For contemplative nuns, everything 'flows' from spiritual discipline
CATONSVILLE, Md. (CNS) -- The All Saints Sisters of the Poor have carried out a wide array of surprisingly diverse ministries over the course of their 150 years in Baltimore.
They've helped children of former slaves, worked with children with special needs and provided homes for poverty-stricken children and seniors.
They've offered space for laypeople to make religious retreats, cared for the environment, tended to injured animals, promoted beekeeping and maintained a scriptorium where they design inspirational religious cards.
The sisters, working with supporters at what is now Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore, also were pioneers in hospice care when they established the Joseph Ritchie Hospice in 1987.
The common thread that runs throughout the generations, however, is the sisters' spiritual discipline and their devotion to cultivating a relationship with Christ.
During a Nov. 4 Mass at their Catonsville monastery celebrating the 150th anniversary of the order's arrival in Baltimore, Mother Emily Ann Lindsey, superior general, noted that the sisters are constantly asked what "they do." Her answer: "We are religious."
"That is our mission," said Mother Emily Ann, one of nearly a dozen members of her community who live at the monastery, all of whom wear full habits with black veils and white wimples that cover their heads. "That is what we do. Everything else flows from that."
Mother Emily Ann said this anniversary year marks 150 years of loving and serving God and following his guidance "despite what the world would like us to follow and listen to."
The All Saints Sisters of the Poor were established as an Anglican religious women's community in 1851 by Mother Harriet Brownlow Byron in England. Three sisters came to Baltimore as missionaries in 1872, establishing the first foreign branch of the religious community. From Baltimore, they spread to other American cities.
The All Saints Sisters of the Poor in Baltimore, who have been at their current location in Baltimore County since 1917, were received into the Catholic Church in 2009 by Baltimore Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien.
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who celebrated the Nov. 4 anniversary Mass using a liturgy that adapted elements of Anglican worship, said in his homily that the sisters stand as a bridge between the Anglican and Catholic traditions.
"It is not easy to be a bridge," he said. "A bridge must bear a certain amount of stress and weight, but may I say on behalf of all your friends gathered here today that you have borne that stress and that weight most gracefully.
"Not only do you bridge divides between Christians, but by your way of life, you also serve as a bridge to convey people to the Lord."
Mother Emily Ann noted that the sisters crossed two bodies of water in their history: the Atlantic, when they first came to America, and the Tiber, the Italian river they metaphorically crossed when they came into communion with Rome.
Orthodoxy and Christian unity were key reasons the sisters were attracted to the Catholic faith, according to the sisters who made the journey.
John Mohler, a parishioner of St. Mark in Catonsville, grew up near the religious community and has known the sisters for 30 years. He was one of approximately 125 people who attended the anniversary Mass and reception.
"They are such a light in our community," he told the Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan news outlet. "They are such a holy, holy presence and such a countercultural example for everybody."
Caryl Maxwell Gazmen, a parishioner of St. Louis in Clarksville, Maryland, has made private retreats with the sisters. She said they have been supportive of all those who visit them looking for spiritual refreshment.
"It's almost like you can feel the prayers in the grass and the trees here," she said. "It's a very holy spot and the sisters encourage you -- sometimes with their silence -- and if you speak to them about things happening in your life that you'd like help with, they're always encouraging and helpful -- always," she said.
Virginia Patton, who lived with the sisters for five months as she was contemplating becoming Catholic and a religious sister, said her time with the community was the "most beautiful, grace-filled season" in her life.
She became Catholic but discerned that the religious life was not for her.
"I adore and love their purity of heart," said Patton, who now lives in Virginia. "Our Lord says the pure of heart shall see God, so I think they give us all hope for one day seeing God."
The sisters lead a contemplative life and have set times of the day when they come together for community worship.
Archbishop Lori noted that while many in the world may dismiss the sisters as leading "useless" lives, their way of life is "precious in the eyes of the Lord and the eyes of the church."
"For it is you who set our sights on the food that endures forever, the Eucharist, and those realities that endure forever, namely, eternal life with the Lord and communion with that cloud of witnesses redeemed by the blood of the Lamb," the archbishop said.
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Matysek is managing editor of the Catholic Review, news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Kevin J. Parks contributed to this story.