Contemplative community accepts God’s call, Bishop Stika’s invitation to relocate from New Mexico
The signs were unmistakable: drive-by gunfire during Easter Vigil, a coven of witches, a nudist colony, and a New Age bed-and-breakfast nearby. The monastery of Cor Jesu, home to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, a contemplative community based in New Mexico, found itself under siege by unholy forces.
But the contemplative community of Sisters located in New Mexico was resolute. The Sisters would only leave if that was God’s plan. And God revealed to them the next chapter for their 66-year-old community.
Now the Diocese of Knoxville is home to the Handmaids, who will be in residence near Athens and Madisonville, where they will share their charism in peace amid a growing Catholic diocese in the heart of the Bible belt.
The Handmaids heeded God’s call to leave New Mexico and their three-year, 1,400-mile journey has come to an end. Bishop Richard F. Stika has announced that the Handmaids will live at the diocese’s new Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton.
Praying for safe haven
Three years ago, the Mother Prioress General of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, Reverend Mother Marietta, met with Cardinal Raymond Burke at the community’s priory, Heart of Mary, in Lake Villa, Ill.
This monastic institute of cloistered nuns was founded in 1947 by Father Gerald M.C. Fitzgerald, sP. Father Fitzgerald, as a young priest, once opened his rectory door when he heard a knock and found a homeless man looking for help. In conversation, the man revealed to Father Fitzgerald that once he had been a priest but had fallen away from the Church and his vocation because of personal problems.
The memory of that meeting stayed with Father Fitzgerald throughout his life until he founded the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, the community of women who sacrifice their lives to pray for the sanctification of the Catholic priesthood, primarily through eucharistic adoration.
“These Sisters don’t just pray for priests, they live for them,” said Reverend Mother Marietta, who was quoting a friend of their community about the religious community’s charism.
The Sisters accept their own sufferings and trials as opportunities to offer up sacrifice in a spirit of self-forgetfulness for priests in need and consider it only a small return compared to the immeasurable gifts priests bring to other souls in the sacraments.
When a priest is helped, all the souls he influences also benefit.
When Reverend Mother Marietta met Cardinal Burke, he was championing the cause for sainthood for Servant of God Father John Hardon, SJ, who had been the Handmaids’ longtime spiritual and canonical adviser as well as Father Fitzgerald’s biographer. Cardinal Burke was following up on the Handmaids’ work of digitizing Father Hardon’s writings and speeches.
Reverend Mother Marietta was struck by Cardinal Burke’s simplicity and holiness.
“As soon as he stepped out of the car, I felt a sacred presence emanating from him,” Reverend Mother Marietta said.
When Cardinal Burke asked her about the Handmaids’ monastery, Cor Jesu, in Jemez Springs, N.M., Reverend Mother Marietta was forthright with him. She said the situation was not good.
The local population had changed over the years and eventually turned hostile toward the Handmaids. Although their monastery is located in a rural area in the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, there had been two drive-by shootings, with one shot coming into the Sisters’ chapel at an Easter Vigil Mass.
The area changed significantly since the motherhouse was built in 1947. A nudist colony was established nearby, as was the New Age bed and breakfast, and a witches’ coven was meeting down the road from Cor Jesu.
“In fact, one novice even told me ‘if my parents knew how bad it was, they would not have let me join the community,’” Reverend Mother Marietta said.
After hearing Reverend Mother Marietta’s description, Cardinal Burke looked at her and said, “You have got to get out.”
He promised to help her and the Handmaids of the Precious Blood find a safe haven.
That safe haven was found in the heart of the Bible belt.
On May 6, four Sisters—Reverend Mother Marietta, Sister Anunziata, Sister Mary Genevieve, and Sister Rose Philomena—arrived at the Diocese of Knoxville’s Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton with a U-Haul truck in tow. After years of prayer and discernment—and much encouragement from Bishop Richard F. Stika—they were in East Tennessee to make their home in the St. John’s Residence at the Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center.
After speaking with Cardinal Burke three years ago, Reverend Mother Marietta called the Handmaids together.
