This year marks the 25th anniversary of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery near Millington, famous for the gouda cheese they make to support themselves, and in that time the group of Trappist sisters has risen from six to 14. Three sisters and a postulate, a prospective sister, have recently joined. A second postulate is also likely to join.
The longest established Trappist monastery in America is that for men at Gethsemane in Kentucky, the home of the famous monk Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain and many works on peace and the life of contemplation. Father Joe Wittstock, a South African priest (who became a Trappist after reading Thomas Merton), is on loan as chaplain for the monastery from Holy Cross Abbey, the monks in Berryville, Virginia.
The motherhouse of the Crozet sisters is in Wrentham, Massachusetts. It was formed in 1949 by nuns coming from Ireland. It has since planted three new houses, Our Lady of the Mississippi in Iowa in 1964, Our Lady of the Santa Ritas in Arizona in 1972, and Our Lady of the Angels in 1987. The other Trappist house in the U.S., Our Lady of the Redwoods in California, was formed by Belgian sisters in 1963.
Because the number of sisters is growing and because many nearby residents are attending Mass at the monastery’s tiny chapel, the sisters are planning to build a new church at the monastery, said Sr. Barbara Smickel, the junior director of the monastery. “We’re seriously planning for and hoping for a church,” she said. “It will get mentioned in our fall cheese brochure and our Christmas letter. We hope to have a workable plan in six months. We roast in the chapel in the summer and we lost power for a week. It’s a happy crowding in the choir.”
The chapel has 12 stalls for sisters and two benches in an alcove that accommodate eight or 10 visitors. These days, it’s usual to have 40 visitors for Sunday Mass. They had 70 on Easter. For now, visitors pack in the aisle between the choir stalls.
But the sisters are happy about the problem. “We always encourage people to stop at the chapel,” said Sr. Barbara. “The Mass is what it’s all about.”
The new church, now being designed by the architect who designed the original building and its later addition, will have stalls for 25 sisters and room for 50 visitors. It will connect to the east side of the existing complex. Once plans are drawn, a two-year fundraising campaign will be necessary. “We have some money,” said Sr. Barbara, “but we will have to raise $2 million.”
The addition of new sisters has brought some cultural diversity to the monastery. “It’s wonderful to have the enrichment,” said Sr. Barbara.
Sister Nnaremekr is from Nigeria. In English her name translates as “The Almighty has done great things for me.” The postulate, Myriam, is from Haiti, and another new Sister, Sr. Maria Gonzalo Garcia, has come from Spain, where she had been in a missionary order for 10 years. She just got her driver’s license, a cause for celebration among the sisters.
Sr. Nnaremekr does liturgical dances in the chapel, a feature of worship from her home country. “It’s very broadening,” said Sr. Barbara.
The increasing interest in monastic life is a reaction to the prevailing culture, she suggested. “We have several good candidates. One reason is a reaction against the secularism of the culture and the lack of values and the permissiveness. Young people see this and they don’t want it. It’s a good reaction. Life is perceived as more precious than this and people want a life of substance, a life of contributing. Power and pleasure are not to be sought above all else. This life is counter-cultural and we mean it to be and we don’t want that to change.”
The sisters lead an ascetic and disciplined life. Ordinarily, they are up at 3 a.m. and at Vigils, also called night office, a time for private prayer, reading and breakfast, at 3:15. That is followed at 6 a.m. by Lauds, morning praise. That is followed by a half-hour of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. At 7 a.m. comes Chapter, a time for a conference with the superior, a community meeting, or class. Then
at 7:30 there’s Mass, followed by Terce, the mid-morning prayer and work period that lasts until 11:00. At 11:40 comes Sext, midday prayer, with dinner, private prayer or reading, and maybe a quick nap. At
1:30 begins None, the afternoon prayer and work period lasting until 4:15. Vespers, evening prayer, a quarter hour of silent meditation, a light supper, and private prayer or reading, begins at 5:30. Compline, the concluding prayer of the day, is at 7 p.m. and the sisters are in bed by 8 o’clock. But, as their proverb goes, “cheese waits for no woman,” and on cheese-making days they must bend their routine.
