ELLISVILLE, Mo. — “Praised be Jesus Christ,” comes a voice from behind the heavy wooden door of the cloister for the Passionist Nuns of St. Louis.
A moment later a revolving metal compartment built into the wall spins and a key appears — passed through the wall by an unseen nun, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.
The key unlocks a visiting room decorated with images from the Bible and an old photo of this monastery as it used to be, surrounded by farmland and a dairy barn. Today its neighbors are a suburban shopping center, a gym, a Smoothie King and a Chick-fil-A.
But life inside the convent hasn’t changed much over the 57 years it’s been tucked away in west St. Louis County. It’s the world outside that has transformed, making the countercultural life of the women who choose to live here more of a rarity each passing year.
The nuns here on 32 acres off Clayton Road continue traditions their order has practiced for some 250 years.
They focus on prayer and take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They speak only when necessary most hours of the day. They live without internet or secular media. They leave the convent only on rare occasions, such as doctors appointments. And hardest to bear for them all, family members are allowed to visit only once a year.
On a recent day, yellow curtains along the wall of the visiting room slowly opened to show the five remaining Passionist Nuns of St. Louis. Dressed in long black habits and veils to greet a Post-Dispatch reporter and photographer, they stood behind a metal grate that covers a picture window cut into the wall.
The bars of the grate preserve the barrier of the cloister, dividing the nuns from outsiders and maintaining their vow of enclosure.
They spend their lives behind this grate. They stay on their side of the wall when family members visit. When a sister in the order dies, the casket remains inside the cloister for the wake and attendees pay their respects from the other side of the wall. The sisters are even buried within the cloister, in a little cemetery on the property with headstones bearing the names they were given by the mother superior during their first years with the order, rather than their birth names.
Who would be drawn to this unconventional life?
Today the convent is home to the novice, Sister Isidora Maria, 29, a millennial convert to Catholicism who gave up her cellphone and entered the convent three years ago. There’s also Sister Maria Fatima, a 48-year-old Cajun woman who still has a thick accent from her small hometown in southern Louisiana, where she lived on a street alongside dozens of relatives. Sister Catherine Marie, 66, worked in a factory that made equipment for chicken farmers in California before hearing the call; and Sister Mary Elizabeth, 50, had a corporate job at Koch Industries.
Finally, there’s the order’s mother superior, Mother Mary Veronica, 70, who left an 11-year career as a flight attendant for American Airlines in her 30s to join the order and seek a closeness with God.
These women believe their life of prayer away from distraction can change the world outside the convent walls. They see themselves as engines of prayer, asking God to hear the needs of the suffering.
But as the numbers of women religious in this country have dwindled, so too have the Passionist Nuns of St. Louis.
At its peak the order had 18 sisters. Now five keep the monastery alive.
Meanwhile, developers have made offers on their picturesque — and now valuable — land.
“We tell them, ‘Move right along,’?” said Mother Mary Veronica, remembering men who have come knocking at the convent door. “We’re not interested in selling.”
But the Passionists are slowly adapting. They now have a website and a Facebook page run by a volunteer, which they hope may help young women find the order. The mother superior is slowly learning how to work a smartphone. And, almost antithetical to their life of enclosure, they allowed a Post-Dispatch reporter and photographer inside the convent to tell their stories with the hope that it might help their way of life endure.
Life behind the convent door
The convent door opens to reveal an interior that resembles a 1950s-era Catholic school with its long halls, pastel walls and vintage religious art in every room.
When asked how many outsiders have been beyond the cloister barriers, Mother Mary Veronica begins counting on her fingers: maintenance men, doctors, women interested in joining the order, an envoy from the Vatican.
The smiling nuns welcoming their guests contrast with somber decor such as a statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus and a sculpture of Christ covered in wounds.
The Passionists are set apart from other cloistered orders for their focus on the final hours before Christ’s death and the belief that there is spiritual value to sacrifice and suffering.
The Ellisville community is one of about 130 cloistered orders in the U.S. today and one of five Passionist orders in the country.
Despite the focus on sacrifice, the nuns appear filled with joy.
They laugh often, such as when they remember the time someone ordered a pizza for them but the box wouldn’t fit through the rotating pass-through into the cloister.
“We had to be creative,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth. They can be self-deprecating and goofy when they talk about the life they lead.
But on the day of this visit, the nuns have work to attend to. They run a business baking altar bread, and it was the middle of the busy season with Easter approaching.
The baking business, along with donations that accompany prayer requests, financially support the monastery.
Three sisters, dressed in veils and white habits yellowed with flour, moved to the uneven rhythm of seven old hot presses for more than three hours, baking thin sheets of altar bread with a hiss and a puff of steam.
The sisters cut the bread into hosts and package 500-count bags they send to churches in the St. Louis area and beyond.
“It’s a real workout,” said Mother Mary Veronica as she shuffles between presses. “This is not light work.”
Meanwhile, in the convent’s industrial kitchen, Sister Mary Catherine works dual jobs — a necessity now that the Passionist’s numbers have dwindled.
She cooks meals for the order while taking prayer request calls every few minutes. She receives petitions to help a daughter who recently lost her disabled son, for an aunt with an upcoming birthday and for a dying relative. With a donation, the callers can get cards hand-painted by the nuns during their recreation time and marking that they are in the order’s prayers.
The nuns keep up with world events through these requests, as well as through the select Catholic newspapers that are sent to the convent. Sister Mary Catherine remembers first hearing about the attacks on 9/11 when people began calling, seeking prayers for the victims in New York.
