SUGARLOAF, Pennsylvania — Around six years ago, Mother Marija had three miniature horses delivered to Holy Annunciation Monastery in Sugarloaf Township.
She saw the tiny equines as a way to bring the monastery's sisters together, and as a step toward helping those from India, Slovakia and the Ukraine overcome language barriers.
"At first, the horses were a way to develop a sense of community," Mother Marija remembered.
In time, it accomplished just that.
But as the sisters learned more about the horses — and each other — the venture began to grow. The sisters opened the "Carmelites Mini Corral," and soon after, an unexpected blessing arrived.
AmorÃ© Lalita, one of the mares raised and trained by the nuns, was named World Grand Champion Senior Mare and World Grand Champion Amateur Senior Mare at the 2013 American Miniature Horse Association's World Show in Fort Worth, Texas.
"It was so sudden because it was the first time we ever showed our horses," Mother Marija said.
It was a proud moment for the sisters, who display the mare's ribbons and awards inside a common room. A framed photo of the mare hangs near a fireplace, and a copy of a recent edition of Miniature Horse World magazine is within easy reach. Mother Marija flipped through its glossy pages until she found it — a full-page photo of the nuns and the mare.
"Once you win, then the whole world knows," Mother Marija smiled.
Hard work, long days
Each of the 13 Byzantine Carmelite sisters plays a role in raising and caring for the 40-plus horses on the property, which encompasses approximately 21 acres. It's hard work, but the sisters, who vary in age from 20-something to Mother Marija's 85 years, are accustomed to hard work. They lead a cloistered life, observe strict poverty — and work to survive.
Days begin at 3:15 a.m. for the sisters.
"We rise at that time because we need time for prayer," Mother Marija said.
After a 4 a.m. vigil, nuns meditate for an hour and gather for a liturgical hour. After the sun has risen, the sisters determine the day's schedule.
Some are dispatched to the stables. Others are sent to the vegetable gardens and orchards. And depending on the day or the season, a few stay inside to bake for the monastery's baked goods sales.
The sisters also can and jar what they harvest from the land, and put up around 2,000 pounds of preserved food each year. They also make cheese, butter — and sometimes, ice cream __ from their Jersey cows' milk. They consume the preserved bounty and dairy products, but make candles, soaps and other items to sell in the gift shop.
"We're not philanthropists," Mother Marija said.
It's quite the opposite — the sisters are as self-sufficient and self-supporting as possible. Years ago, when a promised donation fell through, the sisters picked up carpentry equipment and built the on-site chapel.
"If you want to pray, OK, you want to pray — that's your vocation. But you have to pay your bills, and you have to find a way to do it," Mother Marija said.
Following more mid-morning prayers and services one day this summer, Sister Kristina unlatched a barn door and began her chores. She wore a baseball cap with the words, "Pray-Pray-Pray," over her habit and a denim apron over her brown robe.
She opened a large compartmentalized bin the nuns made to store food for the livestock.
"Look, here's the menu," Sister Kristina said, motioning to an under-the-lid chart with names of the horses, sheep and cows listed next to their feeding times and food types. "Some of the horses are older so they require different things."
The livestock also eat hay, which the nuns recently started growing, cutting and baling.
"We learn to use all of our property as best we can," Mother Marija said.
Another call to prayer comes at 1 p.m. Those who cannot make it to the chapel are encouraged to pray where they work. For that purpose, the nuns built a small room with a chair, crucifix and Bible on a field that overlooks the rolling mountains. Sisters can also find opportunities to pray, meditate and read at a peaceful fountain made from rocks dug from their grounds, or at an airy gazebo a field away.
Dozens of varieties of peonies, lilies, roses and other flowers spill alongside fences and climb trellises.
"God is truth, unity, goodness — and beauty," Mother Marija said, explaining why the nuns keep the flowers.
The sisters also look after a few canines, including two Italian Maremma livestock guardian dogs. The furry, white dogs keep an added watch on the horses — and are loyal to Mother Marija, who stashes a handful of treats in her robe for them and the monastery's German shepherds.
'So much joy'
Inside a separate barn are around a dozen foals, including one the sisters named "Legs."
"There she is!," Sister Kristina tells a visitor. "Look at her legs. They look so long!"
The "oldest" foal born this year — Stella — arrived in February. Shortly after birth, she donned a fleece "coat" crafted by the nuns.
"When they are born in February or March, it is very cold," Sister Kristina said, "They shiver even if they are born in July because there is a drastic change."
Sister Marija Tereska, who trains the horses for shows, pulled a colorful stack of the four-legged clothing from a shelf, and unfurled one stitched with star and moon appliques.
"These are pajamas for the newborn horses," said Sister Maria Tereska. "Aren't they cute?"
The sisters giggled as they sorted through the stack, showing visitors a few of their favorites.
"The horses bring them so much joy," Mother Marija said.
Some of the horses sold have found homes as far away as England, France and Canada.
One of the sisters, who helps breed and deliver the horses, has a background in medicine and a "gift" for genetics, Mother Marija said. Her skills are an asset since buyers often look at the horses' lines and pedigrees.
Buyers also look for other characteristics. In one instance, two horses were purchased to provide therapy services to physically challenged children, Mother Marija said.
And while the horses require much time and care, the sisters must dedicate time to other chores. For Christmas and Easter, they bake breads, pies, rolls and cookies. Sister Kristina baked 1,700 cheesecakes for the last Christmas sale, while another sister makes between 15,000 and 20,000 cookies each year.
Baking doesn't end when the holidays do. The sisters bake bread and other items from their state-licensed bakery and sell it from their gift shop on Wednesdays.
The nuns also make and sell colorful, scented goats' milk soap and hand-dipped candles. They also make jelly, embroider and decorate pysanky eggs.
"I tell sisters they can do anything. Bring it to perfection and I'll get you the equipment you need to produce a good product," Mother Marija said. "It can't be just a hobby — it has to help us live."
Down the road, Mother Marija would love to open the grounds to the public. She sees the land as a place to pray, meditate and study Scripture. But for now, she's focused on building a storage shed for the new hay-baling equipment.
Work and prayer continue after lunch, and sisters gather again for a light supper and prayer.
"After 5 o'clock, there is total silence here. And I have no problem because everyone is so tired and all they want to do is go to bed," Mother Marija said. "But it's a great way to live."
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