In the front of a sanctuary packed to standing room, they kneeled and individually declared their vows. And then came the moment of truth.
Six Roman Catholic sisters, each dressed in a full-length dark woolen habit and with her head covered with a black veil, rose and turned from the altar to walk down the aisle, followed by six more women who had not yet professed final vows.
As they left the church down a short flight of steps, a woman standing by the door, tears in her eyes, leaned forward to give a departing relative a quick hug – a gesture she knew she would likely not be able to repeat for many months, or even years.
The 12 women, members of the Poor Sisters of Saint Clare, left Fort Wayne’s Our Lady of Angels Oratory on Aug. 9 to embark on a vocation rarely seen in 20th-century Roman Catholicism – life as cloistered nuns.
In that life, sisters and their postulants and novices do not leave their convent on New Haven Avenue, recently surrounded by an 8-foot-high wooden fence.
They shun contact with the world in favor of a life of prayer, poverty and community.
The nuns live without television, radio, cellphones, secular publications and computers. They own nothing, depending on gifts from supporters even for food; their convent kitchen has a stove but no refrigeration, lest they store more than they immediately need. They go barefoot all year and beg for the fabric to make their habits.
When they attend daily Mass, they walk from the convent proper up a newly enclosed ramp to an area at the right side of Our Lady’s altar, where they sit behind bars and are veiled from public view by a white gauze curtain. They partake in the Eucharist through a gated opening in the grill work.
In a time when beliefs and practices of many American sisters have come under scrutiny by the Vatican for being less than orthodox, these sisters have taken up a way of life begun in the 13th century by a female follower of St. Francis of Assisi now known as St. Clare of Assisi. Even in its time, the order was seen as radical for its austerity.
“You embrace the contemplative life, … motivated by the desire to love God,” Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said in his homily at the sisters’ Mass of Enclosure.
More than 400 relatives, friends and supporters celebrated the Mass, which ended with the bishop ceremonially locking the door to the cloister behind them.
Although many might not understand the sisters’ motivation, the bishop said: “It’s really very simple. The Lord has instilled his love in you. You will live an invisible life, but you will help sustain the church through your prayer and sacrifices. You will inspire me and this whole diocese.”
During an open house the day before the enclosure Mass, Sister Karolyn Grace Wertner said the sisters do not see the cloistered state as a loss of freedom – even though they are giving up their previous work of teaching religion to children at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Fort Wayne and some have undergone “a mourning process” for it.
“We have the freedom to not get caught up in the world here,” said the 28-year-old native of Greencastle, Mass. “We feel we will do more for the world right there with Jesus, in the chapel.”
In the Franciscan tradition, the sisters already focus their lives on prayer, attending daily Mass, praying every three hours and observing two holy hours each day, sisters said. But now prayer becomes their primary task, they said.
They encourage area residents to leave specific prayer requests at the convent office or send them by mail and to join them at the oratory, formerly St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, during prayer hours. They said they will be allowed to receive occasional visitors.
Sean McBride, spokesman for the diocese, said the group moved to Fort Wayne from the Diocese of Worcester in Massachusetts two years ago to be closer to a group of Franciscan Brothers Minor, their traditional protectors.
The brothers had previously been granted permission to move to Fort Wayne from Rhoades’ previous diocese in Pennsylvania.
At first, the Franciscan Sisters Minor, as they were then known, lived in a convent at St. John the Baptist. The sisters for several months underwent self-examination and prayer while deciding to make the transition to cloistered status, he said.
Most vowed to remain cloistered for three years. One professed vows for only one year and will be an “extern” sister who will have limited outside contact.
Marilyn Doctor of Woodburn, mother of postulant Rebecca Doctor, 19, said having her daughter, one of 12 home-schooled children, enter the order was difficult emotionally.
“It will be very difficult when she has taken her vows. Very difficult,” said the 46-year-old member of Divine Mercy Catholic Parish in Antwerp, Ohio.
“But all the same, if this is what God is calling her to do, well, OK. Yes.”
Rebecca Doctor said she had been a postulant for only three months but thinks becoming a Poor Clare will become permanent.
“It’s not something you choose. I think God chooses it for you and you kind of respond to it,” she said. “I think it’s just beautiful – the aspect of being a bride of Christ and holding people’s prayers close to your heart.
“I belong here. It’s home.”