Poor Clares settling in to new Westwood home

byWes Cipolla Pilot Staff

Sister Clare Frances McAvoy, abbess of the Poor Clares in Westwood, gives a tour of the new monastery's chapel, which is still under construction. Pilot photo/Wes Cipolla

WESTWOOD -- It was the early 20th century, and the Poor Clares were having trouble breathing.
In 1906, the religious order had established itself in Boston's Chinatown, in a house wedged between factories spewing smoke. To get fresh air, the sisters would have to climb to the roof. In 1934, the Poor Clares moved into a 54,000-square-foot monastery in Jamaica Plain, a stately red-brick replica of a monastery in Marseilles, France.
In the 1950s, 64 sisters lived there. In 2022, the monastery was home to 10 sisters, the youngest of whom was 60. The aging building contained asbestos and was infested by moles. Heating the entire building was costly, and the heating, electricity, and plumbing systems needed an upgrade. The monastery itself was in disrepair, and fixing it would cost $10 million, money that the Poor Clares did not have.
The area surrounding the monastery, once bucolic countryside, had been replaced with the constant noise of highway traffic and airplanes whizzing overhead. Five sisters developed lung problems from inhaling so much car exhaust.
It was the early 21st century, and the Poor Clares were having trouble breathing.

In March of 2022, the Poor Clares sent an application to the Boston Landmarks Commission, hoping to demolish the monastery and sell the land, valued at $8.9 million, to a company that would build townhouses. After a public outcry, the Poor Clares decided to keep the monastery standing and sell it to Holland Properties for an undisclosed amount. Holland plans to build apartments, office space, a gym, a daycare, event spaces, and storage space using the monastery and the surrounding land.
For the past 20 years, the sisters have been on the lookout for a place to relocate. On Dec. 15, 2023, the feast of Our Lady of the Franciscan Order, the Poor Clares moved into a leafy, secluded 74-acre property on Gay Street in Westwood.
"We are blessed, really," said Sister Clare Frances McAvoy, the 86-year-old abbess of the Poor Clares. "Trying to find a place, it took us years, and this just fell in our hands."
The Pilot visited the new Monastery of St. Clare on the muggy morning of May 6. Surrounded by trees, it is a place where wild turkeys own the roads and the only sounds are the chirping of birds and humming of insects.
In and around the monastery, there are glimpses of the facility's past lives as a private home and nondenominational "spiritual center." The fish pond was once a swimming pool. In the foyer of the current monastery, a brown clapboard house one-third the size of the Jamaica Plain building, a statue of St. Clare stands where Buddha once did. Light-up crystal formations are embedded in the floorboards. A new monastery chapel is currently under construction inside an airy sunlit barn that was once a yoga studio.
"There's a harmony in life," Sister Clare said. "And when you have nine people living together ... and we're closer together here, you have to learn a different dance to adjust to it."
Sister Clare, who will celebrate her 70th jubilee year in 2025, is used to adjusting to new places. She spent years in Japan, helping to build a monastery there, which is now home to 16 Poor Clares. She resided in Jamaica Plain from 1969 to 2022, and "loved it" there. In a sense, she owes her very existence to the Poor Clares. Her older sibling died in infancy, so her family asked the Poor Clares to pray that their next child would survive. She did, and they gave her the baptismal name Clare Frances in the sisters' honor.
"So here I am," Sister Clare joked. "I blame the sisters. If they have any complaints about me, I say, 'It's all your fault.'"
She compared the Catholic Church's religious orders to the many types of trees growing outside the chapel windows.
"They all add to this glorious beauty," she said. "And that's what (God) does to human beings and with the different orders. There is something that he has created in each individual that he calls to be drawn to a certain type of spirituality."
Nine Poor Clares live in the monastery -- along with Baby, a 23-pound cat who belongs to one of the sisters and occasionally joins them during Mass and prayer. When asked if Baby helps the sisters with pest control, Sister Clare laughed and said: "Are you kidding? He runs the other way. He's a real scaredy-cat."
The sisters are still adjusting to the smaller scale of life in Westwood. In Jamaica Plain, the Poor Clares had a sewing room, a vestment room, and a library, among other amenities. The sisters have created makeshift miniature versions of those spaces in Westwood. Their current library is a fraction of its former size, but still has its treasures, including an antique Bible bound in ornately carved mother-of-pearl. Near the library is a sauna left over from the yoga studio, though none of the sisters plan to use it.
