After 64 years, Poor Clares leave monastery with legacy of prayer and friendship

| Susan Klemond | February 7, 2018 | 0 Comments

Pro Ecclesia Sancta Sister Maddie Shogren, center, visits with Poor Clare Sister Mary Catherine Martin at St .Bonaventure in Bloomington Jan. 21. At left is Poor Clare Sister Lucie Lafleur. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

When the Poor Clare Sisters leave their Bloomington monastery to resettle in Rochester this month, the sound of the bells that have called them to prayer for at least 60 years will remind neighbors and local Catholics that good friends have moved away.

“We have told them the bells will still ring,” said Sister Helen Weier, 85, who has lived at St. Clare’s Monastery of the Infant Jesus since its founding in 1954.

The Poor Clare community is moving to Assisi Heights, home of the Rochester Sisters of St. Francis, because its 11 members, age 75 to 90, can no longer maintain the large Bloomington monastery and its 5 wooded acres.

“It’s like a call for all of us, when we were called to leave our home and our family to enter religious life,” Sister Helen said.

Several sisters have chronic illnesses and two live at a Minneapolis nursing home. The sisters look forward to living together once again in their own wing near the large hilltop convent’s nursing care area, Sister Helen said.

The Bloomington community was established after a representative of the Poor Clare Monastery of Sauk Rapids conveyed to St. Paul Archbishop John Gregory Murray in 1953 that the Sauk Rapids community lacked adequate space. Bishop Murray invited its sisters to expand in the archdiocese.

A parishioner of St. Richard in Richfield donated 5 acres of farmland near Penn Avenue for the sisters’ new home. When the monastery was completed, six Sauk Rapids sisters moved in on Aug. 11, a day before the feast of their founder, St. Clare of Assisi.

Going abroad

In the early 1960s, the community grew to 28 members. As they received funds, the sisters added four wings to the monastery.

In 1960, a visiting bishop asked the sisters to teach a new religious community in Korea about Franciscan values, Sister Helen said. In response, they formed six Korean novices in Minnesota, and in the 1970s, three Minnesota sisters relocated to the community on a Korean island. One of the three sisters still belongs to the Korean community.

Then as now, their life as contemplative sisters has been about prayer and silence. They pause from work in the monastery to pray the Liturgy of the Hours together five times a day. They also attend Mass and pray privately for the many prayer requests they receive. More than 1,600 friends and benefactors send prayer requests by email and help support the community, Sister Helen said.

They see their role in the broader community as one of invitation, welcoming others to join them for the Eucharist and prayer. Prior to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the sisters were cloistered and met visitors through a screen. After Vatican II, the sisters removed the screen.

“As our life has changed, the life of the Church has changed — notably with Vatican II — and that gave a call to renew in light of today’s world. So that’s what we have tried to do, and that’s what’s bringing [the external community] together for Eucharist in the same space,” Sister Helen said.

Mary Sarazin, 79, remembers visiting her grade-school friend Sister Jo Casey decades ago, when Sister Jo was cloistered. Sarazin, a parishioner of St. Edward in Bloomington, has kept up the relationship, and she often attends Mass with the sisters. She’ll once again miss seeing her friend — and all the sisters — when they move, she said.

Tom Machacek, 60, attends Mass and volunteers at the monastery. He believes the sisters’ prayers in the early 1990s helped his son recover from leukemia.

“They’re a very special set of ladies,” he said.

David and Erin Wee likewise volunteered at the monastery while in high school, and now they visit with their 19-month-old daughter.

“It’s been a special opportunity to let our daughter get to know the sisters and have them in her life and praying for her,” said Erin, 24.

Making a move

A decade ago, the sisters began thinking about moving, Sister Helen said. Returning to the Sauk Rapids monastery wasn’t an option, she said, because the two communities have developed differently over the past 60 years.

In 2015, the Bloomington sisters contacted the Rochester Sisters of St. Francis, with whom they’re had a longstanding relationship. They received a warm welcome, Sister Helen said, and the communities eventually arranged for the Poor Clares’ move.

Together, the two communities will model the active and contemplative expressions of religious life under the same roof. Unlike the Poor Clares, the Rochester Sisters’ work takes them beyond Assisi Heights. They established themselves in Rochester in 1877 and have historically served in education and health care, including the founding of what would become the Mayo Clinic. The sisters are now also engaged in social justice work and spiritual care.

At Assisi Heights, the Poor Clares will share the Franciscan Sisters’ chapel and cafeteria, but they’ll remain contemplative, Sister Helen said.

However, the two communities have a natural common bond. “We share the same Francis and Clare founders, so we’re part of the family,” Sister Helen said.

The Poor Clares’ move is also the catalyst for another religious community’s transition. They will hand over their monastery to the Sisters of Pro Ecclesia Sancta, a 25-year-old community founded in Peru whose local members serve St. Mark in St. Paul and Our Lady of Grace and Chesterton Academy in Edina. The Sisters of PES will move into the monastery in the summer after adapting it to their needs.

“What is wonderful is this house can continue to be a house of prayer. Even people who are a bit sad to see us leave are very happy to have another community because of it,” said Poor Clare Sister Lucie Lafleur, 79.

Moving into a smaller space is a call to poverty, Sister Helen said, noting that the sisters will also leave behind their own liturgies.

Like other religious communities with aging sisters and few new vocations, the sisters are coming to terms with their diminishing size. But they point to their faithful community of friends and young people involved in lay ecclesial movements as signs of hope for the Church.

In Rochester, the sisters will be called to prayer with hand bells instead of their cherished monastery bells, but despite these and larger changes, they’re hopeful about the future, Sister Helen said.

“As hard as it’s going to be, it’s a marvelous move made possible by the warmth and welcome of the sisters in Rochester, without a doubt,” she said. “There’s always a benefit in sharing the Franciscan clarion charism.”

Who are the Poor Clares?

The Poor Clare Sisters of Bloomington trace their roots to St. Clare of Assisi, who, with St. Francis, founded the Order of St. Clare in 1212. While the 20,000 Poor Clares in 70 countries live in autonomous communities, they have in common their contemplative life of prayer, voluntary poverty and commitment to hard work. The power of their prayer is credited with twice saving Assisi, Italy, from invaders during their foundress’ time. Like St. Clare, Poor Clares depend totally on God’s providence and seek to live the Gospel.

While all Poor Clares live in monasteries, some communities make a vow of enclosure in addition to the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. They leave the monastery for emergencies, civic duties and doctor’s appointments.

Poor Clares are devoted to prayer, especially the Liturgy of the Hours, which they pray together throughout the day and around which they order their work of caring for others and the monastery. They intercede for those who ask for their prayers. They also assist at Mass and spend time in personal prayer. As contemplatives, they live in silence much of the day and don’t engage in apostolates outside of the monastery.

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