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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Life Of Devotion: Poor Clares Lead A Simple Existence At Their Minooka Monastery

"A Life of Devotion: Poor Clares Lead a Simple Existence"

1997 Chicago Tribune article

There is a new family in Minooka, one with a way of life both timeless and radical.

                                           (Aerial view of the monastery).

On a clear day, a traveler heading down East Minooka Road might catch a glimpse of the four women as they cut away brambles and scrubby trees while their dog, Duchess, runs in lazy circles around them. At another time, in their home, the sweet music of a mandolin played by one of their number and voices joined in prayer can be heard from the other side of a curtain that separates household members from their visitors.

They are Mother Mary Dorothy Urschalitz and Sisters Agnes Ortiz, Adoracion Malabano and Bernardine Siebenaler. They are Sisters of the Order of Clare, more commonly known as Poor Clares, a contemplative order of religious women.

Formed in 1212 by St. Clare, a follower of St. Francis of Assisi, the group originally was called the Second Franciscan Order. They also were known by Francis as the Poor Ladies because, like Clare, many of the women had left lives of privilege and wealth to live in poverty. The members added their foundress' name to the order after her death.

"The life of a Poor Clare," Urschalitz says, "is a radical statement that God suffices."

                (For St. Francis, St. Clare and St. Colette and all Franciscans, God suffices.)

Their vocation is to contemplate and to fix their attention upon God, offering praise and thanksgiving as well as prayers for the needs of God's people. The sisters do this in the same manner as the followers of Clare did, living a cloistered life in silence, physically enclosed in a monastery behind grilles or metal bars.

Responding to an invitation from the Joliet diocese, the four sisters in 1995 established temporary quarters for Annunciation Monastery in Minooka. It is one of 1,000 monasteries worldwide, 46 of which are located in the United States, and the third in Illinois (others are located in Rockford and Belleville).
Barefoot or in sandals, the Poor Clares wear the traditional gray woolen habit with black veil, sleep on straw mattresses, eat a simple meatless diet and live from the proceeds of their manual labor and the gifts of benefactors. They vow poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure.

                            (Sisters receive Our Lord on the tongue while kneeling.)

"It's not an escape from the world by any means," says Urschalitz, a member since 1959, "but rather a different way of being in the world and finding God. It's not easy, and it's not for everyone. But, we must ask ourselves, is anything worthwhile easy?"

"The Poor Clares bring a contemplative life to the Joliet Diocese," says Bishop Joseph Imesch. "We have no special religious order of men or women dedicated to a life of contemplation. They bring a whole new dimension of spiritual life by their witness of a life of prayer, particularly prayer for priests. For that reason alone, I am happy to have them in the diocese, knowing that they are praying for all of us, but priests in particular."

(The sisters eat their breakfast of coffee and bread standing, facing away from each other in the refectory.)

Saying yes to the diocesan invitation wasn't easy. "It was a little hard to leave (Corpus Christi Monastery in) Rockford and the family we had been. You don't expect to give it up," says Urschalitz, who said that more than 30 sisters remain in Rockford.

But the sisters acceded, and a search for land began. It was complicated by zoning regulations in many communities and the order's requirement to have a cemetery for their members on the grounds. "To tend your faith, you need a view of the cemetery," Urschalitz explains. "It reminds you of the purpose of life."

Their land search ended in 1995 with the assistance of the Warpinski family, who sold a parcel of 27 acres in rural Minooka at a price too good to walk away from, according to Urschalitz.

"Our family was impressed by Mother Dorothy's persistence and her long search for the right land," says Richard Warpinski, a Yorkville resident and spokesman for the family that owns Central Sod Farms of Plainfield.

"Although we didn't know much about the order, we learned. We are proud that we were able to help. We think they'll do a lot spiritually for the community."
The four sisters attended groundbreaking ceremonies for a temporary monastery in October 1995 and have lived there since it was completed in March 1996.

                                     (Monastery, round window is public chapel.)

Four additional sisters will join them when the 8,000-square-foot permanent monastery, designed by Frye, Gillian, Molinaro Architects of Chicago, is completed this December. Construction will begin this spring on the $1 million building, which will house 8 to 10 sisters and include a chapel open to the public for private prayer and for days of spiritual recollection. (Although a curtain separates the sisters from the public in their temporary home, a grille will provide a more permanent divider in their new quarters.)

The building effort has been financially supported by the Rockford monastery, memorial donations from friends and benefactors in Rockford, and assistance from the Joliet diocese. Memorial donations are still welcome, Urschalitz says.

An abbess at the Rockford monastery for 19 years, Urschalitz was given a leadership role in planning Annunciation Monastery, which involved meeting with architects, lawyers and the public. Upon the building's completion, the sisters will elect an abbess and Urschalitz will return to her cloistered existence.
The busyness of moving to a new home does not overshadow their focus or their daily routine, which begins at 5 a.m. when the sisters leave their rooms, or cells, and join each other in the chapel.

