It’s been a year since the Cistercian nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery consecrated their new church, a bittersweet milestone since it coincided with the death of one of their original number, Sister Mary David DeFeo, who had come to the monastery when it opened in 1987. She now occupies the first plot in the monastery’s small cemetery adjoining the church.
Since then the sisters have added one new nun, Sr. Jacqueline Melendez, from Venezuela, as well as a postulant, some one discerning whether the life of a cloistered nun is her destiny, Eve Marie Aragona. They now number 13.
“I wouldn’t change a thing in it,” said Sr. Barbara Smickel of how the new sanctuary is working out in practice. The tiny chapel area that formerly served as the church—the sisters dubbed it the “holy shoebox”—is now renovated to serve as the business office for the sisters’ Gouda cheese-making business, which supports the monastery.
“We do the maximum we can do [making the cheese] to support ourselves and give alms and still live as we must as a community,” Sr. Barbara said.
“We’re up on a hill, removed from the flow of life in town. We’re apart not for the sake of being apart, but to do our part for the beacon of peace. Anyone, whether Catholic or not, is welcome [to visit us]. Our guest cottages are virtually always in use.”
The monastery includes two small houses, situated on a small pond at a secluded distance from the main buildings, that they offer as retreat accommodations to those seeking spiritual renewal. The cabins, named for the archangels Michael and Gabriel, are offered for private retreats for as long as a week at a time. First-time guests should have a recommendation from their pastor. The cabins are not available in the winter months from Thanksgiving to Easter.
“It’s a ministry of hospitality. We do not try to generate income from the cottages. I think people do feel welcome. It sounds corny or clichéd, but we are here for people.”
“We consider ourselves part of the local community,” added Sr. Jan McCoy. “We invite people to pray in the church. We provide a place of silence and we offer our spiritual life as an asset for the community. It’s like a green space.” That observation came as she was standing on the sisters’ cloistered flower garden and alluded as well to the sisters’ expanded gardening efforts as they raise more and more of the vegetables they eat.
She was quick to add that the sisters do not offer personal spiritual direction.
“We do pray sincerely for the prayer intentions that are left in our book,” said Sr. Barbara. “We take them to heart. It’s a huge outreach. We’re very often stopped and asked to pray for someone. That’s the biggest thing we offer.”
Meanwhile the sisters are also trying to promote their vocation to other women. Sr. Maria Garcia, who joined the monastery from Madrid, Spain, six years ago, has offered a retreat for girls in the Diocese of Arlington and has visited James Madison University to talk about Cisterian life.
“We try to make ourselves known,” said Sr. Barbara. “You really can’t recruit for it.” Their website, olamonastery.org, offers a practical discernment guide for the curious. They are hosting a come-and-see weekend September 22-23.
“It’s an extraordinary life—a Christian vocation—but we ourselves are ordinary.”
“We are trying to live as simply as we can,” added Mother Kathy Ullrich.
“The diversity of our origins”—the sisters come from states across the U.S. and countries such as India, Haiti, Brazil and Venezuela—“is very enriching,” she said. “You feel like you’re in a place where you can try to excel at the spiritual life. Sister Jan was not a Catholic when she made her first visit.”
“It was a scary and welcome realization,” said Sr. Jan, who made her first visit in 1988 and joined the community in 1993. “I didn’t know what it was, but it was driving me mad.”
“Can we really believe in love?” said Sr. Barbara, to try to express the crux question. “Is there a trustworthy love out there? If so, why would it love me? We will be really surprised when we meet real love.”
Mother Kathy had had a 15-year career in the Air Force and was about to be assigned to an important job in the Pentagon when she made the leap. “I had an inkling in college. I came to the monastery on a retreat. I was kind of spinning my wheels. I read a brochure they sent me. There was a pickup and a dog in a picture. A cloistered monastery was not on my radar. I think it was God saying, ‘Make a move.’” She joined in 2001 after visiting monasteries in Ecuador and Honduras as well and was elected Mother in 2016 after the retirement at age 75 of former Mother Marian Rissetto.
“It’s the best-kept secret in the world, but we don’t want to it to be a secret.”
The public is invited to Mass at 8 a.m. on Sundays and to evening vespers at 5:30 p.m. The monastery is at 3365 Monastery Drive, off Clark Road, about 15 minutes from downtown Crozet.
Cheese is available at the monastery 9-11 a.m. or 2-4 p.m., except Sundays. A two-pound wheel costs $28.