Contemplative religious communities: The Poor Clares of Andover
ANDOVER -- Inside a hallway of the Monastery of St. Clare, collages on the wall memorialize each decade of the community's history. The photographs show Poor Clare nuns having fun -- ice-skating on a pond, riding bicycles and lawnmowers, dressing up as Santa and an elf for St. Nicholas Day -- all illustrating the joyful Franciscan spirit they live by.
The Franciscan charism is marked by simplicity and the joy of poverty. St. Clare, who founded the order in 1212, fought for her sisters to be allowed to live in poverty, and they were finally granted that privilege when she was on her deathbed.
The Poor Clare community in Andover was founded from the monastery in Jamaica Plain. The sisters stayed in a temporary building in Lowell from 1947 to 1960 before moving to River Road. In 2001, they moved across the street to their current location. Their proximity to the Merrimack River and woods makes them neighbors to rabbits, deer, turkeys, foxes, and other local wildlife.
A community of Franciscan friars used to live next door to the sisters before eventually moving to Boston. The friars would send their dog to play with the sisters' dog. When the sisters played baseball, the friars would watch the games from their roof.
The Poor Clares' abbess recalled how nice it was to have the Franciscan sisters and brothers together, as well as the presence of secular Franciscans, laypeople who follow the spirit of St. Francis.
"The laypeople would come for Mass here, so we had the three orders together," the abbess said.
The monastery is now home to seven professed nuns, ranging from their 30s to their 90s. Two others live in a nursing home. The abbess, who asked that The Pilot not publicize her name, noted that they have almost every age bracket in the community.
"We have a balance, old and young, and that's very good," she said.
A lay volunteer and two extern sisters help to answer the phone and doorbell. Other roles within the community include librarian, archivist, gardener, sacristan, kitchen duties, answering mail, and caring for the sick.
The sisters used to be engaged in making vestments and altar bread. However, they eventually passed those businesses on to the Poor Clare community in Jamaica Plain.
The chapel is open to visitors from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Although they do not offer formal spiritual direction, people will often share their stories as well as prayer intentions with the sisters, who listen and subsequently pray for them.
"The reason that we don't have a ministry is so that we can be free for our many hours of prayer for the whole world," the abbess said.
Because their lives are centered on prayer and quiet, they have limited use of phone and email. Although the community has a television, they rarely use it, save for news or special events like the election of a pope.
They are called to prayer at 5:55 a.m., but some of the sisters wake up even earlier to pray alone. The abbess makes coffee for the early risers, and they may eat something simple, like bread, for breakfast. They have morning prayer, eucharistic adoration, and an hour of meditation before a priest arrives to celebrate Mass for them. After Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is exposed again, and the sisters take half-hour turns in adoration throughout the morning.
At noon, they have their main meal as a community. This is their sole period of recreation, as the rest of the day is spent in silence. In the afternoon, they have free time when they can rest, read, or write. They gather again for midday and midafternoon prayer. In the evening, they have vespers, which includes many intercessions and an hour of meditation, and then night prayer.
Eucharistic adoration is particularly important to the Poor Clares, carrying on the Eucharistic devotion of St. Clare. One notable story recalls her actions when the city of Assisi was under attack. St. Clare prayed before the Blessed Sacrament and carried a monstrance to a window of the convent. The attackers were struck with fear and retreated.
Another important aspect of the Franciscan life is dependence on divine providence.
"The Lord shows that to us constantly. When we're in need, the Lord always comes through," the abbess said.
One example was when they needed an organist for their daily Masses. A man who had attended daily Mass for a few weeks offered to play the organ for them and has continued since.
Another time, when they were trying to arrange food preparation, the abbess had the unexpected idea to contact a hospital, which agreed to provide them with meals. They also receive gifts of food from friends and neighbors.
"It's like the Lord giving us whatever inspiration we need, when we need it," the abbess said.
Some decades ago, a Knight of Columbus was filling in for the sisters' maintenance man. When he came and saw the condition of the building, he organized a fundraiser for repairs. He also provided transportation for a sister who had to visit a sick relative in another state.
"We're never in need, and we trust that we never will be," the abbess said.
The Andover community meets and maintains ties with the other Poor Clare communities in their federation. The various communities write to each other on their patronal feast day. The Andover community and the Jamaica Plain community also exchange gifts at Christmas.
The Andover community currently has two sisters in formation: one postulant, and one junior sister who made simple vows, which are renewed on a yearly basis until making perpetual vows. These sisters spend at least an hour in formation each day, learning about St. Clare, St. Francis, and the rule and constitutions of the Poor Clares. The community also has guest speakers each month.
The junior sister was part of an active community in Nigeria when she discovered the Monastery of St. Clare through the internet. The abbess communicated with her, her superior, and bishop for over a year before she came to Andover. Six months later, they received two sisters from Tanzania.
Regarding vocation discernment, the abbess stressed that a vocation must be "genuine." She acknowledged that "For this type of life, not that many are called."
"When you're called to it, you're a happy person, because that's what God is asking you to do. Every vocation is beautiful, but we have to recognize that and thank God for whatever vocation we have," she said.
She defined "community" as "sharing God's love."
"It's not easy, because we have different characters, different personalities. But we're hand-picked, and God knows which ones to put together for our sanctification," the abbess said.
She said they must learn how to love through prayer, increasing in love for God and each other.
"These are the most important things about religious life, I would say: loving God and loving one another. Because when we die, there's nothing else that's going to follow us, just the love we've had. It's a school of love," she said.
Information about the Monastery of St. Clare is available at poorclarenunsandover.org.