One new sister, Sr. Joanna, was raised as a Methodist in North Carolina. “There was a picture of a monk in my life with his cowl up. I didn’t know what that was. I knew in my mid-twenties that the Lord wanted me in a monastery. I went to one and they told me to become a Catholic. I was walking at UNC with a fellow student who wanted to be a priest, and he told me I could be a contemplative nun. It planted a seed. That was 1976. I entered Wrentham in Holy Week in 1979.” She was in a monastery in Holland from 1998 to 2010, when she returned to Carolina to take care of her elderly parents. Now she is settled in Crozet.
Sr. Nnaremekr met the Mother Marian, the superior at Our Lady of the Angels, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of her vows in July, at a meeting of sisters called General Chapter. Sr. Nnaremekr was a nun at a monastery in Nigeria that had been founded by the same Irish house, Glen Cairn, that started Wrentham. “I wrote to her and she wrote to me. I told her I would love to be in her monastery.” In 2009 she went to the Irish monastery and in 2010 came to Crozet. “It was just love,” she explained. “My mother house in Ireland did not want me to come. I got a visa. I thought it was a miracle. I wanted to experience life in Europe and in America. I love everything here. I love the sisters.”
Myriam, age 41, one of six siblings raised in Haiti, said of her decision to enter monastic life, “When you are being called, it’s not all thunder and lightning. It’s things God puts in your way. I was very involved in my parish. At a retreat a priest asked me three questions and the last was had I considered religious life. And then here we go. I found the website for Our Lady of the Angels. I began looking into the Benedictines, too. I read about it and started looking for something more contemplative. A year ago I came for a two-week visit.” She was received as a postulate on June 15. Her next stage, being a novice, will last two years. At the end of her third year she can take vows that bind her for a year. Those are renewed annually for three years and at the end of six or seven years she can take final vows. “It’s like marriage,” she said.
“I never wanted to be a nun,” said Sr. Maria, who gives off something of the Spanish mystic tradition. “I went to Catholic schools and I had the question how do people know God is calling them. For me what happened was I met Jesus as a real person. I wanted just to follow Him and do things for Him. Then I realized he wanted me, not me to do things for him. I couldn’t believe Jesus would ask me to be just for Him. It was too good. I talked about it with friends and they said, ‘Why not?’
“In 1997 a group of us who were in a youth group together started living together. When the Lord wants something, he just does it. The world is pretty small for God. I have to tell people about Jesus. It will change their lives.
“The Lord told me I was the one who needed Him even more than he needed me. I realized I was being asked to a different life and I said, ‘I will do it, Lord.’ And I went to a monastery to pray. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. I thought it was impossible to be in a monastery, but my life is to follow Him so I entered a monastery in Spain. The life is so beautiful. Every monastery. We are like different families. You have to find your place.”
She took a vow of stability, which is a commitment to work for a group of people. “So I looked for where I could love the people and the place. And the Lord led me here.”
“There’s the call,” said Sr Barbara, “and then you set out to pursue it.”
“I had other plans,” said Myriam. “But the Lord came about.”
“You can’t resist it,” added Sr. Nnaremekr. “If you try to, you will be miserable. Sometimes it comes through another person.”
“Fifty years ago,” said Sr. Maria, age 34, “it was normal for people to be a nun. Now you have to discover it another way. You have a desire for something bigger, more beautiful and a bigger truth. That is forever. Only Jesus gives us that. You don’t need anything else.”
“Contemplative life has taught me that God is real,” said Sr. Joanna. “His grace is tangible.”
“Jesus is, for us, the significant other,” said Sr. Barbara. “You’re free, but if you do not follow the call, you would not be free.”
“It’s away of understanding Him and yourself,” said Sr. Maria. “If you are raising a family as Catholics you really have to fight for that. Regular parish families go home after Mass. But we stay. We haven’t chosen the sisters in the community. He is the bond between us. Because we have Him, we have each other.
“We make cheese together and it’s beautiful. We need all the sisters for it. Our work is a form of prayer. We pray, we pray, we pray, when we read and when we work.”
The sisters are steadily beaming with smiles, but they admit that they have worries. “It’s work living together, said Sr. Maria”
“The biggest message we can tell the world is, really, God is enough,” She said. “He is not a hobby. He is real hope and real love. Trust God.”