The Cistercian nuns of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet consecrated their new church in a Mass August 2 that drew a score of church dignitaries to their quiet setting.
Mass was said by Bishop Richard B. Higgins, of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, who has longstanding connections with the sisters.
He was joined by 16 priests, four abbots—including Fr. Joseph Wittstock of Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, their Father Immediate, who served for nine years as the sisters’ chaplain—as well as three brothers.
The Mass included the anointing of the altar and the crosses and candles of the church, as well as the incensing of the altar. In the tradition of altars since Early Christianity, the altar contains first class relics (meaning of their body) of two martyrs, Saints Ignatius and Anastasius, as well as first class relics of St. Basil, St. John Chrysostum, St. Gregory Nazianen, St. Bernard, St. Rafael Arnaiz, St. Teresa, St. Therese, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Blessed Gabriella, who the sisters firmly believe will be canonized.
Once dedicated, Sr. Barbara Smickel noted, the space can never be used for any other purpose.
“Most of us were ready to cry,” she said. “It was a very special day.”
“Now it belongs completely to God,” said Mother Kathy Ullrich. “There’s no debt on it. No bank can foreclose on God.”
“This is the present community,” said Sr. Barbara, referring to the 10 current sisters. “Hopefully in one hundred years another comadobemunity is here.”
The altar, Mother Kathy explained, was given by the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the famous monastery of Thomas Merton. “We opened it and were very happy at what we found.”
The occasion was joyous, but the death two weeks earlier of Sr. Mary David DeFeo, one of the original number who came to Crozet in 1987, was keenly felt.
The group is a daughter house of a monastery in Wrentham, Massachusetts, one of three it propagated, in Iowa in 1964, in Arizona in 1978 and in Crozet in 1987.
The Sisters’ original chapel held 12 choir stalls for the Sisters and seating, they assert, for 25 visitors. Maybe if someone were there to pack them in. It was enough for the daily visitors. At Easter, some 75 would crowd the halls. “We called it the Holy Shoebox,” said Sr. Barbara. “The acoustics were horrible. We didn’t realize until we moved. We called ourselves a choir of mice.”
The new church has 20 stalls for the Sisters and pews for 80 visitors. Visitors have a transept view of the altar, side on. A large stained glass window is above them, south-facing, casting light on the altar. The focal point on the wall beyond is a large carved crucifix, set in a neat Gothic niche. On an average Sunday there are 40 visitors.
“The other aspect for us is attracting vocations,” said Mother Kathy. “The church often gets built last at a monastery. You have to have bedrooms and a kitchen and workrooms first.”
Once, the church was conjectural. But now they have their church. They can show it when they talk about how they live. And they can show the sunny library on the level below the sanctuary, with its 10,000 books and quiet carrels.
She said the monastery has several candidates, some of whom attended the dedication and are beginning an observership. The process of entering the monastery takes eight years.
“We’re ordinary people, but we are living a radical lifestyle,” said Mother Kathy.
“We have a new room where guests can visit us, where classes can be held,” said Sr. Barbara. “We see a lot of new faces since we moved into the new church. But we’re not a parish. People have to connect to a local parish.”
“Our original thought [about the chapel] was quite different,” she said. “Living in the space gave us a different idea of what we needed in the church.”
Meanwhile, the Shoebox has become office space for the monastery’s cheese-making business, the way it supports its seven-times–a-day dedication to prayer.
Mother Kathy, elected a superior after Mother Marion Rissetto retired at age 75, after serving 29 years, is on her way to a meeting in Assisi, Italy, of all the superiors of all the Cistercian monasteries in the world. It’s held every three years and lasts nearly a month.
The public is invited to Mass at the Monastery, at 3365 Monastery Drive, at 8 a.m. and to public prayer at 5:30 p.m.