A celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Poor Clares to the Diocese of Trenton was held Nov. 21 in the Monastery of St. Clare chapel, Chesterfield, where the 15 sisters now living there, along with friends and benefactors of the community, gathered for a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Bishop John M. Smith.
Click here for a photo gallery from the Mass
“Wonderful things have happened in the diocese and I know that it has been because of your faithful prayer for all of us,” Bishop Smith said to the sisters. “There are a lot of holy places in our diocese, but when we come here we have a real sense of incarnation, of holiness being lived out each day. Thank you for your vocation in following Francis and Clare.”
The Poor Clares were founded in Italy by St. Clare of Assisi, a noblewoman who on Palm Sunday in 1212, inspired by the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, left her family for the religious life.
The history of the founding of the Poor Clare community in the United States dates back to October, 1875 when Venerable Mother Mary Magdalena Bentiveglio and her blood sister, Mother Mary Constance, came from Rome to the United States with the blessing of Pope Pius IX to found a monastery of the Poor Clares of the Primitive observance.
After many trials, they succeeded in founding their first permanent residence in Omaha, Neb. From there, Mother Magdalena opened another monastery in Evansville, Ind., where she died in 1905.
The community continued to grow, and in 1906, Mother Mary Charitas Burns took a group of nuns from Evansville and founded a new house in Boston.
Three years later in 1909 began the history of the Poor Clares in the diocese when the Sisters of Mercy left their motherhouse in Bordentown and moved to larger quarters for their growing community at Mount St. Mary Academy, Watchung.
Bishop James A. McFaul, who was the second Bishop of Trenton, saw an opportunity to put the vacant Bordentown convent to use by fulfilling his great desire to bring a cloistered, contemplative community of nuns to the diocese. Having heard of the Poor Clares in Boston, Bishop McFaul contacted Mother Charitas, the abbess, and asked her to send sisters to Bordentown. Mother Charitas, who became the Bordentown’s community’s first abbess, was delighted with the request for it had been her wish to spread the Franciscan Order of St. Clare to other areas of the United States.
On Aug. 12, 1909, the first five Sisters of St. Clare arrived in Bordentown. However, several months of renovations were needed to set up the old building according to the needs of the cloistered, contemplative nuns. The biggest renovation was setting up “the turn,” which was a partition, grille-like structure, that kept the sisters separated and from being seen by their visitors.
On Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1909, Bishop McFaul established the enclosure and formally welcomed the Poor Clare nuns to the Diocese of Trenton.
The sisters had their share of joys and challenges over the years. They witnessed the growth of their monastery, which by 1931, made it necessary for them to expand their facilities by adding a public chapel; an interior chapel, where the nuns chanted the Divine Office daily; several cells for the cloistered nuns, and a chapter room. At one time, there was as many as 44 sisters living in the Bordentown convent.
Because of the large influx of vocations to the contemplative life during the 1950s and 1960s, the Bordentown community rejoiced in knowing that new monasteries were being founded in such places as Delray Beach, Fla., and in Coroico, Bolivia.
Following the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the rules of the order became a bit more relaxed and sisters were now permitted to leave the premises to visit a dying family member or attend the funeral. Prior to that, they were not allowed to leave their monastery – for any reason.
Their regiment of getting up at midnight so they could spend the first hour of the day in worship came to an end. The sisters instead start their day with morning prayer at 6:15 a.m., and throughout the day, their routine revolves around scheduled prayer, which is known as the Divine Office. Thanks to a number of priest-friends, Mass is celebrated for the sisters each day. As for their work, they have supported themselves primarily by making and distributing altar breads to parishes on the East Coast, but today, they just distribute the breads.
In recent decades, the order, like many others, began experiencing a steady decline in membership. By the late 1980s, the Bordentown community no longer had the bustling numbers of sisters and as a result, their convent facilities became too big for their needs. Though it was a difficult decision, the sisters began the arduous task of looking for new, smaller and more manageable quarters. Finding a realtor, building contractor, the perfect piece of property, a design for the monastery, not to mention financing, was all uncharted territory for them. But working together in a collaborative spirit and with Divine Providence, they eventually found a new home in Chesterfield.
The process was long, but the sisters were patient. In all, it took more than 10 years to sell the monastery in Bordentown and they lived in Sacred Heart Convent, Trenton, for two years before moving to the new monastery.
To say the least, there is quite a difference in size, shape and atmosphere between the new monastery and the original monastery on Crosswicks Street in Bordentown City.
While the Bordentown monastery was imposing in size with more than 100 rooms and located less than a block from the hustle and bustle of one of New Jersey’s major highways, Route 130, the new monastery is tucked away on eight acres of land on White Pine Road. It is a modern, two-story angular building with many windows, 17 bedrooms and a modern décor. The sisters have their separate living quarters, but there are no grilled barriers to be found. Today, they graciously welcome all visitors with warm greetings, firm handshakes, gentle hugs and pleasant conversations – face to face.
The sisters moved to Chesterfield Nov. 12, 2001, and it was dedicated by Bishop Smith Oct. 12, 2002, a day that was significant to the sisters because it had marked the 127th anniversary of the Poor Clare Sisters arrival to America.
Much has changed in the 100 years since Bishop McFaul established the Monastery of St. Clare in Bordentown, and as Sister Agnes Valimont sees it, the biggest changes for her community came after Vatican II “when we changed our habit.”
“When I entered, we wore the traditional habit and we had a double grate in the visiting parlor and no contact with visitors,” said Sister Agnes, who entered the Bordentown community in 1953; made her first vows March 19, 1955, and celebrated her golden jubilee in 2005.
What hasn’t changed, Sister Agnes continued, “is basically the way we live our lives.” “We still pray,” she said. “Prayer is our main focus and it is the spirit of prayer that will never change because our life is a life of faith.”
“It’s been a grace of perseverance,” Sister Mary Flynn said of her order’s centenary milestone. “We are so aware that God sustains us through all the seasons of life and our anniversary was a moment of realization of God’s sustaining power and presence.”
In a day when “so many things don’t last, we have managed to last 100 years,” said Sister Miriam Varley, the community’s current abbess. “I think it was amazing that we have been able to do that. It was such a happy day for us. We were filled with joy.”