“I told them that I wanted them to pray for three months, and to focus their prayer on what God wanted us to do, whether it meant staying in New Mexico or leaving,” she said.
On July 16, 2010, she called a general chapter of the Sisters to find out what each had discerned. The sisters decided that it was time to leave New Mexico and, said Reverend Mother Marietta, “to go where God would lead us.” So, plans to move were put into motion.
Finding a new home
Cardinal Burke, along with Mike Wick of the Institute on Religious Life, helped in getting the word out to bishops that the Handmaids were interested in moving their motherhouse. The Handmaids were in touch with nine dioceses. While at a luncheon at the Institute for Religious Life, Reverend Mother Marietta met Bishop Stika, who had heard about the Sisters’ desire to move.
“He was so good and cordial,” she recalled. “And [he] kept persevering to help us. He would send us flowers at Christmas and Easter.”
Shortly thereafter, Reverend Mother Marietta and the Sisters had to delay their plans. Correspondence with the nine dioceses was suspended—except for one. Even when they had to suspend correspondence because Reverend Mother Marietta had a health issue, Bishop Stika continued to communicate his vision of establishing a contemplative community in the diocese.
“I kind of had to drop out of what we were doing because of my health. So I had let it lapse for quite a while, which I was very unhappy about. Bishop Stika got in touch again—he didn’t drop us.”
After considering several possible locations within the diocese, Bishop Stika called the Reverend Mother last summer and told her the diocese had been given a great gift that allowed him to offer the Handmaids a home.
“He asked me if I was still interested. I said, ‘Well, may I come and visit?’” Reverend Mother Marietta said.
In January, she and Sister Anunziata traveled to Knoxville for their first visit, returning again in March to visit the site.
“Not only one person made us feel welcome—everyone did,” the Reverend Mother recalled, laughing.
Added Sister Anunziata, “It is wonderful to be wanted—we are overwhelmed by the big welcome.”
In March, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood made the decision to move from New Mexico to East Tennessee. Knights of Columbus from St. Mary Church in Athens, St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City, St. Joseph the Worker Church in Madisonville, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux Church in Cleveland worked together to ready the St. John’s Residence for the Sisters. Reverend Mother Marietta returned to New Mexico in May and Sister Marie Josèphe arrives this month. The remaining 21 Sisters in New Mexico will relocate as soon as possible over the next few months to East Tennessee.
Bishop Stika is looking forward to the Handmaids getting established in the diocese and noted they already are fitting in, having been “adopted” by Knights of Columbus councils near Benton.
“The Church has always been blessed to have contemplative communities—both men and women. The Handmaids’ vocation is to pray, and they do day and night. They live separate from the world yet everything they pray for is in the world that surrounds them,” Bishop Stika said.
Bishop Stika is confident the Handmaids’ transition from New Mexico to East Tennessee will go well and is a welcome addition to the growing Diocese of Knoxville.
“This [cloistered community] is a first for our diocese. I see this as a maturing of the diocese,” Bishop Stika said. “They can fit in anywhere. They just need the support of the bishop and the diocese and they have that here.”
As the monastic nuns continue to pray for the priesthood, Bishop Stika said they also will be praying for special intentions they receive.
Part of God’s plan
The Sisters say they have seen signs affirming their decision. Since March, the forces of nature have been more active around Jemez Springs. In late April, a freak, unusually severe, windstorm blew through their monastery grounds, breaking up a shrine to the Virgin Mary and lifting their greenhouse off its foundation. After reviewing the damage, Sister Rose Philomena asked where the inside of the greenhouse had gone.
“We found debris some 30 feet away,” said Sister Anunziata. Debris was scattered all over the grounds.
Then a mountain lion appeared on the grounds and remained to admire its reflection in the window of the monastery laundry room.
“We had to be careful,” said Reverend Mother Marietta. “The sisters could not go outside at twilight or dawn because of it.”
The Sisters believe it’s all part of God’s plan.
“When God opens one door, another closes—Tennessee is our open door, and these things that happened are a way of detaching from New Mexico,” Sister Anunziata said.
