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Sisters pray together in the choir chapel at St. Clare’s Monastery.

Love for God calls sisters beyond earthly desires

During this Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis instructs Catholics to “look to the past with gratitude … live the present with passion… [and] embrace the future with hope.” The Visitor is helping to commemorate the past, present and future of the religious communities housed in the St. Cloud Diocese. This is the fifth in a series.

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

In 1923, Poor Clare Mothers Mary Angela O’Connor and Clare Schnorrenberg journeyed to Sauk Rapids from their home in northern Wisconsin in search of a new location after an invitation from St. Cloud’s Bishop Joseph Busch, who was looking for a contemplative order to establish a presence here.

Their diocese, in a very poor area of Wisconsin, could no longer afford to support them.

Upon their arrival, Father Aloysius Kampmann, the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Sauk Rapids, led the sisters to a grassy hill not far from the church that overlooked the Mississippi River. This “holy hill” is where they would build St. Clare’s Monastery.

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Sisters Mary Rebecca Majeski and Mary Lucy Renner in the garden during a jubilee celebration.

On July 16, 1924, the Poor Clare sisters  — numbering 13 by this time — moved into their new three-story home. Every year on this date, which is also St. Clare’s birthday, they celebrate their Founding Day.

Today, the monastery is home to 18 sisters that form a contemplative community, which means their primary apostolate is prayer in a setting of silence and solitude.

“Our prayer is for the church and the world,” said Reverend Mother Marie Immaculata Schintgen, the abbess. “We receive many letters and phone calls daily requesting prayers for individuals, families and special intentions. Also, we live on alms, trusting God’s loving providence to provide for our needs through so many good people he inspires to give to us. For them, we ask his special blessings.”

The Poor Clare sisters profess three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. Most of the sisters make a fourth vow of enclosure, which means they are cloistered, and do not leave the monastery except for doctor’s appointments or emergencies. The exception is an “extern” sister who is allowed to take care of monastic business that cannot be handled from inside the monastery.

“For us it is being ‘set apart’ from, not distracted by, the cares of the world,” Mother Immaculata explained. “We are free to be focused on God, on loving him, on bringing to his heart the needs entrusted to our prayer. We are hidden to be his totally.”

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Mother Marie Immaculata Schintgen extinguishes a candle on the adoration altar in the choir chapel.

Visitors to the monastery can hear the sisters’ voices on the other side of the wall while praying and singing inside the chapel or through the spinning wooden “wheel” where they accept donations of food and necessities. On occasion, expected guests might meet sisters through the parlor grill — a fence-like structure that separates them from the outside world.

“These signs of our enclosure set that atmosphere and give us a heart for the world. We are part of the world, yet not immersed in it,” said Mother Immaculata. “Our community life is as a family. We are spiritual sisters of each other and of all God’s children. Living in such close proximity in an enclosed religious community, our humanness emerges at times. Yet, as with everyone else, we rely on God’s grace to help us forgive and continue loving, encouraging, supporting and helping our sisters.”

Living out their call

There are more than 20,000 Poor Clare sisters in the world in more than 70 countries. Though they all follow the Rules of St. Francis and St. Clare, they carry it out in different ways.

Sister Mary Angela Elbert loves the part of St. Clare’s rule where she refers to herself as “a little plant of St. Francis,” her mentor. “We are all little plants of our Holy Mother Clare, depending on the grace of God and learning from the example of our founders. Each of us has her own special gifts and talents that she puts to use for the service to the community and the glory of God,” she said.

Sister Mary Angela was born in New Prague, Minn., and is the youngest of five children. She entered the monastery on Oct. 2, 1999, one week after her 31st birthday. As a Poor Clare sister, she works hard to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

“I like to take time in prayer to thank the good Lord for all the blessings he has bestowed on me and others,” she said. “This can include thanking him for all the wonderful graces he has given me, such as the grace of a vocation and the gift of perseverance in it. It can also include such simple things as thanksgiving for the new day or the multitude of colors in the flower garden. Everything comes from the provident hand of a loving Father God.”

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A sister works on a crochet project.

She says that it is important to live in the present moment and to use the grace God is giving her right now. “I don’t have the grace for tomorrow yet, just the grace for now, so I can intensely live each moment no matter what I am doing, in union with God’s will.”

The sisters, in their vow of poverty, pledge a life of simplicity. They dress in a common brown habit, corded at the waist, as a sign of their bond with Christ. The cord has four knots to remind them of their four vows. Their heads are veiled and their feet are most often bare. At their side, the Franciscan Crown — the seven decade rosary — hangs from the cord.

Sister Mary Peter Marthaler, who entered the community in 1947, learned at a young age how to find joy in a life of simplicity. She grew up on a farm in West Union with her 10 siblings and appreciated her parents’ examples “of life, of living, of accepting people where and just as they were.”

She also learned “the art of doing without” which helped her answer her call to religious life — living simply, helping with gardening and housework, much like her days as a sister.

“When one lives this charism of poverty or ‘nothing of one’s own,’ and embraces a life of simplicity, we leave behind all selfish concerns or attitudes,” she said.

“It inspires one to place priorities on the one thing necessary,” she said. “Simplicity frees the heart from selfish concerns and allows us to move in freedom, to live quietly with and in God. This ongoing prayer or ‘inner stillness’ allows us to grow in an ever-deepening awareness of others — hence, our intercessory prayer for the world and its needs.”

A day in the life

What is a day like in the life of a Poor Clare sister? They often hear that question.

“We answer by explaining that our life revolves around our daily Mass,” Mother Immaculata said. “We go to the chapel for prayer seven times a day with the Liturgy of the Hours, including rising for the Office of Readings at 12:30 a.m. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary, the Angelus three times a day, daily consecration to the Sacred Heart and Our Lady, novenas for various feasts, daily communal vocal prayers, spiritual reading, along with an hour and a half for private meditation, fill our prayer schedule.”

In between prayer times, the sisters are cooking, cleaning, gardening and doing laundry — normal housework multiplied by the size of their monastic home and the number of sisters — along with answering mail and phones. They spend about an hour a day in recreation, occasionally longer on special feast days.

“My whole day can become a prayer when my every action is united to the will of God,” said Sister Mary Angela. “The rewards of this way of life are the peace and joy that comes with knowing you are doing God’s will.”