Saturday 30 March 2024

'It’s regular we get mothers writing in for their daughters to find a good partner'

All six nuns had a similar calling from God to join the Poor Clares. They felt they had a vocation and wanted to live a religious life and did so between the ages of 18 and 30. Picture: Patrick Browne 

Inside a monastery, over 100 years old, a wooden grid separates a group of enclosed nuns sitting silently, waiting for their visitor.

It’s evident all over their faces they rarely spend time outdoors. Smooth skin, without a wrinkle — a sign of a life of no hardship, only peace.

The walls are adorned with paintings and statues of Jesus Christ and Mary, mother of Jesus. The room is large and cold but there is a warm presence.

The monastery in Graiguecullen, Co Carlow, is home to 10 Poor Clares, of which six sat down for a rare interview: Sr Conan, Sr Mary Agnes, Sr Analiza, Sr Choolwe, Sr Dominic, and Mother Rosario.

The remainder are praying, something they have dedicated their whole lives to.

“People think we’re very serious, that we don’t laugh or talk,” Sr Dominic says.

The experience is quite the opposite of what people may believe, given on multiple occasions, the room is filled with laughter.

Although there has been a decrease in the number of people visiting the Poor Clares in recent years, there are a few new faces. People are searching for a sense of belonging. What’s absolute is there is no decline in the number of letters they receive from the public.

From farmers praying their cattle will be cleared from tuberculosis to mothers seeking help from the nuns for their daughter or son to find a life partner, the nation keeps the Poor Clares busy.

Sr Canice said: “Sickness and asking for prayers for their families, babies and exams. People asking for prayer so that they can have a family, that is very common now, court cases too.”

Mother Rosario: “Farmers write in asking for prayer to be said for good weather for their crops and animals and that their TB tests will be clear, we get that a lot too.”

However, there has been an overwhelming demand for prayers from mothers who want their children to settle down.Mother Rosario said: "It’s regular we get mothers writing in for their daughters to find a good partner, it’s terribly important to them. When people have big decisions to make they also write looking for guidance such as making their will, advice on a boyfriend or selling their home."

It's not always the big life decisions, though.

“We also get people asking us to pray for their dogs and the delivery of puppies if they're pregnant,” Sr Analiza laughed.

Sr Canice reveals she has just finished responding to people who have written to her since Christmas.

All six nuns had a similar calling from God to join the Poor Clares. They felt they had a vocation and wanted to live a religious life and did so between the ages of 18 and 30.

Devastation felt by their families of their decision to dedicate their lives to enclosure and prayer was also a commonality.

It’s a myth that a bell is rung loudly by the nuns to alert the public that they are low on supplies. However, Sr Dominic said they depended solely on the community to provide food and whatever they need, only ever leaving the monastery if it’s a serious matter.

And despite the lifestyle, there are young women making enquiries about joining the monastery.

However, on quick inspection and the reality of what life will be life, not many decide to stay.

Mother Rosario said: “We get enquiries up and down but not as many as we did. They might come for a weekend or a visit but when they see enclosure and the commitment, it puts them off.

“You know when you talk to them, they probably know themselves too that they’re not ready.”

There is complete silence from evening until after breakfast in the morning but “you wouldn’t feel the time going”, said Sr Dominic.

Their monastery cells are small, consisting of a bed, a wardrobe and a few shelves, a stool and if there’s space, there might be a table.

“It’s your private space where you talk to the Lord. We wouldn’t go in and visit each others cells at all,” Sr Analiza said, who once was a pharmacist in the Philippines before joining the Poor Clares.

Why are young women coming to explore the possibility of becoming a Poor Clare?

Mother Rosario: “They are trying to escape life outside and then some would genuinely be searching, not sure what God wants or what they want.

“One beautiful girl came to us and she just can’t make any decisions in life.”

Sr Mary-Agnes first joined the Poor Clares in Zambia when she was 22 years old but Mother Rosario believes this is now too young for people who may be confused about their path in life. 

The ideal age is someone in their late 20s, who has lived and experienced life and has no doubt about making a commitment to giving up the rest of their days to prayer. 

Joining at the age of 18 and after her Leaving Cert, Mother Rosario said she always thought of the religious life from a very young age. She said she “heard a voice” from the Lord who told her he wanted her as a Poor Clare, the last place she wanted to go.

I said to the Lord, I’d never be able to stay there and the Lord said I’ll give you the grace and I knew I couldn't back out.

“I got tremendous peace and happiness, I never looked back,” she said.

Mother Rosario has also accidentally connected with people through social media.

The Poor Clares Facebook page has surpassed 22,000 followers, which “took off like wildfire”, Mother Rosario said.

“It was set up for vocations and I just shared prayers first thing in the morning and then people began writing in through Facebook looking for prayers. I never intended for it to go like that but it did. People say the prayer I posted that day helped them out someway,” she added.

The nuns explain how sorrow will come into everyone's lives when asked what is their message to people who have difficulty believing in their faith due to live events or the tragic loss of a loved one. It’s their belief that if people hold onto their faith, healing comes quicker.

Mother Rosario: “You’re never going to get through this life without sorrow. It’s not a bed of roses.”

To those who are at a crossroads, struggling or seeking to reconnect to their faith, what’s the best approach?

Sr Analiza: “People outside say they’ve no time for prayer. Every time, they’re on the phone from when they wake up. If you want to connect yourself and with the Lord, you have to pray so you know what’s happening in this world and you really need God in your life.”

Sr Dominic added: “God’s love, he has enough for every one of us no matter who you are, where you come from or our history or background. God loves each of us and when you realise that, it gives you a great sense of belonging.”