Hard labor. Long hours. No pay. Constant debt.
A job ad with the above headline would probably not get a single applicant, unless it happened to be on the website of Poor Clare Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Roswell.
The Poor Clares are an order of Roman Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to poverty, penance and prayer.
They are cloistered, meaning they have chosen to keep themselves separated from the larger world. They dress in traditional habits, have not a penny in their pockets and do not drive.
A life of prayer
Many people picture nuns wearing rosaries, working as teachers in Catholic schools and nurses in Catholic hospitals, like the former St. Mary’s Hospital in Roswell. The Poor Clares also wear rosaries, but live according to what in Catholicism is called the “divine office of prayer.”
“Jesus did teach and witness, but he also went out to the mountains to pray,” said Mother Angela, abbess of the Roswell monastery, located on East College Avenue.
The 22 sisters who live at the monastery pray together seven times a day, beginning at 12:30 a.m. They go back to bed at 1:30 a.m., and when they wake up for the day at 4:45 a.m., they pray again.
“Prayer and communication with God is what we are here for,” Mother Angela said. “We pray for the needs of the world. We can pray at different times of day (besides the divine office), like while ironing clothes.”
Anyone can make a prayer request to the sisters by leaving a message on the answering machine, writing a letter or sending an email through their website.
Mother Angela said she announces prayer intentions at the evening meal.
The former farmhouse has gone through a few expansions since nine Poor Clares from Chicago purchased the building in 1948 to start a new monastery.
Many local Catholics are familiar with the small chapel, which holds Mass at 6:45 a.m. on Sundays and at 7 a.m. on the other six days of the week. The services are held by Father Paul, a retired Franciscan priest who lives n Roswell.
For the sake of a simple explanation, you could say that there are two chapels that share the same altar. The nuns are on one side of the altar while the public worships on the other side. The tops of the nun’s habits are visible through an opening above the altar.
Anyone attending a service will certainly be moved by the beauty of the music, which is mostly Gregorian chant sang in Latin. Sister Cecilia accompanies on pipe organ.
Recently, a 3,000-square-foot expansion was completed that provides a new parlor or reception area that is much larger than the old one, two private rooms with private bathrooms for novices wishing to join the monastery and seven work rooms.
The old parlor could seat only a handful of visitors, but Mother Angela said that it is possible for a nun to get as many as 40 visitors at one time.
Ernie Ortega, a local construction contractor whose company supervised the work, said it is the monastery’s largest expansion to date.
Ortega said he has known the Poor Clares all of his life, and enjoys visiting the monastery when he’s not working.
“If you want to come to a peaceful place for prayer, this is it,” he said.
Over the past 13 years, Ortega said he has worked on various projects at the monastery, including sewage and interior remodeling.
A craftsman who takes pride in his work, Ortega said he tried to blend in the new construction with the architecture of the original building, even moving the ornamental iron from the porch of the old building to the porch of the new expansion.
Ortega said his next projects are to improve the driveway and expand the parking area.
The recent expansion has enabled the sisters to expand the size of the infirmary.
They now have two extended-care rooms where sisters can stay after surgery. The infirmary also has kitchen, laundry and storage areas.
What do they eat?
While some believe the Poor Clares are vegetarians, Mother Angela said that perception is not completely accurate. The sisters do eat fish.
Another source of their protein comes from the pecans that they grow.
“Not eating meat is penance and solidarity with the poor,” Mother Angela said. “Our food bills would be much different if we ate meat.”
Mother Angela said they receive food donations from the Catholic churches in town, and their secular friends will bring them vegetables from their gardens.
The nuns also have a garden, where they grow mostly squash and potatoes.
The importance of prayer
It is fair to say that a Poor Clare will never put herself out of job, as the need for prayer — with escalating violence both in the U.S. and abroad — grows everyday.
“The world is so different today,” Mother Angela said. “There is a transformation of the culture with so much violence.”
Though the Poor Clares don’t read newspapers or watch TV, they said people will call them about major events when they happen, like the school shooting in Florida ofn Valentine’s Day. They said they heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center the same day it happened.
You won’t find any of the sisters on social media, but a few of the younger sisters maintain a website for the monastery and Mother Angela responds to email.
Despite all the hate and the violence in the world, the sisters said they do see hope.
Mother Vicaress Therese said she is encouraged by the number of young people who now are involved with the Right To Life Movement.
And they see the goodness in the everyday people who live in Roswell.
“There is always so much to hope for,” Mother Vicaress Therese said. “We experience the goodness because we are dependent on people for things we need.”
Friends in the community
One of their Roswell friends the Poor Clares depend upon is Elizabeth Herring, who attends St. Peter Catholic Church.
A native of Costa Rica, Herring said she first heard about the Poor Clares when she came to New Mexico in 1967.
“I heard the community talking about the convent,” she said. “I went to visit the chapel and fell in love with the peacefulness and beauty of it.”
Herring is one of several volunteers who drive the sisters to doctors appointments and different activities.
“It is a gift when they call me,” she said. “They appreciate any little thing you do for them. They totally disarm you with their souls. I can bring up anything in my heart and they will pray, even for my family in Costa Rica.”
History of the monastery
The nuns presently living at the monastery guess that the original farmhouse was built in 1898.
The monastery was established in 1948 by nine Poor Clares who migrated to Roswell from Chicago. Before that, the structure had been a tuberculosis sanitarium.
The Chicago nuns were very poor and needed a new roof over the building they had purchased.
Mother Angela said one of nine original nuns heard about a writing contest by a Catholic publisher that would pay $1,000 to the winner, which the nuns could use to pay for a new roof.
When the sister submitted her short story, the publisher was so impressed that he wanted her to write an entire book based on the theme of that story.
From that encounter came a book by Mother Mary Francis, the monastery’s first abbess, called “A Right to Be Merry.” The book describes in plain language the coming of the small group of Poor Clares from Chicago to Roswell and gives insights into the life of a Poor Clare. Several editions of the book have been published in six languages.
Mother Angela said the book has inspired many women over the years to leave their secular lives and become a Poor Clare.
Who was Clare?
Clare, the eldest daughter of an influential Italian family, was 17 when she heard St. Francis of Assisi, who also came from a prosperous family, preach of the love of God.
When Clare left her castle home in the blackness of night on Palm Sunday of 1212 and made her way to the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels outside of Assisi, she was setting out to become the first of St. Francis’ “Poor Ladies” — nuns who like St. Francis were dedicated to a life of prayer and penance.
It was the beginning of the Franciscan Movement of the 13th century and the inauguration of the Franciscan Order, which is the largest in the Catholic church today.
Clare died on Aug. 11, 1253, at age 59 and was canonized by the Vatican on Sept. 26, 1255.
Getting back to the Poor Clares in Roswell, Herring said, “This community is very blessed to have them here.”
Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or firstname.lastname@example.org.