Sister Mary Charitas is a member of the Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares of Barhamsville, Virginia. As their website indicates, they are a cloistered monastic community in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi and his faithful disciple, St. Clare: “We seek the face of God as He reveals himself in the liturgy of the Church, our contemplation of the Eucharist and the Scriptures.”
The community follows a rigorous schedule that is centered around eight hours of daily prayer, including rising for about 45 minutes at 12:35 am for matins. They have 22 sisters ranging in age from 21 to 87, who come from all over the US, and a few foreign countries as well; three of the sisters are from India. Six of the 22 are in formation and have yet to profess final vows.
The community was founded by sisters from a Poor Clares monastery in Cleveland, Ohio in 1956. It was initially founded in Warwick, Virginia (today part of Newport News, Virginia), and relocated to its current site near Barhamsville, about 40 miles from Richmond, in 2004.
Sister Mary Charitas is from Jefferson City, Missouri. As a young woman she was working as a librarian when she discovered A Right to Be Merry, a 1956 book by Mother Mary Francis of the Poor Clares, about life in a cloister. Thinking it was the kind of life she wanted to live, in 1963 she entered the Poor Clares community in Roswell, New Mexico, which Mother Mary Francis had helped found. Due to a dearth in vocations, she was sent to the Virginia community in 1972.
Sister Mary Charitas recently spoke to CWR about her vocation and her community.
CWR: You are a contemplative cloistered community. What does that mean?
Sister Mary Charitas: We’re a papal enclosure, which means we don’t leave the grounds except for our medical needs or to engage in some business which cannot be adequately handled from the monastery. We’re fortunate to do most of our shopping online. Most of us do not answer the telephone or the door; we have three or four sisters assigned to that duty. I am one; we’re called “Portresses for the External Service.” We’re assigned by our Mother Abbess.
CWR: Your role is similar to that of St. André Bessette.
Sister Mary Charitas: That’s right. There were quite a few saints who took care of the door. They tended to the ordinary things, like making sure needed supplies or transportation were obtained.
CWR: Your community moved to its current site in 2004. What prompted the move?
Sister Mary Charitas: When our community was founded in the 1950s, Warwick was sparsely populated farmland. We had seven acres, which were surrounded by two-lane roads. The nearby city kept growing, and by the 1990s things were getting congested. The two-lane roads had become eight-lane roads. Housing developments and apartment complexes were popping up around us. There was a hospital about 10 minutes away, and we’d hear the ambulances with their sirens racing by. I remember when they put in a cell-phone tower alongside our property. As they drove the pylons into the ground, our house shook.
We got permission from our bishop to begin looking for a new property. It took several years to find our site near Barhamsville, as well as do our fundraising.
The new property is wonderful. We have 40 acres of land, bordered on one side by Goddins Pond, a large reservoir. We have many trees, hills, and ravines, with only two places on the property that were flat enough on which to build. There is a two-lane country road running by our property, so we’re not completely out-of-touch with the outside world.
CWR: You have a challenging prayer schedule.
Sister Mary Charitas: Yes. You can see it on our website. It starts with midnight office around 12:30 am, and then we’re up again at 5 am for morning prayers. We have a work period from 9 to 11:30 am, during which time we can do cooking, baking, cleaning, sewing, and garden work. We have a flower garden, and we’ve been growing some vegetables, too.
What vegetables we plant depends on the weather. The best thing we’ve had is squash. One of our sisters is very pleased with how her sweet potatoes are coming in. We tried eggplant, but that didn’t work.
We have prayers in the afternoon, followed by a 6-7 pm recreation period during which we can talk. It is followed by 45 minutes of solitude time, during which sisters can study, read, pray, practice a musical instrument, or something else. If it is light late, we can take a walk outdoors and see if the tree frogs are singing. It’s been fascinating getting used to living in the country and enjoying all that is around us.
Sometimes things can interrupt our routine. Once, during Mass, the fire alarm went off due to a malfunction. We called the fire department to say it was a false alarm, but not before two firemen showed up to see what was going on.
CWR: Is it difficult to follow such a rigorous schedule each day?
Sister Mary Charitas: It can be difficult for some folks to adjust to. That’s why our newcomers spend a little less time in prayer and more in study or other activities. For me personally, it’s been difficult not being able to read when I want to. There is limited time for that.
CWR: What is the purpose of your community? What is your work?
