. Members of this cloistered sect leave the monastery only for medical appointments and business with the Catholic diocese.

Sister Francis occasionally travels to a shop in Colorado Springs to buy the specialty fabrics for altar cloths, vestments for priests and other religious items that are made by the seven nuns who live here.

All such outings require permission from Bishop Arthur Tafoya, who says Mass for the nuns every Saturday. Other priests say Mass during the week.

Proceeds from sales of the items they make Ñ to churches throughout the region Ñ are the only compensation the nuns receive from the Pueblo diocese. They pay no rent, but are expected to buy their groceries, pay utilities and handle other expenses with that revenue "and what God provides to us," Sister Francis said.

"We work by our hands. The work dignifies our lives," she said.

Like most of the others here, Sister Francis was born in Mexico. One young postulant (the first step before entering the novitiate and receiving the habit) is from Peru.

The women spend most of their time in silence, although necessary conversation is allowed in the sewing room.

"Oh, we may talk during recreation. We even laugh," Sister Francis said with a smile.

The nuns arise at 5:30 a.m. for morning prayers Ñ the Liturgy of the Hours recited aloud, followed by an hour of silent prayer, and then Mass. They gather as a group again at midday, and in the evening.

During "work" hours, two at a time pray in the chapel, taking turns through the daylight hours. They rotate one-hour shifts through the night, Sister Francis said.

When women enter the Poor Clare order, she said, they can bring no personal belongings and agree not to accumulate any from that point on, except for their habits and personal hygiene items.

"When we make our vows, we renounce our families and any inheritance, as well," she said, adding that families can't even leave money to the order itself, or to a particular monastery.

When neighbors or other benefactors donate food or cash, "we accept it if we have a need. If we have no needs, we distribute it to other orders. We live by providence alone."

The nuns here range in age from 31 to 74, with tenure in the Order of Poor Clares ranging from one month to 54 years, said Sister Francis, 38.

She entered the order at a monastery in Amarillo, Texas, when she was 16. She said she knew when she was 4 that she wanted to dedicate her life to Jesus, and started applying to convents when she was 11.

She was turned down because of her age and was told she should at least have the experience of dating before deciding for sure that she didn't want to marry and have a family.

So, she "started a different life" in her tiny village near the Texas border. At 14, she said, she helped establish a medical clinic that was open on weekends in a rented, run-down, vacant building. She kept patient records and did all the other work of an administrator while volunteer nurses and doctors staffed it on a rotating basis, she said.

Today, that clinic occupies its own new building, has a full staff of paid doctors and nurses, as well as a psychiatrist, and is open throughout the week, offering mostly free care.

By the time she was 15, she was dating a young man who asked her to marry him. Before she said yes, she had a conversation with Jesus.

"I said, 'Jesus, I am waiting for you to tell me if you want me. I will wait one year. I want you to give me a sign. Knock on my door, call my name, and ask me if I will be a nun, or I will marry. I will wait one year.’Ê”

Then she told her boyfriend she would marry him unless Jesus answered her request before the wedding Ñ even if it was just hours before.

"The months began to pass and I was planning my life. Six months before the wedding, my fiance said we need to sign permits for the wedding. But I know in my heart something will happen before," she said.

The day she had agreed to take care of the licenses, she came down with chickenpox, and spent more than a month in bed. One afternoon, a young nephew told her someone was knocking on the door. She told him to answer it. He returned to her bedroom a few minutes later and said there was a strange woman asking for her by name.

"I went to the door and she said my name, and she asked me if wanted to join a religious order in Texas Ñ in Amarillo. I said yes."

The next day, she was on her way, despite her fiance's broken heart, and vehement protests from her parents.

Having always been a gregarious person, Sister Francis said she had envisioned being a missionary nun who would work with children and spread the word of the Lord in foreign lands as a teacher, perhaps.

"I was always talking and laughing. People in my village said I was more popular than the Coca-Cola," she said, her cheeks flushing with color and rounded by her smile.

Until she arrived at the monastery in Amarillo, she had no idea that she had agreed to join a cloistered order.

"I went in with my eyes closed. I panicked at first, but the next day, I saw the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament again Ñ just like the first time, the only other time I ever saw it when I was 4 and tears came to my eyes and I knew in my heart even then that I wanted to serve Jesus Ñ and I said to him, 'Jesus, you win. My life is yours.’Ê”

Even so, she said, the adjustment to silence was a difficult one and "for the first six months, I was always fighting inside of me. But then I understood that I could be a missionary in a different way."

That way is prayer.

Aside from the proscribed prayers that are a part of every day, the sisters pray for world leaders and the legions of anonymous individuals who suffer from illness or loss, or within the prisons of their own hearts because of greed, hatred and guilt.

Anyone may bring written prayer requests and deposit them in a box just inside the door of the monastery. Those who wish also may pray with the nuns each day between 9 a.m. and noon, and from 3:20 to 5 p.m. The nuns also will answer e-mail requests for prayer and intercession.

Despite her early doubts, Sister Francis said she can imagine no other life for herself now. On the rare occasions when she ventures into "the world out there" to buy fabric or conduct business at the diocesan headquarters Downtown, she said, "I come back and I am so tired. The world is too fast and too noisy. And here there is silence, and comfort and peace."

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