Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares, New Kent County:
An 800-Year-Old way of life
On this particular December morning, the only sound in the sparsely decorated parlor at the Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares in New Kent County was the low hum of the HVAC and an occasional shuffling of bare feet across the floor overhead.
Novice Sister Marie Elise, in her new habit, peered around the parlor door on the far side of an ornate wall-to-wall wrought iron screen. She smiled, walked in bare feet and gently sat down.
Known as Postulant Kimberly just four days earlier, Sister Elise’s investiture into the Mount St. Francis Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares was historic in that community.
It was the first to happen in their fairly new monastery in Barhamsville, and the first to be performed by their new Abbess, Mother Mary Therese.
For Sister Elise it was also the culmination of a long and uncertain journey that ultimately led to her shared commitment to Christ that began 800 years ago.
It was late the night of Palm Sunday in 1212 when St. Clare, then a noble woman of the Italian town of Assisi, fled her father’s home to follow St. Francis and his brothers to become the first female member of the Franciscan Order. From there the Second Franciscan Order was formed which, following her death, became known as the Order of Poor Clares.
St. Clare’s commitment to living a poor, simple, and Gospel life continues to burn in the hearts of the more than 20,000 Poor Clare Sisters living in monasteries throughout the world today.
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the religious consecration of St. Clare of Assisi.
All religious take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poor Clare Sisters also take the fourth vow of enclosure, meaning they remain within the monastery itself.
“We are strictly cloistered, and do not go out to evangelize or serve in any way,” said Mother Mary Therese. “All our service is done here, on the grounds of our monastery.”
The Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares was originally established in 1956 in Newport News. In 1997 a leaky roof noticed by one of the Sisters’ benefactors was the beginning of a series of “cumulative experiences” that facilitated their move to Barhamsville, 42 miles east of Richmond, in 2004.
The new 40,000 square foot monastery designed by one of the Sister’s nephews, Frankie Campione, sits on a hilltop that gently rises above their 42 acres of wooded land and large pond.
Sister Marie Elise is the newest among the 13 Sisters ranging in age from 18 to 80. Originally from Vietnam, she hesitantly entered into religious life in 1996 as a registered nurse aspiring to be a sister of the Lovers of the Holy Cross in Gardena, CA.
“My vocation is long story,” she said. “This is a great country and I come to have a great future. And then God called me to become a religious. I told Him, ‘no, I don’t want to pray for that.’”
Gradually, however, God drew “Kimberly” to places and people that confirmed His purpose for her and in 2008, after a long formation, she professed to the Sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross. While attending a religious workshop held by an active order of Carmelite nuns, she walked to the monastery on the next block.
“When I entered the chapel, something say in me, ‘This is your home,’” Sister Elise said.
She then began to realize her current community was preparing her for something else. While searching the internet she came across the Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares in Virginia.
“There was something about it being poor and simple that attracted me,” she said. “Everything then fell in place and made the way for me to go.”
On December 12, 2011 Postulant Kimberly received her Holy Habit thereby becoming Sister Marie Elise of Jesus Crucified within the community of the Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares.
Her Investiture ceremony was much like the one St. Francis performed for St. Clare eight centuries ago.
“When a young woman takes on our Holy Habit, it signifies that she is ‘putting on Christ,’ taking up her Cross and following in His footsteps in a life of joyful penance,” said Mother Vicaress (former Abbess) Mary Clare.
As Novice Mistress, Mother Clare also had the privilege of assisting in Sister Elise’s transformation. The day before the event in the monastic Chapter Room, Mother Clare laid out the garments and other items needed for the ceremony that included cutting the new sister’s hair and layering her with various veils and garments hand sewn to fit her.
Meanwhile Mother Abbess Mary Therese spent weeks looking for a name that would reflect the ideals to which “Kimberly” was drawn, such as consecration, sacrifice, and handmaid to the Lord.
Checking a website about naming babies, Mother Therese first discovered the name Elise, a French name that means consecrated to God.
“The more I thought about it, the more beautiful ‘Elise’ sounded,” said Mother Therese. “And then we always include some form of Mary, such as Mary, Marie, or Maria.”
As a Novice, there were a few things Sister Marie Elise was not permitted to do such as leading the chanting. But she now wears the Habit of her Sisters and is able walk around barefoot.
“We have bare feet as a symbol of our being in the presence of God,” Mother Therese explained. “It also a symbol of the poverty of spirit and material poverty in which we try to live.”
Daily life for the Poor Clare Sisters has remained basically untouched for the past eight centuries. Their humble and quiet existence serves as a continual form of worship throughout the entire day which begins at 12:35 every morning.
Matins or “first hour” is one of 12 times the Sisters come together for prayer, worship and/or scripture readings.
“The idea of our life is that we come together different hours of the day to pray, and it sanctifies the whole day for us and hopefully for the church,” said Mother Therese. “Someone is always praying for the church either at this monastery or another throughout the world.”
Following Matins the Sisters go back to bed, rising four hours later when Lauds or morning praise begins their 16-hour daily routine.
At 8 a.m. Mass is celebrated by the monastery’s resident pastor, Father Gerald “Gerry” A. Przywara. Father Przwara, a priest of the Diocese of Richmond who last was pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Staunton, has been with the Poor Clare Sisters since 2009. He lives in a cabin near the entrance to the monastery grounds.
Father Gerry offers counseling or reconciliation when it is requested.
With great respect and admiration for the Sisters, he says he does his best to stay out of the way of their daily activities.
“It is important to respect the Sisters’ privacy,” he said. “Their contemplative spirit is so important to the life of the church and needs to be preserved.”
Following Mass the Sisters go about their daily tasks mostly in silence. Their work includes cooking, baking, cleaning, sewing, gardening, and secretarial work.
Through email, a website, a blog, and two Facebook pages, the Sisters communicate with family, other monasteries, benefactors, and as well with young women interested in the vocation and to whom God may be calling to their way of life.
“Because we are cloistered, we are not visible to the outside world very much,” said Mother Vicaress Mary Clare, the one responsible for upkeep of their online presence. “And because we depend on lay people for our existence, we need to be known.”
At the monastery, meals are simple and are somewhat dictated by the food provided them through donations brought in almost every day. Following the evening meal there is a period of “recreation” when the Sisters come together to share their insights from the day.
“Because we keep silence during the day, this is where we tell stories of the past, and talk of family news, books we’ve read, or insights we’ve received from Lexio,” said Mother Mary Therese. “It is our time to relax, be together, and sometimes do a little hand work.”
After their night time prayers, the Sisters retire each night before 9, resting so they are once again ready to take on the cares of the world.
“It’s important that people understand that we are not escaping from the world,” said Mother Vicaress Mary Clare. “We are a part of the mystical body that connects the entire church. Grace and love flow between us.
“We may not physically heal the sick, or teach, but we are giving energy to those that do. We are giving grace. We are giving love.”
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