"It's a little too public," Sister Clare explained.
Sister Clare's new office is cluttered with dozens of boxes containing files and legal documents, which have yet to be unpacked, as well as decorations of her favorite comic strip characters, Garfield and Snoopy.
"There's a lot of spirituality in Snoopy," she said.
The sisters plan on adding more bedrooms and a choir chapel to the main house, and using another building on the property as a novitiate. The Poor Clares will own the Jamaica Plain property until June, as Holland Properties is currently seeking a permit from the City of Boston to build housing there. Once the sale is finalized, the Poor Clares will have more money for renovations. The Poor Clares support themselves by making vestments, packaging and distributing Eucharistic hosts, and making rosaries and spiritual bouquets to sell in their gift shop, which also offers DVDs, statues, jigsaw puzzles, and a decoration reading "Jesus loves you, but I'm his favorite."
"Any work is spiritually fulfilling," 88-year-old Sister Mary Francis Hone, who is celebrating her 70th jubilee year, said as she made vestments. "It doesn't matter what I do. I'm very happy to do anything. It's all one to me. I'm a witness, and I'm doing God's will."
Sister Mary has been making vestments for 12 years. Along with other odd jobs, she takes care of the Poor Clares' website, library, and archive. Sister Clare describes her as "a scholar on Franciscanism, internationally known around the world."
"It's just wonderful," Sister Mary said about the new monastery. "The other building was really very difficult. It was so big and very cold, always cold and windy."
In their new home, the Poor Clares continue to follow their daily routine. They wake up every morning for prayer at 6:15 a.m. They then go to Mass in the chapel, followed by meditation and personal prayers before they reconvene to pray the Divine Office.
Then the workday begins. Along with the activities they do to support themselves financially, the sisters work in the refectory and knit mittens for the poor. After work, there are more prayers, and personal time to pray, study, and pursue hobbies such as painting and crafting. Then, they reunite for evening prayer and meditation, and finally, night prayer.
They make sure to take time to eat, too. On May 6, the monastery menu offered roast chicken, mac and cheese, broccoli, beets, salad, zucchini bread, and butterscotch pudding.
"The life is the same," Sister Clare said. "The principles and the goals and the basis of our life doesn't change. The environment that we live in does change . . . It's a very beautiful atmosphere, very prayerful and quiet."
When they are not working or praying, the Poor Clares "enjoy each other's company," watching religious programming, historical drama movies and series, and educational YouTube videos. The only secular television they watch is the nightly news and the Boston Marathon every April.
Sister Clare explained that while the Poor Clares may technically be considered old, they don't see themselves that way.
"It's a gift from God to live your life to the fullest," she said. "And that's what we try to do. That's what we get the grace to do."
Sister Clare has hope for the future of the Poor Clares in Boston, as more younger women from around the world are joining the order.
"Discernment is very difficult in this day and age, I believe, because of all the attractions that are around people," she said.
She has noticed that some of the young women who join the Poor Clares find it "very difficult" to refrain from using their smartphones, which they treat as "an extension of their hand."
"I think they come to a certain point in their life where they want to, like they did in the old church, leave the world and enter into something that gave them an inner life that they didn't have before," she said.
The Westwood monastery is home to a sister from Tanzania and another from the Philippines, Sister Mary Rigodon.
"It's beautiful," Sister Mary, 63, told The Pilot about the Westwood property. "A big space to walk around."
Sister Mary was ironing vestments in a sun-filled upper room. Sister Clare greeted her and praised her musical talent (Sister Mary plays hymns on the organ and guitar during group prayer). Sister Clare then walked out onto a balcony which offered a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding woods and a garden filled with East Asian plants, another relic from the monastery's days as a spiritual center.
"You don't get the silence in Jamaica Plain anymore," she said.
She explained that in the future, the sisters plan to do their own gardening, and expand until there are 15 or 16 of them in Westwood. Her time in Japan has taught her that smaller communities get along better under one roof than larger ones.
Looking into the sunny distance, she said, "I can't tell you how grateful we are for this place."