Look to Mary when feeling helpless, advise Poor Clares in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) — As the pandemic throws a metaphorical grenade into the everyday habits of people around the world, the consistent and faith-bolstering rhythm of daily Mass, frequent prayer, quiet recreation and humble ministry is serving New Orleans’ community of Poor Clare Sisters very well.

The five sisters who reside at the contemplative religious community’s monastery in the city report that their days, while certainly impacted by the coronavirus, have been fundamentally unchanged since the sheltering-in-place order.

“Everybody is supposed to be apart but together during this pandemic, but that’s what we do all the time; we are apart (from the world) but together,” said Sister Charlene Toups, abbess of the local community of Poor Clares, which includes a sixth sister who lives at Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center.

“Finding rhythms is a very important thing, as is creating space for one another in a tight situation, even if it’s psychological space,” Sister Charlene said.

Giving the Poor Clares their built-in rhythm is the Liturgy of the Hours, which provides readings and prayers at various times of the day and into the evening. The sisters’ communal day begins at 7 a.m. when they gather for morning prayer, followed by private daily Mass in their chapel — or whenever a priest can make it to their home during these weeks of social distancing. The sisters stay at least 6 feet apart in the pews, and on days a priest cannot celebrate Mass with them, they watch the Mass remotely.

Peppered between prayer times are the tasks and joys of everyday living: the sharing of meals, recreation, exercise and individual reading and reflection time — all mostly carried out within the confines of their monastery’s grounds.

“We’re blessed because we have a big house,” said Sister Charlene, noting that she and her fellow sisters do leave their home to perform essential tasks such as shopping and to access faith-based activities such as lectures and other activities related to their vocations as women religious.

A small exercise room provides space for fitness activities, and they take advantage of the expansive grounds for walking and gardening. Whenever they can, the sisters bypass the elevator to take the stairs in their three-story home.

“One of the things about the monastery is that it’s normally a quiet place,” noted Sister Julie Glaeser. “But we do keep in touch with what’s happening with the world — we read the newspaper; we watch evening news together so we know who to pray for.

“But don’t have the news on 24/7 because that can be very depressing,” Sister Julie cautioned.

Although the coronavirus guidelines have forced the sisters to temporarily suspend their monastery-based feeding ministry, it has not impacted the sisters’ telephone ministry, in which people call the sisters to express their concerns and prayer requests, or just to talk. The sisters also call people in need, to check in on them from time to time.

“We preserve a spirit of prayer and devotion, but that doesn’t mean you don’t talk,” Sister Charlene said, sharing guidelines she learned as a young sister on how to make that talk pleasing to God. Before speaking, ask yourself three questions: Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it upbuilding?

“If you stop and think about that, you’ll keep your mouth shut a lot of the time,” Sister Charlene said, chuckling.

Poor Clare Sister Rita Hickey said her community is often misunderstood as distant.

“We never hung our hat on the ‘cloistered’ idea. People get fascinated about that,” Sister Rita told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “We always consider ourselves contemplative, which means dedicated to prayer and dedicated to living in the presence of God. And everyone is with you when you’re in the presence of God.”

Of course, everyone, even the most prayerful, suffers the sting of loneliness in various degrees at some point, the sisters said.

“You can be in a room full of people and feel very alone, especially if you’re going through something internally,” Sister Charlene notes. “And it doesn’t make it any easier just because you’re in a convent. We have to do the things any human being would do. One thing to do is to take it into prayer — to be where you’re not alone; you’re with God. And then also to talk it out with somebody if you need to.”

Sister Julie said that when she feels a “pity party” coming on in the age of COVID-19, she preempts those negative thoughts by doing “something constructive,” such as sewing masks or working in the garden.

“I think people will discover a strength within themselves that they didn’t know they had,” said Sister Julie.

Sister Rita said another silver lining of the pandemic has been how Catholics have understood their craving for Mass and the Eucharist like never before, now that they aren’t readily available.

Social distancing and quarantine have presented all with “a wonderful opportunity to learn the value of silence an opportunity to grow in that,” Sister Charlene said.

“Hopefully, (people will) discover the difference between solitude and isolation; they’re not the same thing,” she added.

Meanwhile, Catholics need look no further for fortification than the role models of their faith who are preserved in Scripture and in church history, the sisters said.

Of course, there is Jesus, who went through the most horrific experiences any human should be expected to endure. But the Poor Clares also suggested turning to the lessons embodied by the Blessed Mother.

Sister Charlene said her home’s small statue of Mary sweeping with a broom is a powerful reminder of the Blessed Mother’s down-to-earth tenacity. But the image of Mary she is seeing in her mind, more and more during these days of pandemic, is the one of Mary standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross.

“She is there for her son. She is there for the world, really; she’s is taking our place at the foot of the cross,” Sister Charlene said.

“There is absolutely nothing she can do except be there, and in many ways, that’s what we are all doing — we are all at the foot of the cross, helpless,” she said. “But Mary didn’t have a pity party. She stood!”

The Poor Clare nuns reside in about 40 monasteries in the United States. There are 18,000 Poor Clares worldwide. The New Orleans community’s website is at http://www.poorclarenuns.com.

Beth Donze is a staff writer at the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. She also is editor of Kids’ Clarion.

Featured image: CNS photo/Poor Clares of New Orleans via Clarion Herald

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”