Evansville’s Monastery of St. Clare closing

Special to The Message

Evansville Bishop Joseph M. Siegel has received word from the nuns of the Order of St. Clare that they will be closing Evansville’s Monastery of St. Clare and relocating the remaining nuns in the near future. 

Current Abbess Poor Clare Sister Jane Marie Deland explained that a serious lack of vocations to the contemplative life of prayer has led several Poor Clare monasteries to close in the U.S. over the past 3-5 years, with many more also closing in Europe. The Evansville monastery has dropped below the minimum number of six nuns required to remain open.

Bishop Siegel said, “For the past 126 years, the Poor Clares have been a spiritual powerhouse for the Church in southwest Indiana.  Catholics and other people of faith owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the nuns for the many graces and blessing granted by God through their intercession.  We will certainly feel the loss of their presence, witness and prayers.  On behalf of the Diocese of Evansville, I have assured the nuns of our continued prayers, support and assistance, especially in their coming transition.  In honor of the Poor Clares and their foundress, Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio, a meeting space in the Catholic Center has been designated the Bentivoglio Room.”

Sister Jane Marie said that, throughout this painful process, Franciscan Father John Eaton, OFM, Vicar for the Sacred Heart Franciscan Province, and Poor Clare Sister Charlene Toups, Abbess at the New Orleans Poor Clare Monastery and president of the sisters’ federation, have been very helpful. The Diocese of Evansville is in conversation with Sister Jane Marie and Father John about the potential for the monastery property to continue to be used for some form of diocesan ministry.

Conversations also will continue regarding a meaningful celebration to acknowledge and thank the nuns for their 126 years of service in the diocese. Details of that celebration will appear in The Message when they are finalized.

More on the Poor Clares in Evansville and America

The Poor Clares have served in the Diocese of Evansville for more than 125 years, dating to 1897. Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio came to the USA in 1975 with her natural sister, Poor Clare Sister Mary Constance Bentivoglio, at the direction of Pope Pius IX and the Minister General of the Franciscan Order sent them to bring the Order of Poor Clares to America. 

Many hardships followed their arrival in 1875, the original plans for Mother Mary Magdalen and Sister Mary Constance did not work out. They did not know the language and were not accepted in many places they visited. Finally, they were accepted in Omaha, Nebraska. John Creighton from Creighton University befriended them, funding the building of the first Poor Clare Monastery in America.

In the late 1880s, Mother Mary Magdalen left the Omaha monastery with a few sisters to start a second Poor Clares Monastery in New Orleans, Louisiana. At that time, everything in Omaha was going well, and the monastery there had several new members. Mother Mary Magdalen left her sister, Sister Mary Constance, in Omaha to take care of that monastery. After getting the New Orleans monastery established, Mother Mary Magdalen returned to Omaha.

In 1897, one of the nuns in Omaha learned that a relative in Evansville had bequeathed some land to the sisters, which became the site of a third Poor Clares monastery in America. The original Monastery of St. Clare in Evansville was built at 509 South Kentucky Ave. The cornerstone was laid in January 1897; the first Mass was celebrated in the new monastery in May 1897; and the first Mass in the monastery chapel was celebrated in July 1897. The monastery was dedicated Aug. 12, 1897, by Bishop Silas Chatard.  Mother Mary Magdalen and seven nuns from the Omaha monastery came to Evansville shortly before the Monastery’s dedication.

Records show that the original building on South Kentucky cost $38,000. Even though the nuns had part of the money from bequests, they were left with a large debt. They had their share of hardships including initially having no electricity or plumbing and being without furniture. They managed with boxes for tables and chairs.

At that time, the monastery was in the country and surrounded by corn fields. From the beginning, the nuns raised cows and chickens for their own milk and eggs. Each day, they led the cows out to pasture. 

The monastery’s public chapel hosted the first Masses celebrated by St. Benedict Parish - now St. Benedict Cathedral Parish - following its establishment in 1912. The tabernacle from this chapel was refinished and installed in St. Benedict Cathedral as part of the Cathedral-renovation project in 2018-19.

Mother Mary Magdalen died Aug. 12 1905, and is now buried in St. Joseph Cemetery on Evansville’s west side with other Poor Clare nuns. Her cause for canonization was opened in 1928, and she was declared Venerable in 1969. When her body was exhumed in 1932, as part of the canonical process, it was found to be incorrupt. Shortly after Mother’s death, the second part of the monastery on South Kentucky was built to accommodate the growing community. 

Moving to the west side

The Poor Clares moved to the current Monastery of St. Clare on Nurrenbern Road, on Evansville’s west side on land provided by the Diocese of Evansville, in early July 1984. Benedictine Father Raban Hathorn celebrated the first Mass there later that month in the Altar Bread Room. 

Bishop Francis Shea celebrated Mass at the monastery for all the nuns on All Saints Day (Nov. 1), 1984. The cornerstone for the new monastery was laid, and its chapel was dedicated, Oct. 20, 1985. The Poor Clares have served in that location ever since, and they celebrated the Evansville monastery’s 100th anniversary in August 1997.

The original Monastery of St. Clare on South Kentucky Avenue was donated to Bethel Church in Evansville, and it ultimately became home to the Evansville Christian Life Center, which formed in 1986 and still serves the community out of the former Monastery of St. Clare.