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For these cloistered nuns in Alexandria, the ‘new normal’ isn’t all that new

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit a year ago, many people looked at religious communities whose members don’t leave their monasteries — such as the Poor Clares in Alexandria — as unusual. Fast forward to today and the "cloistered" life has become more relatable.

While the Poor Clares at the Mary, Mother of the Church Monastery have been social distancing vocationally in their monastery since their arrival in the Arlington Diocese in 1979, their choice to live away from the world was not intended to hold off a pandemic. As many have found lately, staying home forces a change of focus — but for the sisters, they continue to pray for the diocese, especially for vocations. It must be working, too, since there are 64 men and women currently in formation with religious orders, plus 50 seminarians and three men in seminary for other dioceses.

In many ways, the sisters’ lifestyle is well suited for a pandemic, but they have had their share of concerns and cancellations in 2020. The doors to their public chapel closed in March and a silver jubilee Mass for one of the sisters, as well as the annual St. Clare novena in August, were kept private. Visits with family, permitted only twice a year, followed social distancing guidelines, and doctor appointments were kept to a bare minimum. Then there was the concern about supplies.

The sisters practice St. Francis’ idea of poverty and rely on donations. During the first wave of pandemic panic, they listened to news about grocery store shelves picked clean and braced themselves for a decrease in donations.

They consider what happened instead miraculous.

"Donations have increased," said Mother Miriam. "People were so concerned that we would not have enough supplies. Some of them signed us up to receive regular packages from Amazon.com — mostly the staples such as toilet paper, rice and dried beans. It has been a testimony to real thoughtfulness and care."

Thanks to their cloistered lifestyle, they were one of the few groups who were unaffected by church closures last spring.

"That has been one of the biggest trials for the people," said Mother Miriam.

Priests from St. Louis Church in Alexandria have been coming to the monastery for daily Mass. To add another layer of protection, the priests asked Mother Miriam to serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion to distribute Communion to the sisters.

The added precautions are not only protecting the community from COVID-19 but also seem to be increasing the overall health of the community.

"There has not even been so much as a cold," said Mother Miriam.

In July, the sisters reopened their chapel to the public with limited seating for social distancing. Those interested in attending sign up through the parish office at St. Louis.

The Poor Clares are eager to invite the public back with appropriate safety measures. Last month, they hosted an Advent Day of Recollection for women, organized by the diocesan Office of Vocations.

There are a number of events this year to celebrate the community’s growth and longevity. In January, a new aspirant from Washington will enter the monastery during a private ceremony, bringing the number in the monastery to 15. The sisters’ first public event will be in the spring when a postulant from Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge will receive the habit. They hope to have another sister make her solemn profession this year, pending a vote by the community.

The monastery plans to welcome the public to join in celebrating two anniversaries. Sister Christiana will celebrate her silver jubilee Sept. 15 and Sister Amata will celebrate her golden jubilee May 8.

As the sisters step into the new year barefooted — part of their vow of poverty includes forgoing shoes indoors — they continue to be the praying heart of the diocese.

Kassock is a freelancer in Fredericksburg.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021