ROCKFORD, Ill. — Abbie Reese is one the secretive nuns let inside. And she wrote a book about them.
Nuns from Corpus Christi Monastery of the Poor Clare Coletine prayed about her request in 2005 for interviews. Then, over six years, they shared stories and glimpses into lives dominated by a call from God, then prayer, sprinkled with the mundane chores of living.
Reese, 36, of Mount Morris wanted to learn about the religious subculture that exists behind the brick walls of the 14-acre compound at South Main Street and Marchesano Drive. There, 22 women isolate themselves from the outside world.
They leave only for medical care and to vote. They drop their given names and take new ones. They live a six-year probationary period before they can formally join the order.
The monastery is as anonymous as the women who live there.
“I’ve heard that people don’t know the monastery is there. They drive by and never realize it’s right there, hidden in sight,” said Reese, whose book hit the shelves Jan. 8.
Reese’s stories from inside the monastery, 2111 S. Main St., are about Poor Clares who live in simple monastic silence. They subsist on donations of money and food they can’t grow, and from selling rosaries and other items so they can pray eight hours a day for whomever calls and asks — and for some who don’t.
“They describe themselves as mothers of soul,” said Reese, whose Jewish father and Catholic mother became Protestants when they married. “So while they won’t have a child in this life, the people around the world they pray for become their spiritual children.”
Poor Clare nuns forgo family life. Relatives can visit four times a year, but a metal grille that covers space over a counter prevents them from physical contact. Outsiders, like Reese, are rarely allowed behind the grille.
The Poor Clares are part of the religious orders begun by St. Francis of Assisi that dates to the 13th century. A Rockford monastery was founded in 1916 on Avon Street, moving in 1920 to the old Broughton Sanitarium.
It’s one of 50 Poor Clares monasteries in 22 states and 1,221 worldwide. In all, there are 14,000 Poor Clare nuns.
Reese said her book started with a question about why modern women would answer calls from God to lead anonymous, prayerful lives dedicated to him through vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure.
Poor Clares also shun the material world. Some sleep on straw beds, others on hard, carpeted bed boards because good mattress straw is hard to come by these days, Mother Dominica said. Three years ago, she was elected abbess, or mother superior, by the community.
Mother Dominica said nuns range in age from 20 to 81.
Nuns are barefoot, a symbol of their poverty, unless they’re working outside or suffer from arthritis and need sandals. Only the infirmary at the monastery is air-conditioned.
While the nuns shun technology, they see its value.
“The Internet is really a good resource tool, but for us as contemplatives who spend their lives in prayer, we really don’t have the time,” she said from behind the metal parlor grille.
There’s a computer to print mailing labels and a microwave oven to cook food, modern machines that speed up work so there’s more time for prayer.
Days are the same: devoted to God. Nuns rise at 12:30 a.m. for an hour of prayer, then go back to sleep. They rise again at 5 a.m. and prayer is made through the day, formally and while they eat and rest.
During work periods, they pray while doing laundry, tending vegetables, shoveling snow, mowing grass and other chores required to maintain the property.
In the evening, they relax in a one-hour recreation period, when they are free to talk to each other, if they choose. They retire at 9 p.m.
Mother Dominica joined the order in 1982 after 15 years as an active sister. The Appleton, Wis., native she knew in sixth grade that she wanted to be a cloistered nun, a calling she said comes from God;.
“It usually doesn’t work if it comes from you.”
In 1991, there were 30 sisters at the monastery, but five moved in 1995 to Minooka when Annunciation Monastery opened. Mother Dominica says a half-dozen women are inquiring about joining the monastery. One has been called by God to join and will, after she’s done taking care of an ailing relative.
If they decide to answer God’s call, women assume a new identity, dropping given names for religious names. They’ll have six years to discern if it’s truly a calling to join the order that, ironically, shuns the limelight that a book can bring.
Mother Dominica read Reese’s work —”She did a good job” — which arrived around Christmas. But the nuns haven’t seen it.
Letting Reese into their world seems incongruent for a 100-year-old monastery in self-imposed isolation, but the book has value to the Poor Clares.
“We live a hidden life,” Mother Dominica said. “We’re not used to publicity.
“But we’re human beings, like everyone else. We thought it was valuable because it gave flesh to the life.”