Benedictine Sisters Archived Stories
It is late March and the sun is rising, flooding the eastern sky in deep pink. St. Mary Monastery’s bell tower stands in silent silhouette against the spreading bloom. There is no hurry here: birds sing, deer browse, breezes rustle the underbrush.
Then the largest bell begins to ring, slowly, repeatedly, drowning out all other sound. BONG … BONG ... BONG ... It is calling the Sisters to morning prayer, or Lauds. It is calling them to begin their day.
Every day at the monastery begins this way, with the Sisters filing into the chapel to break their overnight silence with song and prayer. Indeed, every day at every Benedictine monastery across the globe begins with the communal prayer of the church called Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office). With silence and song, Scripture and the Psalms, the Benedictines praise God and ask God’s protection for those in need. For the Sisters of St. Benedict, this communal prayer happens three times daily, in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, forming the hinges of their day and the heart of their life together.
“The Liturgy of the Hours is also called the Opus Dei, or Work of God,” Sr. Catherine Cleary, OSB, explains. “As Benedictines, it holds the central and dominant place in our lives. Our reason for being here is to seek God, and this communal prayer is an outward sign that we are doing so together. We sing and chant the Psalms, we sit in silent reflection on the Word. In fact, early morning is a period of silent reflection before Lauds. Our silence is broken by song and the praise of God in the resurrection theme of Lauds. God is the first one we call upon in the morning.”
The call is quiet and reverential. As the sun’s rays slowly but steadily overspread the walls and floor, so the Sisters’ prayer steadily fills the chapel, many voices blending into one, in song and in chant.
“I get this wonderful feeling of unity with the community at prayer,” Sr. Susan Hutchens, OSB, says. “To look out and see our 98- and 99-year old Sisters praying with one voice with the younger members really moves me. It’s the thing that unites us all in our search for God. And it unites us daily. I remember a monk once saying that praying the Office is like winding the clock every day. It’s the daily-ness that I love about it.”
The Liturgy of the Hours comes from the Scripture to pray without ceasing. The number and times of prayer have been modified over the millennia – some monastic communities may pray as many as eight times a day, rising well before dawn to begin – but most follow a less rigorous schedule today. The principal Hours, as determined by the Second Vatican Council, are Lauds and Vespers, or evening prayer. As Lauds symbolizes the Resurrection, at morning light it “brings us out of darkness into a new day of salvation,” Sr. Susan says. “We have been redeemed because Christ has risen. Lauds also is an act of dedication of the day, with its labors and accomplishments, to the Lord. At Vespers, we thank God for the good of the day, and ask for forgiveness for our sins.”
The Psalms form the basic content of the Liturgy of the Hours. “Jesus himself prayed the Psalms,” Sr. Susan says. “Jesus prays them within us as we pray them to Him. They express every human emotion, need, longing and feeling. As we pray to and with Jesus, we nourish and develop the prayer of the heart which prays without ceasing and enters contemplation.”
The heavens proclaim your wonders, O Lord, and your faithfulness, in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies can rank with the Lord? (Psalm 89)
After Lauds, many Sisters remain in the chapel in silent reflection, to await the beginning of the Eucharistic celebration which usually follows.
“Lauds leads very naturally into Mass, as the primary celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection,” Sr. Teresa Ann Harrington, OSB, says. “By the time we leave the chapel, we are ready for the day.”
The bells ring again, three hours later, to summon the Sisters to Noonday prayer shortly before lunch. Although sometimes inconvenient – projects beg for just a few minutes more – the Sisters obey St. Benedict’s command to lay down whatever they have in hand and leave it unfinished.
Noonday prayer is short – only ten minutes or so – but as nourishing of the heart and spirit as the lunch that follows it is of the body.
“These prayers are so much a part of our lives, they are in our very bones,” Sr. Teresa Ann says. “We make a conscious effort to be present in our minds and hearts during our prayers. That practice helps us go into the rest of our day – to lunch with each other and back to our ministries – nourished and refreshed. We are able to be present to each other.”
The Vespers bells ring at the end of the workday, calling the Sisters together, one last time, for evening prayer. (On Sundays, they also say Compline, or Night Prayer.) “It’s time to lay down the worries of the day in peace,” Sr. Catherine says. “I look around at the Sisters and feel so good that we have come together, as one, in prayer. Our guests can pray these prayers, as well. Muslims, Jews and Christians: everyone can pray the Psalms. They are 2400 years old and universal! They are
Vespers ends with a quiet but resonant tap on the gong near the organ. Day, too, has ended. The Sisters will walk together to the dining room for dinner, perhaps to be followed by a stroll along the lake, a game in the community room, or a little reading. Peace, the ultimate blessing of a life of prayer, fills this sacred place as the shadows deepen into night.
Sr. Jozefa’s joy is contagious: you go back to work renewed. But her joy was hard won. It survived and grew despite a childhood of wrenching turbulence. Sr. Jozefa, now a Sister of St. Benedict at St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island, was 14 years old when the spring that changed everything dawned. Her voice is quiet but clear. Her words come quickly, tumbling and tangling as she gropes impatiently for the English words that are not part of her native tongue.
“My father died on April 12, 1941,” she says, “and my mother died 18 days later. At her wake, we could see Italian soldiers marching toward our village. The Germans were coming from another direction. For the next few months, my sisters and I tried to keep the farm going. I took care of the cows and horses, and my other sisters took care of the pigs and cooked. We all helped with the fieldwork.
“Then the Italians took all our men and boys to an island and starved them. The mayors pleaded for their release. When my brother, Ivan, came home, I almost didn’t recognize him. He was just skin and bones.”
By now, the Communists had begun organizing in Slovenia, and Sr. Jozefa remembers their army members trying to persuade Ivan to join. “Ivan didn’t trust the Communists, so he and others organized the Domobranci army to protect our village,” Sr. Jozefa says. “The Communists would come to our houses at night and steal our food and blankets and clothes.”
The years between 1941 and the war’s end were filled with fear and sorrow for Sr. Jozefa. One such moment came when her brother Franc was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau (he later escaped). Others came when she herself was detained and questioned by the Communists.
The Communists proved to be the biggest threat to Slovenian happiness and peace. “In early May, 1945, the war was over,” Sr. Jozefa says. “But Communists were taking over our country. We had to leave. We loaded our wagon and joined a procession that was miles long. We went through a long, dark, water-dripping tunnel to Austria. We walked for days, with the Domobranci fighting the Communists ahead. We settled into a camp in Austria, and the Domobranci were sent back to Slovenia, supposedly to make barracks for the civilians. But they fell into Communist hands and were slaughtered. Ivan was among them.
“When the Slovenians in the camp learned what happened to their men, there was one big cry, all night long. I will never forget that sound.
Things began to get better after that. We stayed in a more permanent camp for several years, and I made friends and learned how to sew. In 1949, the Sisters of St. Benedict sponsored us to come to Nauvoo (where the Sisters then lived). The Sisters seemed so very happy, and that impressed me. After a year, I decided to enter.
“I wasn’t angry at the Communists, but I was so scared of them I used to wake up crying for Ivan. But after I made final profession, I never cried like that again. I’m grateful the rest of my sisters and brother survived. I have pretty good health and I can still laugh. Life is good!”