Sister Mary Charitas: Our main purpose is prayer. As our mother, St. Clare, said, we support the frail and failing members of the Body of Christ. People come to us for prayer in very trying situations. Someone might be in a difficult marriage, have an adult child who has run off with someone, have children not practicing their faith, or have been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. We have people ask us to pray for the safe delivery of a child, to pass an exam, for a new job, or for peace in their place of employment. We’re here to support these people.
CWR: How do people contact you?
Sister Mary Charitas: Our contact information is on our website. They can email, call, or write us. Some drop their intentions off at our front door.
CWR: What results have you seen from your prayers?
Sister Mary Charitas: Often we don’t know, but other times people call and thank us for answered prayers. One of our most striking successes occurred when we were still in Newport News. In 1980, a young man came to us just out of plumbing school. He said that if we prayed for the success of his new company, he’d do all our plumbing for free. Today, he has a large company, and is still taking care of our plumbing for free.
CWR: What kind of religious clothing do you wear?
Sister Mary Charitas: If you hang our habit on a hangar or lay it out on a table, you’d see that it is in the form of a cross. It is very simple; we wear a brown habit. Our habits are various shades of brown, as they fade and change colors over time. We wear them for many years.
We have a black veil, and a cord around the waist. Our attire is similar to that which you see St. Clare wearing in the early depictions of her.
CWR: What are some of the sacrifices you’re asked to make?
Sister Mary Charitas: We don’t eat meat, unless it is prescribed by a doctor for our health. Our work periods are limited, so if you’re trying to get something done, it can be hard. When the bell rings for prayer, you’re supposed lay down what you’re doing and go to chapel.
CWR: How have these sacrifices affected you over the years?
Sister Mary Charitas: I believe they have allowed me to grow spiritually. It can be a good discipline, not being able to do what you want to do when you want to do it.
CWR: Has it been worth it?
Sister Mary Charitas: It’s been a very good life. There have been hard times, but the Lord always comes through for us. I’ve been amazed in recent years how our community has been growing. Six or eight years ago we had around a dozen sisters. Now we have 22.
CWR: What contact do you have with the outside world?
Sister Mary Charitas: Since I am one of the sisters who answers the telephone and door, I have some contact. The families of the sisters are free to write and visit; my family visits for a few days once a year. That is the norm.
We generally don’t travel, though. We don’t go to weddings or funerals; we attend in spirit. That can be a great sacrifice.
CWR: Do you keep up with news events outside the monastery? We’ve just had an important presidential election, for example.
Sister Mary Charitas: We do follow the news, but it is not our chief concern. We are aware of the election; we vote by absentee ballot. We pray that God’s grace will be there to help our voters make the right choices and that we’ll have honest elections.
CWR: What issues concern you the most? I can imagine they’d include life and marriage.
Sister Mary Charitas: Yes. They’re crucial. It’s not good to go against the natural law. It’s not how you want to build a society.
The family is essential: one man, one woman, and however many children the Lord wishes to send. We need to be open to the gift of life.
We know that the Lord is in charge. We do wonder, however, how He’s going to get our country out of the mess it’s in!
CWR: What needs do you have?
Sister Mary Charitas: For those who live in our area, we need transportation to drive our sisters to medical appointments. We need someone who can help us both spur-of-the-moment and for routine visits. Many people are surprised to discover that we don’t own a car.
CWR: How are you funded?
Sister Mary Charitas: We are a distributor of altar breads, which brings in a small income. But mostly, we rely on the free-will donations of the public. This includes money and donations of groceries. Sometimes people remember us in their wills.
CWR: What kind of woman would be a good fit for your community?
Sister Mary Charitas: We have all types, at least one of every temperament. We want women who are willing and eager to join our community and experience a life of intimacy with the Lord.
Applicants can come to stay with us to see if the life is for them. Some stay, others are not a good fit. Some like the life, but discern that they should join another community.
CWR: The number of sisters in the United States has declined dramatically since you entered religious life in 1963. The average age of sisters in many communities is high. What do you think has happened to religious life since then?
Sister Mary Charitas: That is a concern of our sisters. But first, let me note that there are some flourishing communities out there with many younger sisters. The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan are doing well. Two branches of the Dominicans have many vocations, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist and the Nashville Dominicans.
The communities that do well are those which are faithful to the Magisterium, live in community, have a community prayer life, and wear the full religious habit. I noticed years ago that those communities that modify or abolish the traditional habit and do away with community life begin losing members. Young folks do not join. They are instead interested in communities with a common life, a regular prayer schedule, and full religious habit. You’ll see that communities that have these elements are going strong.