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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


April 11, 1998 - before current monastery was built

Every day, just before 12:30 a.m., a digital alarm clock rings in the basement of a home along Minooka Road. A few minutes later, five women walk upstairs to a living room that has been converted into a sanctuary. The women are barefoot.

They are clad in gray robes and have black hoods pulled over white head covers that leave only their faces exposed. The floor in the living room area is tile, the walls are pale blue. At the center is a simple wooden altar, crowded with candles, a statue of the Virgin Mary and a colorful box. Above the altar hangs a crude wooden crucifix.

The air in the room is permanently stained from the incense burned there daily. Amid the still of midnight the women begin to worship. They sing a hymn and chant Psalms. Then they meditate in private prayer. At 2 a.m. they return to bed. They'll sleep for three more hours before they wake up again and silently file back into the makeshift sanctuary. They worship and pray for 2-1/2 more hours. Then a priest arrives to celebrate Mass.
 For more than 750 years, women have become Poor Clare nuns. In doing so, they physically close themselves off from family and friends and devote their lives to prayer. To a nun's ordinary vows -- poverty, chastity and obedience -- Poor Clares add a fourth vow: enclosure. They do not teach. They do not care for the sick. They do not counsel. They do not read newspapers, watch television or listen to the radio. They don't eat meat or snack. When relatives visit, which is allowed four times a year, the sisters must speak to them from behind a metal grate. They don't talk much. Their rule is speak when necessary, but always in a low voice.

What do the Poor Clares do? They pray for the church and for people who don't pray. They worship.
 They read the Bible and Catholic writings. They sing hymns and chant Christian creeds. They also labor, attempting to be as self-sufficient as possible. Catholics call such orders cloistered or contemplative, because part of their job is to contemplate the church's teachings. Mother Mary Dorothy Urschalitz, who has been a Poor Clare for 38 years, knows how odd their lives appear in today's world. "They (lay people) think we have a hard life," she said. "I think they have a hard life."

The Annunciation Monastery of Poor Clares in Minooka is the first contemplative order in the Joliet Diocese. In 1990, the diocese's priest senate began looking into bringing a contemplative order to Joliet. The diocese sent letters to 20 different orders. Nineteen responded that they did not have enough nuns to start a new order. But the Corpus Christi Monastery located in Rockford said it was interested. The Rev. James Lennon of Joliet's St. Patrick Parish went to Rockford and urged the sisters to found a new monastery in Joliet. The sisters agreed to move nine nuns, and the bishops sanctioned the venture. It took nearly five years for the Poor Clares to find a new home.

The nuns almost bought land near Yorkville until neighbors and Kendall County officials raised concerns over the Clares' need to maintain their own cemetery. The Warpinski family heard about the nuns' plight from a priest and offered to sell them 20 wooded acres in Minooka owned by the family business, Central Sod Farms. The Warpinskis' asking price was nearly five times less than the sisters had offered. The Poor Clares bought the land. In October 1995, the sisters moved to their new home at 6200 E. Minooka Road in northern Grundy County.

At first, the sisters lived in a mobile home while they waited for their temporary house to be built. In 1996, they moved into the ranch house where they will live until the monastery is completed, possibly by August. They now use the mobile home as an office.

Mother Dorothy, who was abbess of Rockford's Corpus Christi Monastery and is now abbess in Minooka, said that from her dealings with contractors and architects, she has gained understanding of how people become so wrapped up in their lives that they neglect God.
"I keep reminding myself this is just an earthly building," she admitted. The women of the Annunciation Monastery are considered pioneers by the sisters who remained in Rockford. The move was somewhat unthinkable for the sisters, many of whom believed they would never set foot outside the stone wall of the Rockford monastery. In pioneering, the sisters have sacrificed some of their solitude.
Since being at Minooka, they have done things they wouldn't have thought likely before, like enduring newspaper reporters and photographers. Lennon said the Poor Clares were brought to the Joliet Diocese in part because they pray for local priests and parishes. But Lennon believes all people benefit from the work of the sisters. "The fullness of the Catholic Church finds its expression in both the active and contemplative life," Lennon said. "Today there is a great need for these sisters. A large number of people, Catholics and non-Catholics, are looking for quiet time. It's harder than ever to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world and listen to God. That's not pie-in-the-sky; that's realism." Because of their seclusion and rule of silence, the Poor Clares have more capacity for communicating with God, he said.

