By Beth Donze
Catholic News Service
Editor’s Note: The Poor Clare Sisters have served in the Diocese of Evansville for generations. Currently, five sisters reside at the Monastery of St. Clare on Evansville’s west side.
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) – As the COVID-19 pandemic throws a metaphorical grenade into the everyday habits of people around the world, the consistent and faith-bolstering rhythm of daily Mass, frequent prayer, quiet recreation and humble ministry is serving New Orleans' community of Poor Clare Sisters very well.
The five sisters who reside at the contemplative religious community's monastery in the city report that their days, while certainly impacted by the coronavirus, have been fundamentally unchanged since the sheltering-in-place order.
"Everybody is supposed to be apart but together during this pandemic, but that's what we do all the time; we are apart (from the world) but together," said Sister Charlene Toups, abbess of the local community of Poor Clares, which includes a sixth sister who lives at Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center.
"Finding rhythms is a very important thing, as is creating space for one another in a tight situation, even if it's psychological space," Sister Charlene said.
Giving the Poor Clares their built-in rhythm is the Liturgy of the Hours, which provides readings and prayers at various times of the day and into the evening. The sisters' communal day begins at 7 a.m. when they gather for morning prayer, followed by private daily Mass in their chapel — or whenever a priest can make it to their home during these weeks of social distancing. The sisters stay at least 6 feet apart in the pews, and on days a priest cannot celebrate Mass with them, they watch the Mass remotely.
Peppered between prayer times are the tasks and joys of everyday living: the sharing of meals, recreation, exercise and individual reading and reflection time — all mostly carried out within the confines of their monastery's grounds.
"We're blessed because we have a big house," said Sister Charlene, noting that she and her fellow sisters do leave their home to perform essential tasks such as shopping and to access faith-based activities such as lectures and other activities related to their vocations as women religious.
A small exercise room provides space for fitness activities, and they take advantage of the expansive grounds for walking and gardening. Whenever they can, the sisters bypass the elevator to take the stairs in their three-story home.
"One of the things about the monastery is that it's normally a quiet place," noted Sister Julie Glaeser.
"But we do keep in touch with what's happening with the world — we read the newspaper; we watch evening news together so we know who to pray for.
"But don't have the news on 24/7 because that can be very depressing," Sister Julie cautioned.
Although the coronavirus guidelines have forced the sisters to temporarily suspend their monastery-based feeding ministry, it has not impacted the sisters' telephone ministry, in which people call the sisters to express their concerns and prayer requests, or just to talk. The sisters also call people in need, to check in on them from time to time.
"We preserve a spirit of prayer and devotion, but that doesn't mean you don't talk," Sister Charlene said, sharing guidelines she learned as a young sister on how to make that talk pleasing to God. Before speaking, ask yourself three questions: Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it upbuilding?
"If you stop and think about that, you'll keep your mouth shut a lot of the time," Sister Charlene said, chuckling.
Poor Clare Sister Rita Hickey said her community is often misunderstood as distant.
"We never hung our hat on the 'cloistered' idea. People get fascinated about that," Sister Rita told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. "We always consider ourselves contemplative, which means dedicated to prayer and dedicated to living in the presence of God. And everyone is with you when you're in the presence of God."
Sister Charlene said her home's small statue of Mary sweeping with a broom is a powerful reminder of the Blessed Mother's down-to-earth tenacity. But the image of Mary she is seeing in her mind, more and more during these days of the pandemic, is the one of Mary standing at the foot of Jesus' cross.
"She is there for her son. She is there for the world, really; she is taking our place at the foot of the cross," Sister Charlene said.
"There is absolutely nothing she can do except be there, and in many ways, that's what we are all doing — we are all at the foot of the cross, helpless," she said. "But Mary didn't have a pity party. She stood!"
Donze is a staff writer at the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. She also is editor of Kids' Clarion.