"It is one of the most irksome things in the world to be regular about meeting our spiritual needs," Urschalitz points out. "But we prove that we love God when we are faithful to our prayers whether it suits us or not."

They pray the Divine Office, which includes Psalms, readings and prayers. "Prayer is a means of sanctifying the day," she says, explaining that the sisters will pray the Divine Office five more times during the day before they retire at 9 p.m. They will sleep for 3 1/2 hours before rising for another hour of prayer at 12:30 a.m. Mass, a high point of each day, is celebrated by visiting priests, and guests are always welcome, Urschalitz says.

                                  (Sisters entering choir for prayer, Divine Office.)                                   

Rev. James Lennon, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Joliet, is a frequent visitor to the monastery and says mass there every Wednesday. A member of the priests' senate of the Joliet diocese, he initiated the process of bringing the sisters to the Joliet Diocese, and he looks forward to the day when the monastery is completed.

"The Poor Clares were a powerful presence on the South Side of Chicago for many years," Lennon recalls. "People were drawn there by the joyfulness, warmth and peace that permeated that monastery. While the Poor Clares are a unique gift to our diocese, we must remember that we are all called to prayer and to affirm the prayer ministry of other religious communities and the laity."
The sisters schedule time for meditation, praying the rosary, reading scripture and praying for others. Daily, they receive letters and phone calls requesting prayers for specific intentions. Although physically separated from those for whom they pray, there is a special bond, Urschalitz explains: "People are made close by an expression of faith, when they talk and share and pray together."
Gloria Maxwell considers her next-door neighbors "a blessing to the community. It's good to know that the sisters are in our corner, praying with us and for us."
Maxwell and her husband, Don, are frequent visitors to the monastery. "We'll stop over with a loaf of homemade bread, Don's specialty, and Mother Dorothy will respond, 'May God reward you,' " Maxwell says. "But we're already rewarded with their presence."

Choosing a simple existence of prayer and work has its merits, Urschalitz explains.

"You lose a lot when you get involved with too many things. It's better to do what I know," she says. "I know how to pray. I know I can run a chain saw, cut the grass and sew."

For the sisters, work is an act of obedience, a sacrifice of time and effort and a form of penance. They schedule work in two-hour intervals in the morning and afternoon. With the help of modern conveniences, they do their own building and grounds maintenance, cook and garden. They will install the floor tile and paint the interior of the new monastery.

"When we perform manual labor, we identify with the poor and those who work so hard with so little compensation," she points out.

                                    (Postulant puts varnish on crucifix.)

The Minooka sisters raise money by making rosaries, vestments for priests, First Communion veils and hand-smocked baptismal gowns. They design and craft spiritual bouquet cards for a number of occasions, pressing wildflowers, operating their own letterhead-press and adding religious pictures and a touch of calligraphy. These items are for sale at the monastery.

                                              (Handmade calligraphy card.)

During their one hour a day of recreation, the sisters relax and break their silence. The hour is punctuated with laughter and spent visiting about anything but monastery business. It's healthy and a way for the mind to relax, Urschalitz explains. The sisters might play a game of catch or, if numbers permit, start a volleyball or baseball game. In keeping with monastic tradition of feeding the soul as well as the body, meal times are quiet, she says, except for the voice of one sister who reads scripture or inspirational material.

                                     (Franciscan joy - the nuns at recreation.)

"We find God in our lives here and in the sisters. And we become a family, but the young sisters have a difficult time at first, separating from their own families," Urschalitz says. She explained that they may not return home for any occasion, even the funerals of parents. Their families may visit them (separated by the grille) at the monastery four times a year. Communication is done by letters, though families will telephone with important messages such as a birth in the family.

When cloistered, a sister may leave the monastery only for medical appointments and to vote. In every monastery, one sister--Urschalitz in this case--is an extern, serving as a representative to the public and handling the sisters' outside business.

When a woman enters the order,there it is followed by six years of preparation, beginning as a postulant and concluding with final vows.

Today, the order counts 17,000 members internationally. What attracts a woman to a strict order are the very things that would seem to discourage it. According to Urschalitz, the discipline of cloistered life is liberating, setting them free to grow spiritually. The women entering the order today are a little older with more life experiences than her generation, who entered after high school. The eight sisters who will occupy the Minooka monastery range in age from 35 to 70.

Urschalitz recalls one woman's arrival in Rockford. "She was a businesswoman, a computer expert, all dressed up in a beautiful suit with a scarf draped just so over her shoulder.

"Just one year away from her final vows, the new member drives a tractor, moving wood chips. She tells us that she can't understand how she lived differently than she does now."

                                             (From the nun's website:  a nun on a tractor!)

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