My work as international liaison for the Global Sisters Report can take me virtually to several countries in one day. Just the other day I was in Uganda, Zambia, Ukraine and Kansas City – by Skype, of course. The week before, however, I was in Ghent, Minn. Now, what story is the international liaison following in Minnesota? A story about a new contemplative community, Sisters of Mary Morning Star, that I learned about last July when Tom Fox and I facilitated a day on global sisters for the LCWR Region XI in St. Cloud, Minn.
I was curious how a group of 10 women from around the world settled in Ghent, a small town in southeastern Minnesota with a population, according to Google, of 359. I met the sisters on Skype and of course my first question was, why Ghent? Srs. Mary Thomas and Aude told me it was a purely practical decision. They needed a convent, there was one available in Ghent, and Bishop John LeVoir had once hoped for a group of contemplative sisters in his diocese. The situation fit perfectly.
The Sisters of Mary Morning Star is an Association of the Faithful, established in June 2014 in Bergara, Spain. Cardinal Prefect, João Bráz de Aviz, of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, presented the official founding papers to 105 sisters and Bishop Jose Ignacio Munilla of San Sebastian. The bishop is their official Vatican-named superior. There are about 250 members in 10 countries, and the group remains an association until it has fulfilled all the canonical requirements to become a congregation.
The Ghent community represents six countries, with sisters’ ages ranging from 24 to 50. Five sisters have made final profession of vows and the others are still in formation. The international age range is about the same, except for the foundress who is 82.
Even though a new foundation, this community belongs to an ancient cenobitic form of religious practice, where members live a combination of solitary and communal life. Their uniqueness is the combining of Carmelite, Carthusian and Dominican spiritualities, but without enclosure to isolate the sisters from people of the community. The sisters’ life of presence, prayer and joy witnesses to God at work in the world. They attend parish and diocesan functions and also invite the local community into the convent to share prayer. At times they lead Holy Hours or other prayer experiences for children in local parishes.
Each day is a similar routine of silence, solitude and communal activities. Together, the sisters pray the morning, noon, evening and sometimes night prayers of the Divine Office and engage in a half an hour of silent prayer after the Eucharistic liturgy. Two more hours of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament are also in common. The rest of the day is spent in quiet solitude as they carry out household tasks, an hour or two of study/reflection on the Scriptures or theology texts, and private prayer. Conversations are limited to study groups among themselves several times a week and a weekly meal together. Ordinarily they eat their meals alone, usually in their rooms. Exercise is also an important part of the daily routine.
The Ghent parish has welcomed the sisters and donates the convent rent- and utility-free. The parish is also helping them renovate the convent and school building to accommodate more sisters. To fulfill the traditional requirement of financial independence for daily expenses, the sisters produce crafts and leather goods that they sell online.
How does one get to know the sisters and, if attracted, join them? Women from the United States must have college or work experience, but in the Global South a high school diploma is needed. Sr. Mary Thomas entered while attending Notre Dame University’s Great Books program and has lived in the U.S., France and India. Sr. Aude, born in France, met the sisters in her childhood parish. She lived in Senegal, France, the U.S. and India. It was their love for prayer, solitude and desire to witness to God’s presence in the world that attracted them to this community. Formation consisted of a “School of Life” and two years of novitiate, one each in her own country and one in Spain. Learning French is required because the original history and documents were written in France.
During my online visit the lively energy of these young women was palpable as they shared their experience of a global vision of religious life, something we religious, young and old, share. The community’s ancient charism is leading them into the unknown just as each of ours is, although in different ways. They are experiencing as we are the adventure of being part of something “new,” and the insecurity this brings. We are all being held together in God’s Providence.
[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison for Global Sisters Report.]