While the Handmaids of the Precious Blood are a cloistered institute, they look forward to living within the Diocese of Knoxville, where they feel they can be part of a larger community.
“We are here for the people of the diocese” to offer prayer, the Reverend Mother said. The Handmaids spend approximately five hours each day in formal prayer, reciting the Divine Office and with each sister spending one to two holy hours in Eucharistic Adoration. All attend Mass daily.
At the St. John’s Residence, the front room is being converted into a small chapel where the Eucharist will be in place.
“It is an immensely happy life,” Reverend Mother Marietta said. “We can be with [Christ] day and night, and he is right here in our home. It is true joy, J-O-Y…Jesus, Only You.”
The charism of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood is to pray to strengthen vocations and to keep holy the priesthood. Such prayers are important now more than ever because of distractions facing priests.
“The priests need prayers always,” the Reverend Mother explained. “With the Internet, there is much more availability of information and with that, much more possibility for a priest to get off track. Unless the priests have a deep friendship with Christ, and unless they have built a habit of prayer, they have too much distraction from the world around them.”
The Reverend Mother pointed out that there are people now who have never seen a nun in habit and veil before. She said the Catholic population has been disseminated into the secular world, so Catholics can fail to have that deep relationship with Jesus.
“I love being tuned in to someone who works miracles,” she said, referring to Christ. “The contemplative life allows me to be anywhere in the world and touch anyone at any time.”
The cloistered life
The cloistered life doesn’t mean the Handmaids will be completely removed from public. The Reverend Mother explained that their heritage and charism allows them to travel on occasion to meetings, and Bishop Stika has given them permission to attend the diocesan Eucharistic Congress in September. She said the Handmaids are happy to help celebrate the diocese’s 25th anniversary, as well as catch up with their friend, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whom they know from when they maintained a priory in Rome and when he was rector at the North American College there.
They would exchange homemade chocolate chip cookies with him for free parking at the college.
And their lives are not without fun.
“The bishop said we can play soccer on the grounds here,” Reverend Mother Marietta said of one of the Handmaids’ favorite activities.
The future looks bright for the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, according to Reverend Mother Marietta. “We have had some wonderful inquiries concerning vocations—we are expecting four more candidates to stay with our community this summer.”
The backgrounds of the Sisters would surprise some people who might have a particular notion about young women drawn to the cloistered religious life. The Reverend Mother laughed at that idea.
“I was in the Vietnam War,” she said. “I am a convert to Catholicism. I was Presbyterian. I worked in the State Department in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. I was horrified by what was happening, both to the Vietnamese and our own troops. I needed something to help me make sense of it all and God gave me grace when I met a group of Vietnamese sisters who were caring for orphans, many of them horribly maimed.”
The Reverend Mother recalled that she could not speak Vietnamese and they could not speak English.
“But I began to help them. I was so impressed by their peace and their trust in God in a place where there was nothing, no natural hope,” she recalled.
The experience led her to become Catholic and take vows as a nun 38 years ago.
“We all come from different backgrounds,” the Reverend Mother noted.
Sister Mary Genevieve, who celebrated her 50th year of vowed life May 14, was a librarian. Sister Anunziata was a rancher and trained horses and dogs before entering the community. Sister Rose Philomena is a U.S. Air Force veteran and served for 10 years as a meteorologist in the United States and abroad in Korea and Saudi Arabia. She reached the rank of captain. Sister Marie Josèphe, who will arrive in East Tennessee this month, also is an Air Force veteran who was a satellite operations officer.
Sister Anunziata jokes that with her, “God had to keep calling.” She describes being a nun as “an everyday ‘yes.’”
“It is a stunning reality,” she said. “It is not expected and is unique for each individual. Being personally called by God is a humbling experience and you know you have to respond. It is a great blessing and a great privilege. I love it.”
The Handmaids of the Precious Blood take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and they rely on donations from the public. They maintain an Internet presence at their website, www.nunsforpriests.org, that has information on the Handmaids and where they invite the public to “Adopt-a-Priest” and receive the first name of a priest for whom they can pray.