Benedicitine sisters celebrate 75th anniversary
Guardian Lifestyles Editor
Published: Oct 04, 2012
On October 3, 1937, a new possibility opened up for young Catholic women in The Bahamas when three local young women of New Providence — Winifred (Sister Elizabeth) Claridge, Avis (Sister Teresa) Symonette and Lezretta (Sister Maria) Rahming – dared to be different in their social climate and answered the call to enter religious life. They totally abandoned their home, lifestyle, friends and family, and became pioneers in introducing a new culture to the Bahamian Roman Catholic Church as vowed religious women.
The women were formed and guided by the Sisters of Charity from Mount St. Vincent, New York and the Benedictine priests from St. John's Abbey in Minnesota. In 1962, the Sisters of St. Martin joined the Benedictine Community of St. Benedict’s Convent of St. Joseph, Minnesota. They became a part of a great monastic community with a tradition that dates its origin to the sixth century following the rule and customs of its founder, St. Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica, in the Caves of Subiaco, Italy. It became an independent monastery in 1994.
The Benedictine Sisters of St. Martin Monastery are a monastic community of women, seeking to follow Christ through a vowed life of stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life and obedience. We strive to be rooted in Jesus Christ, our Benedictine heritage and the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
The grace of preferring nothing to Christ impels them to contemplate and hear God's call, evident in the needs of the local church and the world. Inspired and formed by the Gospel, the rule of Benedict and the Benedictine tradition, they offer hope and ministry freely as our gifts and vows allow.
The Saint Martin Monastery community celebrated their 75th jubilee anniversary on Wednesday with a Solemn Eucharistic Celebration at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral.
A sister speaks
When Sister Marva Coakley devoted herself to religious life in 1977, her Benedictine religious order had 22 sisters, and there were two convents in Nassau — Saint Martin (which is now Saint Martin Monastery) and the Sisters of Charity. Today the Sisters of Charity Convent is no more and the number of sisters at Saint Martin has dwindled to 11 Bahamians and one foreigner.
As the numbers dwindled, the ages soared. The youngest Bahamian nun is Sister Marva who is now 57. Sister Vernice Wilson at 82 is the oldest. A 32-year-old Filipino who transferred from the Philippines is the youngest nun in the convent, but she is not Bahamian.
In the United States the count has fallen from about 180,000 in 1965 to 55,000 last year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The number of nuns and sisters plunged through the years as more career opportunities for women opened and sisterhood became less viable. Generally, a nun lives a cloistered, contemplative life in a monastery while sisters live and work within their communities.
In the United States and Canada, convents and monasteries aren’t leaving the future of their orders to prayer and chance, and have turned to the Internet and social media to attract women who feel the calling to serve God and their community.
Like monasteries and convents around the world, Saint Martin Convent is facing challenges attracting youthful Bahamian women to the order and have resorted to different methods as opposed to word of mouth to try to attract women.
Recently, an advertisement in The Nassau Guardian read “Do you want to become a nun and do the Lord’s work? If interested contact Saint Martin Convent at 323-5517 or 323-5466”. The advertisement was sponsored by a friend of the sisters.
“We are most certainly facing the same challenges as convents the world over,” said Sister Marva Coakley, the director of vocation at Saint Martin Monastery. “The population is aging. The majority of the sisters are in their 70s with the youngest at 32, and she’s not a Bahamian.”
The urgency of the situation was even addressed by Pope Benedict on World Day of Prayer in April, as he urged young people to recognize that they are a gift to the church and not sell themselves short. The pope hoped young people would recognize there is a need for nuns and that they have something to give, that they should give themselves up for the love of God, and give themselves up unselfishly so that other people may live.
As vocation director, Sister Marva tries to recruit by going into the churches and holding seminars to inform people about religious life. Opportunities are also provided for people to get a chance to see what the sisters do and to meet them. Saint Martin Monastery currently has a come-and-see program at least twice yearly. An exhibition of the sisters at work is set up for viewing and people are invited to experience evening vespers (prayers). Afterwards they are invited to partake in a social, with goodies baked by the sisters. It also gives people the opportunity to ask questions and experience the silence of the convent and the calmness of the sisters’ lives.
Sister Marva, who grew up on Harbour Island and is the principal of St. Bede’s Primary School, said it was that calmness of life that attracted her to the convent. She said she had a yearning, and she wanted to teach.
