GLENMOORE, Pa. - When independent filmmaker and artist Abbie
Reese inaugurated her collaboration with the Poor Clare
Colettine nuns at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford,
Illinois, she had a professional goal: nurturing a
collaborative relationship that would serve as a backdrop to
a young woman's transition from secular life into an
Ten years down the road, Reese admits that the time she has
spent with the nuns, who practice a form of strict enclosure
relatively rare in contemporary culture, has had an effect on
her that goes well beyond scholarly objectivity and
A relationship that began a decade ago as a long-term project
has, over time, evolved into a project she described as both
broader and more profound.
Reese was fresh off a yearlong volunteer stint as a media
liaison in the communications department for a huge hospital
ship, another form of enclosed community, when she began her
oral history collaboration with the nuns, whom she first
approached in 2005.
In the introduction to her 2014 book, "Dedicated to God: An
Oral History of Cloistered Nuns," Reese writes that the call
to leave the secular world and embrace a cloistered existence
- these nuns rarely leave the monastery - was, for many,
quite unexpected: "It defied their God-given temperaments. It
violated dreams. It dashed plans for marriage and children.
It meant their world would shrink, temporally, to a
fourteen-acre campus, so that their minds could dwell on
As her relationships with the nuns deepened, they began to
open up, not only the physical space they inhabited, but
their own vocational stories. "Looking back, I think they
wanted to see if I could respect their faith and honor their
tradition while within their space," she said.
While at first she would dress in the street clothes she
normally wore, eventually she found herself dressing with
deliberate modesty. "They only see the hands and faces of
other (women), so to see more skin on somebody else is quite
distracting. ... I would not wear makeup, and would take off
my dangly earrings before going in."
She makes it clear that the nuns didn't impose their
expectations on her. Nor did her growing knowledge of
monastery life impel her to discover a hitherto unknown call,
"It's clear your calling is to tell stories," one of the nuns
Given that the nuns only speak to each other when strictly
necessary, even the act of interviewing one of them was
eye-opening, said Reese. "Sister Nicolette (a pseudonym), who
was really worldly before she entered, fluent in four
languages and grew up in Europe, would get hoarse in half an
hour. It takes an emotional toll to communicate like that.
She was so deliberate in the words she chose, so thoughtful
"I experienced the monastic pace through them. It is
incredibly compelling," Reese said in a telephone interview
with the National Catholic Reporter's Global Sisters Report.
She added that while she spent nights in the guest quarters
and visited the enclosure on occasion as the project evolved,
she never spent a night inside the nuns' residence.
In her book, Reese describes the way nuns order their days, a
rhythm that moves between manual labor and prayer with a
particular and sustained focus on veneration of the
sacrament. A few are deputized to answer the phone, a link to
the personal and global sorrows and crises outside their
When they aren't gathered for the Divine Office seven times a
day - including at midnight - or engaged in private prayer,
the nuns can be found working in the garden, baking altar
breads to be packaged and mailed off to different
congregations, or fixing furniture in their workshop. Though
they depend chiefly on donations to run their household, they
also have a gift shop in which they sell hand-sewn Communion
veils as well as cards and rosaries.
As do other cloistered communities, the nuns at Corpus
Christi seem to have great confidence in the efficacy of
their calling: healing the world through the power of
"They intervene in the course of history, believing that
their prayers and penances for strangers and family can alter
outcomes," writes Reese. "At the ceremony when a nun makes
final, permanent vows, she hugs her family for one final
time. This sacrifice serves a purpose: The material world is
not the end, and their sufferings and martyrdoms allow God's
will to become manifest in the world."
These final hugs happen six years after a sister enters as a
postulant. "It's a really emotional ceremony," said Reese.
"Their mothers don't want to let go."
Thereafter, nuns will only see their families seated behind a
grille, and they are allowed only four visits per year. Some
of the older nuns told her, Reese said, that after they
departed for the monastery, their mothers would continue to
set a place at the dinner table for them: "The separation was
so extreme that it was like a death."
Nonetheless, she said, the community continues to attract
vocations. At the moment, there are approximately 22 nuns in
Rockford, some of whom had transferred from active orders.
One, she said, had served in the military.
Like other religious communities, these Corpus Christi nuns -
theirs is a Franciscan order (St. Clare was a friend and
follower of St. Francis - have pets. Though the nuns told
Reese that the dogs are there to protect them, "God sent them
a cat. They found it in the dumpster one day.
"People keep asking me why I spent 10 years on the project"
said Reese, a non-Catholic raised by two veterans of the
1960s' Jesus movement. "There are really fun women. That's
part of the reason it was so enjoyable for so long."
But they also are very open about the cost of shutting the
door on the secular world. "When a young woman enters, she
isn't immediately expected to wake up every night (for
prayer). It's something they are gradually assimilated into."
As Reese spent more and more time getting to know the Corpus
Christi community, her interest in telling the story in
greater depth grew.
"The whole reason I wanted to do this project was to follow
young women through the process of transitioning from one
identity to another," said Reese. In addition to her focus on
the Illinois community, she is pursuing a separate project
with funding from the Harvard University Shlesinger Library
on the History of Women. For the past 10 years, she has been
interviewing young women around the country who are
considering religious life.
Currently she is in the process of editing "Chosen (Custody
of the Eyes)," a film that follows 20-something painter and
blogger "Heather." In both the book and the movie the nuns
chose to use aliases. "Heather," whom Reese met in 2005,
ended up joining the Rockford community of Poor Clare
Colettines, becoming "Sister Amata."
But when Reese sets foot in the monastery, which is set back
from a busy road, and catches a whiff of the incense, the way
she experiences the passing of time itself changes, she said.
"As I interacted with those women, who have embraced a
different, ancient rule, I understood it in a different and
much deeper way."
Asked why women who so rarely interact with the culture that
laps at their door chose to open up their lives to her, Reese
said: "In part they see the benefit of people knowing that
this life still exists, that young women are still called."
While she was collecting information, she shared the
transcripts with the nuns she interviewed.
And when the book was finished, she gave them a copy which,
the mother abbess told her, they passed from one nun to
another. As the nuns have read the book, they have told Reese
they've been learning about themselves.
Reese's project has another future benefit: providing the
nuns who function as administrators with biographical details
about their companions, with whom they often shared the rigor
of a daily routine without the small intimacies of secular
friendships. "When a nun died," she said, often they didn't
know what to put in the monastery record."
Eisenstadt Evans is a religion columnist for Lancaster
Newspapers Inc., as well as a freelance writer.