Poor Clare Mother Mary Leo and Sister Mary Christiana talk about Sister making her solemn profession to the community in St. Louis, MO.
The sign of a woman’s true strength is not a measure of independence or success, but rather her persevering love.
Just ask Sister Mary Christiana of Our Eucharistic King, who recently made her final solemn profession as a member of the Poor Clare nuns.
A native of Ste. Genevieve, the 25-year-old made her final profession at a Mass Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, after six years of formation with the cloistered, contemplative Franciscan community of women religious located in South County, off Telegraph Road.
At that moment, Sister Mary Christiana left behind everything she had — including a culture that encourages women to be independent, successful individuals — and professed for the rest of her life the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure, so that she might live the Gospel in entire poverty, just as Christ did. It was exactly as St Clare did when she founded the community almost 800 years ago in Assisi, Italy.
Born Camille Marie Schwent, the 2004 graduate of Ste. Genevieve High School, began considering a religious vocation in high school, after her mom became involved as a youth minister through their parish, St. Agnes in Bloomsdale, and began taking her daughter to various activities.
“I was furthest from being interested in all of that,” Sister Mary Christiana said, but “there came a point when the Lord just kind of touched my heart.” There was a pilgrimage to Medjugorje her junior year in high school. Then came the visits to religious communities — the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. They were welcoming, but not quite what she was looking for. Suddenly, she felt called to look at cloistered communities. She first gave a call to the Poor Clares.
“It was a nice, quiet place,” she recalled. “I felt (this was) what I had been looking for. It felt like home, even though it wasn’t really home yet.” When her mom picked her up after making a first visit there, she told her she knew it was the right place.
Like any mom, she gave a knowing smile. “She just kind of smiled and said, ‘I knew the whole time you’d be cloistered,’” Sister Mary Christiana recalled.
Like her fellow nuns, Sister Mary Christiana was attracted to a life in which she gives herself in prayer for the intentions of the whole world, according to Mother Mary Leo, the community’s abbess. The Poor Clares “dedicate their lives to prayer and to penance,” she said, adding that the idea is to live the Gospel in total poverty, just like St. Francis of Assisi, who inspired and helped St. Clare found the Poor Clares in 1212.
The Poor Clares came to St. Louis in the late 1950s, when then-Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter, invited the community here. The Monastery of St. Clare of the Immaculate Conception was erected in 1958, and the following year, the first nuns came to live here. Today, there are 12 women in the community, ranging in age from 21 to 69. The majority of them are from St. Louis, but others come from Texas, Kansas, Illinois and the East Coast. Last year, they finished work on an addition that nearly doubled the size of the monastery’s living space.
Sister Mary Elizabeth, novice mistress, said she has seen a slow, but steady increase in the interest from women considering a religious vocation, particularly young women. “Young people … know what the world has to offer, and it’s not fulfilling enough,” she said. “There is more for those of us who have any inkling of who God is and a desire to want to follow His will versus what the world is saying.”
The typical day of a Poor Clare nun includes rising shortly after midnight for Matins, or the midnight Office of Readings. The community returns to bed and then rises again just after 5 a.m. to start the day, which is filled with Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, orther prayers and adoration, readings and silent meditation. Each person in the community is assigned to responsibilities for the upkeep of the monastery. One of those duties includes making altar breads.
“It’s a simple day, but it’s full,” explained Sister Mary Christiana.
But don’t expect any of the nuns to tell you the work is mind-numbing.
“There’s so much to read and so much to take in,” she said. “I haven’t used my mind (this) much in my life.”
Sister Mary Elizabeth said that each woman applies what she takes in through prayer, reading, communing with God and the day-to-day living with her fellow nuns. “It’s the information and the life that really makes the depth come out,” she explained. “We’ve got to live it. It changes you, but it only makes you more beautiful and who God wants you to be.”
“I always like to look at our vows more as a freedom,” said Mother Mary Leo. “It’s a privilege to be able to serve the Lord totally.” Just as Sts. Francis and Clare did centuries ago, “we place our total confidence in God. They gave Him everything and then trusted in His providence that He would take care of them.”
The Poor Clares welcome the public to join them in prayer at the following times in the community’s public chapel, 200 Marycrest Drive in South County.
For more information, call (314) 846-2618.
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