“On Harbour Island, there were only white sisters (Sisters of Charity). I liked how the sisters carried themselves and the things they did for other people in the community, and I wanted to do something like that. Going to Aquinas, I met another group of sisters (Dominican nuns), but they were all doing the same things, and they had that quietness about them that I liked,” she said.
But she believes the technological advances of the world and the opportunities that now exist have pulled women away from the sisterhood. In the 60s and 70s when she showed an interest in the religious order, she was required to complete high school and work at least one year. But today she said things are simply not the same.
She also said while the life has stipulations and a lot of discipline, they are not missing what most people think they are — freedom. She said everything the sisters have is in common and they all go to prayers three times per day — at 6:30 a.m. at noon and at 5:15 p.m. After evening prayers they do not go “gallivanting”. They go to dinner and those who have evening meetings attend them and then return home.
“The misconception is what they think they will be missing, and they think they will be missing freedom. But, you have your freedom,” she said. “When I decided to go into the convent I knew there were going to be rules and regulations and that everyone would not be doing their own thing, but we do have something to say about what we do, and we are out to do our tasks, which is our ministry. “
Sister Clare Rolle works with the Samaritan Ministry; Sister Annie Thompson, Sister Agnes Johnson and Sister Janice Coakley bake the cookies and tarts the monastery is famous for; Sister Ena Albury works at the hospital and does visiting; Sister Cecilia Albury takes care of the elderly at St. Joseph’s Daycare Center; Sister Mary Benedict is the retired superintendent of Catholic Schools, but serves as the monastery’s prioress (mother superior); Sister Agatha Hunt is retired and most times can be found in the chapel in quiet prayer to make sure her sisters all stay safe.
As a member of the order, they all take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“Our community is a group of women seeking a deeper awareness of God’s presence in our lives and in our community. Everyone works hand in hand, sharing meals, prayer, work and conversion,” she said.
And she said all of their needs are being met. She can go to the hairdresser, she can purchase shoes and clothes or anything she wants because they all get an equal allowance — no matter what job they hold. But if they have a special need they can make a request of their superior.
“We are our own women and we do our own thing. I manage my own money and if we want something special we can save up for whatever we want,” she said. “None of our nuns step out looking shabby. We all look good.”
If young women have a drawing on their heart or soul to religious order in joining the sisterhood, Sister Marva said they have to have finished high school and worked at least a year. Training is done right at Saint Martin Monastery.
Sister Marva has celebrated 25 years in the monastery and she said she has no regrets. She said over the years some people tried the monastic life but did not stay. Even though they did not, she said she respected them for it.
“I prefer them to leave even though they may have had years of training at the expense of the convent. I prefer them to leave rather than to be miserable there because it’s not a jail, nor is it a house of refuge. It’s freedom,” she said.
Prospective sisters she said should have a love of God and others, and an openness to be spirit-led and having an interest in serving the church.
Their motto is Ora et Laboura, which Sister Marva said means to work and pray.
As they prepared to celebrate 75 years as a religious community, Sister Marva said God had brought them this far and that their fate would depend on what He has planned for them.
“As much as we think we have control, and are doing all we think we can do, God is still in control,” she said.
While her counterparts around the world are making use of technology to reach young women, Sister Marva said she desires to use technology more in fostering vocation, but she said it has been a challenge for her. It’s her goal to have the monastery’s lay group members (women and men) who have the expertise to assist her in using the media. There are approximately 50 lay members. They do the same things that the sisters do except the lay members live with their families.
About the sisters
Their way of life is not restricted to any one ministry. The Rule of Benedict affirms both manual and intellectual work as essential to a balanced life. Our small community of members are educators, administrators, pastoral workers, healthcare givers, homemakers, mentors and spiritual guiders.
Sister Mary Benedict Pratt, OSB — Prioress
Sister Jacintha Neely, OSB
Sister Mary Josephine Albury, OSB
Sister Marva Coakley, OSB
Sister Clare Rolle, OSB – director of the Samaritan Ministry
Sister Cecilia Albury, OSB
Sister Vernice Wilson, OSB
Sister Agatha Hunt, OSB
Sister Ena Albury, OSB
Sister Janis Coakley, OSB
Sister Annie Thompson, OSB