Contemplative religious communities: The Poor Clares of Jamaica Plain
JAMAICA PLAIN -- Pink-flowered dogwood trees and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi greet those who approach the Franciscan Monastery of St. Clare on Centre Street. The stone sign above the front doors is engraved with the motto, "Love and Reparation." Behind the long red-brick building, a wall encloses the backyard -- but to the nuns who live there, the wall itself is a sign of freedom.
For someone called to life as a cloistered religious, "Enclosure is not a penance, it's a gift," Sister Clare Frances McAvoy, the abbess of the community, said in a group interview on May 9.
She said one way to determine whether someone has this vocation is if they have "the gift to live an enclosed life."
"They see it not as a negative but as a positive. It frees you up to be present," she said.
Being prayerfully present is part of the vocation of the Poor Clares, whose order was founded by St. Clare, a follower of St. Francis of Assisi, in the 1200s. Following the spirit of St. Francis, their charism is marked by poverty, joy, sisterly love, unity, and trust in God's Providence.
The Poor Clares came to Boston in 1906 and initially lived in a house in Chinatown. Nestled between smokestacks, they had to go up onto the roof to get fresh air. By 1934, they raised enough funds to build a new monastery in Jamaica Plain, an area that was more like countryside than city at the time.
The monastery is currently home to 10 nuns, ranging from 60 to 92 years old. The various rooms have words from Scripture or St. Clare stenciled on the walls, in keeping with an ancient monastic tradition. Many of the phrases relate to their location, such as St. Clare's blessing, "While we have time let us do good," set underneath the clock in the refectory.
The backyard has a cement area that the nuns used, in the past, for roller skating and ice skating. They used to have a vegetable garden, thanks to a sister from Omaha. Another sister whose family was gifted in carpentry built the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes.
"It's our little piece of heaven in the backyard," one sister said.
Sister Mary Francis Hone, the community's resident historian, said she knew that she wanted to follow St. Francis from the time she was 12 years old.
"I want the world to be better because I lived here," she said.
When she began to consider religious life, she thought about nursing or teaching, but these ministries did not appeal to her. She eventually concluded that she could do the most with her life by being a Poor Clare, dedicated to praying for others.
"With Poor Clares, there's no end to the good that you're doing," she said.
At the time when Sister Mary Francis entered, the novices lived apart from the professed sisters, and the transition from one group to the next was an emotional one. But the professed sisters had a memorable way of welcoming them. When Sister Mary Francis made her solemn profession, the abbess escorted her from the novices' quarters to the professed sisters. When she entered the room where they were waiting, they greeted her by playing musical instruments and singing "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here."
The Franciscan charism involves living together in love, following Christ through a life of poverty and unity.
"It's endless, the gift that God has given us through our vocation to unite ourselves with God," Sister Clare Frances said.
It also involves seeing the humor and humanness of situations. The sisters can recount all kinds of amusing mishaps in community life -- such as the questionable cuisine of some sisters taking their turn to cook.
After daily Mass and community prayers, the mornings are dedicated to work. The sisters also serve each other in a variety of roles within the community, including sacristan, accountant, secretary, archivist, librarian, and nurse. They have long supported themselves by making altar breads and liturgical vestments, which are shipped all over the world. They also run a gift shop in the monastery's lobby.
The sisters eat their midday meal together as part of their recreation. On Fridays, they listen to audio lectures during the meal as part of their ongoing formation. In the afternoons, they have time for studying, meditation, or personal hobbies.
The Poor Clares have a special devotion to the Eucharist, so they have daily Adoration. The altar bread business gives them "a hand on pulse of the Church," as the number of orders indicates how many people are attending Mass in parishes across the archdiocese. They have observed how the coronavirus pandemic diminished the demand for altar bread, and they also suspect that there are fewer churches and Masses as parishes combine.
One unique aspect of the vocation of a Poor Clare, compared with other contemplative religious communities, is that she is not supposed to be completely separated from the world. Instead, she is to be in the world as a prayerful presence. This means part of the Poor Clare vocation is to reach out to others. They constantly receive prayer requests, and they sometimes hold events that visitors can attend, such as their Triduum to St. Clare every August. For almost two decades, they held a bazaar every November, selling ceramics made by one of the sisters, as well as baked goods and other items, in order to pay for their heating oil.
There is also a missionary aspect to their vocation, in the spirit of Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio, who opened the first Poor Clare monastery in the U.S. in 1875 in Omaha.
"All of us are missionaries in a sense. Every place we go, we bring Christ," Sister Clare Frances said.
From Boston, Poor Clares have been sent to start five other foundations, the most recent in Kiryu, Japan, in 1965. Only 0.02 percent of Japan's population is Christian, and most of those are Protestant or Russian Orthodox. The Poor Clare monastery in Kiryu was built next to a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. There were times when the Japanese monastery almost closed, but the sisters there were adamant that they stay together as a community. After a decade had gone by, they began to see vocations. Today they have 17 sisters, all but one of whom are Japanese.
"That's extraordinary in their culture," Sister Clare Frances said.
Last March, it was announced that the Poor Clares would sell their Jamaica Plain property and move to a different location. According to a page on their website, the building has a variety of maintenance problems, and they do not have the finances necessary to bring it up to code. They have been looking for a suitable smaller location for 20 years.
Sister Clare Frances explained that they hope to move to a smaller house that better reflects the communal nature of their life.
"The bigger the house, the emptier it is, the more isolating it is," she said.
Sister Clare Francis said this period is like Advent, a time of waiting, hoping, and trusting.
"There's no one that can take better care of us than the good Lord. He told St. Clare, 'I will always be with you,'" Sister Clare Frances said.
Information about the Franciscan Monastery of St. Clare can be found at www.poorclarenunsboston.org.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS ARTICLE IS THE SECOND IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES ON THE CONTEMPLATIVE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES IN THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON.)