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placeholder February 20, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 4   •   Oakland, CA

Hospitality a hallmark of Poor Clares' lives

"That is our heart's desire, to be with the Lord," said Sister Judith Ann Crosby, OSC, as she began a reflection, "Clare: Living with the San Damiano Cross," one sunny morning last July.

She was among three Poor Clare nuns who left their monasteries — Sister Charlene Toups from New Orleans, and Sisters Jane Sorenson and Judith Ann from Montana — to give a six-day contemplative retreat "The House of Clare: Tending the Incomparable Treasure" at San Damiano Retreat in Danville.

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The retreat, directed by Santa Clara University Professor Jean Molesky-Poz, centered on the spirituality of St. Clare, with presentations, liturgies, prayer and spiritual direction.

As the retreatants sat in chairs in a semicircle, Sister Judith Ann told them about life in the first monastery of the Poor Ladies, "noted for their silence and peace."

Francis, she said, "didn't imagine having brothers, but he did imagine having sisters."

Today, "there are 17,000 women living our life all over the world."

One way people get to know the Poor Clares is through their hospitality.

While there are several groups of Poor Clares in California, retreats are a way of life for these Poor Clare sisters, who arrived in Great Falls, Montana, in 1999.

"When we were looking at possible ways to support ourselves, we knew that making hosts wasn't practical. Not enough people in Montana, or making vestments, which a number of monasteries do," said Sister Jane Sorenson, OSC. "We thought about if for a number of years. "

It was suggested to them, when they built a monastery, that it should be welcoming. They built in two wings: one for their private quarters, the other to meet that goal of hospitality.

"We finally decided hospitality is what we're doing as a community, because we have the retreat area, we do spiritual direction, we do Christian meditation with people. People come to us to experience the solitude of prayer and peace the monastery offers," said Sister Jane.

"And healing, a healing presence," Sister Charlene Toups, OSC, added. "People were sent to the nuns for healing," said the sister, who is from New Orleans. "Today the healing may be in the sense of spiritual healing."

The Montana sisters did not wait long for their first guest, Sister Jane said. "Shortly after we moved in, a woman came to us in tears. Her husband had been abusive. She couldn't take it anymore. She had been married 25 years. We invited her in.

"It was our first experience we had of helping someone who needed healing," Sister Jane said. "It's carried through the whole time we've been here."

Sister Charlene's New Orleans community was founded in 1885; its monastery opened in 1912. The picturesque monastery has been depicted on a float in the Mardi Gras parade.

"In our house, we invite people to pray with us," she said. "We don't have a separation of liturgy. We do have private spaces. Solitude is important. You have to be incarnate in whatever area you are.

"Bars say isolation; they don't say solitude. And there's a difference," she said.

Those who come to pray with the sisters share space with those who come to the door for food or toiletries.

"It's very much like Clare's time," Sister Charlene said. "People come to our door."

These days, too, people might call or email. "A lot of people want prayers. They want somebody to listen. We do spiritual direction. Some people make retreats; a lot of religious come," she said.

"People who live on the streets feel free to come ask for food," said Sister Charlene. The monastery is in the heart of the city and not far from a public park. "We're not a soup kitchen but we do have one or two dozen people every day who show up for food," she said.

Snack packs are kept by the door, as are packs containing a comb, shampoo, soap and a washcloth.

"It's a challenge for people who are coming to see the sisters to share the foyer with someone who is coming for food," said Sister Charlene.

But it's not unlike Clare's own time. A painting depicts what was coming in the front door was going out the back.

"It's also true if God gives you something, it's yours to use until someone else needs it," she said. "Most of what we have we can give away because someone has shared it with us."

The Poor Clares' place at the heart of their neighborhood was demonstrated beautifully after Hurricane Katrina.

"We had evacuated after a couple of days because of no water and we had older sisters who might need hospital care," Sister Charlene said. "For the good of all, we went to one of our other monasteries. When we were leaving to come back, some said, 'Please stay here. You can pray anywhere.'

"But we are needed there," she said of New Orleans. "We had that sense. We had no idea how it was. We got a call the day before we left to come home," she said.

The caller was told the sisters would be back the next day.

The reply, she said, was: "Then we can go home. The sisters are going to be there. If you didn't go home, neither would we."

They were met by a neighbor, who had watched over their home. And something more.

"They managed to get together a bouquet of flowers and they made supper for us to welcome us home," she said. "That touched us so deeply."

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