Reflection on St. Mary’s Convent
Sister Hannah, Novice CSM
Most of us have heard the phrase, “Keep calm and carry on,” but today I say “Keep calm, there are Episcopal nuns.” In fact, our Community, the Sisterhood of St. Mary, was the first Episcopal monastic community in the United States, founded in 1865 in New York. Obviously not everyone got the tweet from Mother Harriet Starr Canon when she, and four other women with her, started it all back then.
Today we have three provinces: the Western province is in Wisconsin, the Eastern province is in New York with a branch house in Malawi, and the Southern province is in Tennessee with a branch house in the Philippines. Our ministries, for over the past century and a half, have ranged from establishing a free hospital for poor children, establishing schools, managing retreat centers, and saving lives as well as caring for the sick and dying from yellow fever. If you’ve ever heard of the “Martyrs of Memphis,” those are our Sisters!
Nowadays a typical life of a Sister of St. Mary in our province includes starting off the day with an hour of lectio divina, a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer. Then we have Morning Prayer at 7 a.m. followed by Holy Eucharist. The Sisters set aside at least one hour each day for prayer and quiet time and have work time in the morning and afternoon. Our mid-day service is called our Noon Office, at 5 p.m. there is Evening Prayer, and Compline, our night service, is at 7:30 p.m. Services are open to everyone, men and women.
The town of Sewanee is known for being the home of the University of the South and its Episcopal seminary. Attendees of our services usually consist of people that live in town, friends and neighbors, undergraduate students, seminarians, and strangers on retreat, some who have never been to a convent before. Work time for Sisters includes spiritual direction, coloring cards and knitting hats to sell in our gift shop, updating our website and social media, working on our newsletter, leading retreats, making jams and jellies, working with interns and volunteers, making the rota, meeting with guests on retreat at our convent – there is never a dull moment!
What drew me to religious life was a deep restlessness I was experiencing in wanting to do something more with my life. I had a good job, friends, and supportive church, but something still felt missing. I was hearing only the voices of the world telling me what I should be doing, (the list was always long and overwhelming), and who I should be – but I couldn’t hear my voice or God’s voice in all of the noise.
What grounded me and gave me peace was praying and saying the Daily Office which I was introduced to in middle school but had not used since then. Even at that age I felt drawn to the contemplative life and living in an intentional community of prayer but had never followed up on this interest. When I first came to the convent, attended the services, and saw the breathtaking mountain views, I felt like I was home. People think you lose yourself and your identity if you join a convent, but actually, you find yourself. C.S. Lewis wrote “When God talks of [Christians] losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamor of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.” I have found this to be true in my life.
Last year we started hosting a one week vocation discovery program for women interested in the religious life to live alongside us for a week and experience what life is like here. We will have it again this year, June 3-10.
Other ways people can get involved with us are by becoming Associates and Oblates. These are men and women, single and married, who develop a rule of life based on Benedictine principles. The Oblate program is a two year course of formation with a focus on being a monastic out in the world.
We also have an Organic Prayer Program internship for college students and recent college graduates, both men and women. There are two options, a summer and long-term internship. The program is structured by our Benedictine values which includes time for prayer, work, study, rest, and exercise, and is rooted in intentional community. They attend our services, learn about the Rule of St Benedict, and work in our organic garden, just to name a few things they do. Interns host a radical hospitality dinner once a week and invite people they don’t know for a meal made from ingredients from the garden. We are in the process of looking for both summer and long-term interns for this year.