"The average person today might ask the questions: Why shut yourself off and withdraw from the world? Is it selfishness?" Lennon said. "And yet, the opposite is true. This is, we believe, a part of grace or a calling from God. They're embracing the spiritual life for us in a fuller way."
Mother Dorothy said that through talking with God and studying the Bible, people learn to act like God. "The praying church is the heart or breath of the church," Mother Dorothy said. "In prayer and worship, the Christian soul is formed. ... The devil can quote scripture, but he can't live it."
 Although the nuns are shut off from the outside world, they don't seem unworldly. The priests keep them abreast of major news when they come for Mass. They laugh and smile often. "They're not the meek, mild, shy girl in the corner," Lennon said. "They're hard workers. They don't spend all their time in chapel."

In Rockford, the sisters grew much of their own food. In Minooka, they operate and perform maintenance on a tractor and station wagon. "We're a bit of Jack-of-all- trades," said Sister Mary Bernadine. "There isn't much we can't do."

During their one hour of daily recreation -- when the sisters may speak freely -- they make rosaries and knit vestments, altar linens and Communion veils. Sister Bernadine said some days she feels like bursting out with chatter at recreation time. Other times, the hour is as quiet as the rest of the day.

Bird seed dribbles over the top of the many feeders outside Don and Gloria Maxwell's home. The Maxwells often look out the window over their kitchen sink to follow the activities of the mysterious, wild creatures. The Maxwells feared the worst when they heard someone was inquiring about the Warpinski property, diagonally across Minooka Road from them. But upon learning about the Poor Clares, the Maxwells credited divine intervention. Nineteen years ago, their daughter, Anita, 14, was killed in a car wreck at the edge of what is now the sisters' property. "I can't help but feel she (Anita) had something to do with bringing them here," Gloria said.

During the Poor Clares' first winter in Minooka, it got too cold for them to stay in the mobile home. The Maxwells helped out, and a neighborly bond was formed. Now, besides regularly attending the 7 a.m. public Mass, Don and Gloria track their neighbors' progress. The Maxwells delight in the times they catch a glimpse of a sister outside. "They're the sweetest people in the world," Gloria said. "They ask for nothing, and they do with very little. They've really sacrificed their lives for all of us."

Dick Warpinski Jr., co-owner of Central Sod Farms, said working with the sisters prompted him to do some soul searching. "It kind of makes you step back and think a little bit about why you're going through this rat race," he said. "They don't have all the comforts we have, but they probably have more peace of mind."

Although Gloria Maxwell knows the sisters pray for all people, she can't help but feel they're praying especially for her family. "It's just very comforting. You go out there and see them, they're a sign of peace and hope and trusting in God," Gloria said. "You don't know them or hear about them, but there are people in your corner praying for you."
While the other sisters eat in the refectory, Sister Dorothy visits with the Rev. Jim Lennon in the parlor. Although their small temporary residence is inadequate to the demands of cloistered lifestyle, the Poor Clares try to keep their vow of enclosure with drawn curtains and closed doors. The monastic tradition dictates that the nuns not speak during meals. after a prayer of thanksgiving, the nuns listen to tape-recorded lectures from religious leaders as they eat the main meal of their day. Sister Rose and Sister Annunciata hold hands for support as they walk through the fields of Annunciation Monastery. Sister Rose entered the sisterhood at 19, expecting to live and die inside the walls of Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford.

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