Today, Sister Mary Catherine also has duties in the kitchen. She plans to make a tortilla soup for dinner — without meat, because the sisters abstain through all of Lent.
The order relies on donated food, including weekly produce deliveries that the Dierbergs grocery chain has been donating for years. Sister Mary Catherine writes up short shopping lists, with groceries purchased and delivered to the convent door by volunteers who call themselves the “Chapellettes,” a sort of Passionist fan club who attend Mass in the chapel here most mornings and help connect the nuns with basic services.
Today, Sister Mary Catherine loads a recent delivery of milk and eggs into a fridge that is decorated with a magnet of Pope John Paul II and a handwritten quote from the order’s founder, St. Paul of the Cross, in 1746: “If chocolate strengthens your stomach, and I believe it does, take it often.”
“He was a wise man,” the nun says, laughing.
A day in the cloister
Most days, the Passionists wake up at 5 a.m. in their modest rooms, each furnished with a simple twin bed, a desk and a hook on the door, in place of a closet, where two habits hang.
Each nun sews her own habit, and Sister Maria Fatima made the sisters’ thick leather belts to which they attach their rosaries.
Each day begins with the first of seven half-hour periods of prayer. The prayers, known as the Liturgy of the Hours, are a spiritual practice observed in many contemplative monasteries such as the Passionists.
The sisters then sit in contemplation in the darkened church until Mass begins at 6 a.m. Members of the public attend the service but, as in the visiting room, remain separated from the sisters by a metal grate.
Though some may see such barriers as restrictive, the nuns say it is freeing.
“It’s not a prison, it’s a choice,” said the young novice Sister Isidora Maria. “A lot of people in my family were skeptical, but I tell them: Remember, it’s locked from the inside out. It’s not keeping us in. We’re keeping the distractions from the world out. It’s so easy to lose your connection to God when you lose solitude.”
After another period of prayer, the sisters share a simple breakfast before beginning the first of two periods of work, which can consist of baking bread and completing household duties. While working, the sisters speak only when necessary for their duties.
The day continues with designated periods for silence, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary and spiritual reading.
The sisters get two periods of about 45 minutes for recreation each day when they may speak freely and do what they like. They often knit, draw or work puzzles. Sometimes they use the only computer on the property, an early-2000s Macintosh with neon blue sides that is not connected to the internet, as a CD player for music. The soundtrack to the “Passion of Christ” is their current favorite.
By about 8:40 p.m. each night, the sisters begin the Great Silence, a time that begins with the ringing of a bell when no talking is permitted. The silence lasts through lights out at 9:30 p.m. and until breakfast the next morning.
The routine has endured for Passionist nuns around the world since 1771. Still, the question of how long this way of life can remain in Ellisville is inescapable.
This May, the order will have one of its most hopeful moments in decades. Sister Isidora Maria is set to make her first profession of vows, the first new sister in the order to do so in decades.
A novice brings hope
Sister Isidora Maria’s last day outside the cloister was May 27, 2015 — her 27th birthday.
Her name then was Hailey Pitts.
Both parents flew with their daughter from their home in suburban Georgia to throw her a modest birthday party in the convent’s visiting room before saying goodbye.
After a few hours, the sisters told Hailey to ring the doorbell when she was ready to enter. She was eager.
She had converted to Catholicism when she was 20, after finding the faith while enrolled in a 12-step program for food addiction. She soon began to consider life as a cloistered nun.
To prepare, she cleared her debts, deleted her Facebook page, set her Gmail account to expire and got rid of her cellphone. She disconnected herself from technology, though she had been an online gamer for years.
Now she was ready.
Her parents cried and hugged her in front of the cloister door. Her father, pediatrician John Pitts, told her he loved her, using a little phrase he’d said when she was a small girl: “I love you dearly and sincerely and not merely.”
As she passed through the doorway, her parents reached after her, keeping the door from closing as if to hold on a little longer.
From the moment the door shut, Hailey was a member of the community.
The entry of a young woman breathed new life into the convent.
The Passionists had lost five sisters in as many years — four died and one returned home to an order in Spain. Hailey Pitts was a sign that life in the cloisters could continue. Since then, other young women have shown interest, arriving for weeklong visits to try out the life.
In her three years with the Passionists, the young nun is learning to remain quiet for several hours of the day, though she is naturally talkative. She has lost more than 100 pounds which she credits, in part, to the hard work of pressing the altar bread. She used her love of drawing to make pictures during times of prayer, but slowly has reduced this habit to focus on contemplation.
“I’ve had to learn how to be a human being, not a human doing,” she said. “So much of the time we are always wanting to do things, but it’s freeing to give that up and focus on nothing but God.”
Still, she continues to create drawings of her new life in the order. They show her at work baking, building a snowman with a little nun’s veil of its own outside and even dozing off in the chapel with the caption: “Morning meditation is not always easy.”
After about a year, she went from the first stage of training, a postulent, to become a novice in the order. She took a name given to her by the mother superior: Sister Isidora Maria, and her head was shaved like the other sisters.
“It represents giving up your vanity completely,” she said. “And I was ready to do that.”
This May, Sister Isidora Maria will begin the final phase of her entry into the order when she makes her first profession of vows. She will pledge to live a life of chastity, poverty, obedience and enclosure and will renew the vows each year for at least six years before taking a final vow for life.
Her parents plan to visit to witness the momentous occasion. The members of her community mark it as a sign of hope.
“If God didn’t want us to continue, why would he send us a vocation?” said Mother Mary Veronica. “Someone so young and willing to give her whole heart to this life, I think it shows we’re still meant to be here.”
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com
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