Poor Clare Sisters Claudia and Mary Marguerite pose for a photo Aug. 11, 2019, outside the Monastery of St. Clare in Memphis, Tenn. The monastery closed at the end of the year. CNS photo/Karen Pulfer Focht

A long, sad farewell to a monastery

By  Karen Pulfer Focht, Catholic News Service
  • January 26, 2020

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As Christmas approached and the year came to a close, the Monastery of St. Clare, home to the Poor Clare contemplative nuns for 87 years in Tennessee, quietly closed.

An 88-year-old priest, Fr. David Knight, was the last remaining resident. He had hoped to live out his days in his tiny single room with a connecting office where he has written over 40 books.

Few people have been behind the tall brick walls and iron gates of the Monastery of St. Clare, which covers nine acres in the Memphis neighbourhood of Frayser. A group of nuns there has been quietly praying for the city and its people since 1932.

But now, with only four nuns remaining, the monastery has closed. In May 2018, the Vatican issued guidelines that all contemplative communities, Catholic communities established ostensibly for continuous prayer, need to have at least seven members.

The last four Poor Clares in Memphis sought out ways to continue their vocation, joining other Poor Clare communities around the country.

Sr. Anthony went to join the Poor Clares in Cincinnati, as did Sr. Alma months earlier. Sr. Marguerite and Sr. Claudia went to live with the Poor Clares in Travelers Rest, S.C.

There are about 20,000 Poor Clares worldwide; officially they are members of the Order of St. Clare. In Canada there are six Poor Clare communities, two in B.C. and four in Quebec.

The silent and prayerful lives of the women at the monastery remained a mystery and a curiosity to most outsiders. The nuns relied on a loyal group of neighbourhood friends for generosity, food, donations and even occasional help around the monastery. The friends asked only for prayer in return.

In a neighbourhood plagued by crime and whose residents fight to climb out of poverty, these women chose a life that St. Clare called the “privilege of highest poverty.” They were called to a life of prayer and silence, to live in radical poverty.

Last August, on the feast of St. Clare, the sisters were applauded for all the fruits of their prayers.

Choked up, finding it difficult to get out the words, Sr. Marguerite looked into the faces of the wives, husbands, children and elderly that she’d spent a lifetime praying for. “We are leaving,” she said, “but we will continue to pray for you and you will always be in our hearts.” She was unable to say more.

Sisters came in from out of town to help the aging Memphis sisters with the daunting task of unraveling more than 85 years of religious life in the huge monastery, which once housed 30 holy women.

For several months, they worked to pack up the monastery, clearing out or giving away items.One critical duty was taking an inventory of over 100 relics the Poor Clares had, matching each relic with the official authentication papers from Rome. 

The relics, each with a label, included part of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s veil, a piece of the habit of St. Francis of Assisi, the ashes of St. Francis and St. Clare, and even splinters identified as being from the original cross of Jesus. The relics have been transferred to the Memphis diocese.

As the day approached for Sr. Anthony to leave, she answered the door with tears in her eyes, saying, “This is really hard for me, it is a very emotional time.” She is the youngest of the nuns and was the last nun to join the Memphis order back in the late 1980s.

In November, on the Sunday before they were to leave, Sr. Marguerite and Sr. Claudia, both in their 70s, took communion, sang and prayed at the monastery’s last Mass. Also attending were those who have worshipped in the public chapel each week, many since they were children.

Knight, the oldest priest in the diocese, celebrated the Mass. Many of the worshippers and the nuns cried, knowing that they’d likely never see each other again. They all had reached the end of the monastery’s life together.

“This is a holy place, that has been full of many holy women who have lived here,” Knight softly said from the altar.

On the day Sr. Marguerite and Sr. Claudia left, Knight celebrated Mass at a tiny table in the guest quarters. A handful of people were present. 

The nuns were in travel clothes, not their habits. Their chapel had been emptied. The tabernacle had been removed.

“This is a type of death, but God is with us all the time He is with us wherever we go,” Knight said. “Our happiness is not dependent on anything on this Earth.” 

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