A sister receives her habit at her investiture ceremony at the Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares in Barhamsville, Virginia. (Image courtesy of the Poor Clares)
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.”
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.
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.
Charitas recently spoke to CWR about her vocation and her community.
Sister Mary Charitas (Image courtesy of the Poor Clares)
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.