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Together in the Lord

Looking for a Confirmation patron? Many students preparing for the sacrament and choosing the name Clare, do not know what Order she founded or realize they can find a Poor Clare monastery in their home diocese on the grounds of the former St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville.

In 1986, the Poor Clare nuns came to the Diocese of Belleville at the invitation of then Bishop James Keleher.  At the time, the diocese did not have a cloistered contemplative presence and one was needed, the bishop felt, to complete the witness of this local church.

Three decades later, many Catholics are still unaware of their presence. On weekday mornings, a handful of people attend morning Mass in the sisters’ public chapel, enjoying a peaceful setting and the beautiful singing of the nuns.

Many people find the Poor Clare nuns a curiosity. Why live apart? Why be hidden? “We fulfill our mission by constant prayer,” said Sister John Paul Marie, one of the 11 nuns currently residing in the Monastery of Our Lady of Mercy on North 60th Street. “The Church gives us the papal enclosure as a special privilege which helps to shield us from the distractions which might deflect us from a life of constant prayer,” added Mother Giovanna, the abbess of the Belleville community.

The Poor Clares are a monastic Order whose roots go back more than 800 years.

“Holy Mother Clare’s genius was to make monastic life available to all,” noted Sister John Paul Marie. In the 13th century, most of the existing monastic orders, like the Benedictines, were for upper classes only. In order to become a nun, applicants were required to bring a dowry. Not so with the Poor Clare nuns. From the time of their founding in 1212 until the present, any young woman with a true vocation to the cloistered contemplative life is welcomed.

The Poor Clares add to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience a forth vow of enclosure. They live an intense community life, apart from the world, paradoxically, in order to be closer to the world. The sisters fear that some people might get the impression that their vocation is one of selfishness. Just the opposite is true. “St. Clare envisioned her sisters as co-workers with God,” called to be “models and mirrors for those living in the world.”

“We are not here for ourselves,” Mother Giovanna said,. “We are here to pray for others, especially for the priests and those in the diocese with the greatest needs.”

In fact, rarely does a day go by when the sisters do not receive a prayer request.  On a busy day they receive between 15-20 requests, by letter, by telephone, by notes dropped in the prayer request box in the public chapel. Petitions often include prayers for the sick, for families struggling with unemployment or division, for loss of faith or local needs. Sometimes the sisters will receive, on the same day, requests for rain from local farmers and a request for good weather from parish picnic organizers. “In that case, we will pray for favorable weather,” said Sister Colette.

When something major happens in the world, a hurricane or mass shooting – the telephone starts ringing. “We know what is going on in the world by the prayer requests,” said Sister Regina. “We do not need television or the Internet.”

With prayer at the center of their lives, it is not surprising that silence is an important element in their day. The sisters agree that while silence is a great help to prayer, St. Clare kept a very balanced view about observing it. In her Rule, Sister Colette noted, “St. Clare said we may always speak when it is necessary, but always in a low voice so as not to disturb those at prayer.”

The Poor Clares are a mendicant Order. They have no stable income or holdings, depending totally on the providence of God and the generosity of their benefactors. “The people in the diocese have been very generous in supporting us,” said Mother Giovanna. “We are grateful for their help.”

A Poor Clare’s day is   not surprisingly– very structured, though never boring, the sisters insist. Their day begins at 12:30 a.m. when they rise for the Office of Matins. After the Office and a time of adoration, the sisters retire to rise again at 4:55 a.m. The pattern of each day is woven around the Liturgy of the Hours (The Divine Office) with the sisters gathering in their choir seven times to offer the Church’s official prayer. Mass at 7 a.m. is the day’s liturgical highpoint. There are also times set aside for Eucharistic adoration, the Rosary and spiritual reading.

There are times for work each day too — cooking, sewing, gardening and carpentry – and a time for recreation in common each evening. Asked what they do at recreation, the sister smiled broadly and replied: “Talk!”

Community is central to the Clarian form of the monastic life and remains the nuns greatest source of strength in an age of rugged individualism. “St. Clare said the Lord gave me sisters,” said Sister Regina, “and he himself lived in community with the apostles. For St. Clare this was the most important thing. She felt we are always making opportunities to share and be together.”

Each year the Serra Club sponsors visits to the monastery by local grade school and high school girls. The students meet several sisters in the parlor, where a screen divides the room, reminding visitors of the Poor Clares’ vocation to live enclosed. Come-and-see opportunities are also available to young women discerning a possible vocation to the Poor Clares.

Asked if they could take more new members, the sisters said there was plenty of room, and they could always build a new addition if needed. Unlike some cloistered Orders, there are no limits on the number of members in a Poor Clare community.

While most students who come to the monastery think that being cloistered is the hardest part of their lives, the nuns say they don’t think too much about it, because it is their vocation. Asked what is at the heart of their unique form of religious life, Mother Giovanna was quick to cite a passage from the Testament of St. Clare. “The Son of God became for us the Way which our blessed Father Francis, His true lover and imitator, has shown and taught us by worked and example.”

“Our call as Christians,” said Sister Colette, is simply to follow Christ the Way – and it is even more intensely so as Poor Clares.

It is a challenging life – but a joyful life, offered with Christ for the world.

For more information on the Poor Clare nuns visit their website at www.poorclares-belleville.info

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