By Stephanie Richer
A year isn’t a long period of time. But for the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, it has brought about an entirely new chapter of life.
On May 6, Bishop Richard F. Stika, accompanied by fellow priests Father Jerry Daniels, Father P.J. McGinnity, and Father Hoan Dinh, celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving to mark the first-year anniversary of the arrival of the Handmaids in East Tennessee.
“They left behind the cougars and bears, and came here to face the snakes and chiggers,” Bishop Stika jokingly said in his homily. “And all because I sent them flowers!”
Mother Marietta, the community’s prioress, would say the blessings have been for her and her sisters.
“The support of everyone here has been wonderful,” she said after the Mass. “Even though we are a cloistered order, we feel very much that we are a part of the diocese.”
That connection, noted Mother Marietta, is kept up by checking the diocesan website.
“In the past, our prayers sometimes were for intentions that could be vague. Now, we are able to see the bishop’s specific intentions as well as what is happening in the various parishes and schools all around the diocese and direct our prayers to them,” she said, recalling Bishop Stika’s remarks about the flowers.
“All the dioceses who responded to our call for a new home were lovely – but Knoxville really welcomed us the most,” she said, adding that since arriving in the Diocese of Knoxville there has been a significant increase in the number of prayer requests coming to the Handmaids as more people visit their website, nunsforpriests.org.
Over the past year, the Handmaids have gained two additional members who now reside full-time at their papal enclosure, Cor Jesu, located on the grounds of the diocesan retreat center, Christ Prince of Peace, in Benton.
Since January, Mother Marietta and Sister Sarah Michael have joined the four “pioneers” who arrived in May 2013. There currently are five sisters still at the Handmaids’ monastery in Jimenez Springs, N.M., and four at the order’s priory in Lake Villa, Ill.
Plans to relocate those sisters to East Tennessee remain contingent on the need for additional living space at Cor Jesu.
“We have room for one more here,” Mother Marietta said. “We have a candidate who wishes to join us, and she will come here, but we have to expand before the others can join us.”
The Handmaids of the Precious Blood and diocesan officials have discussed plans to build a monastery on the grounds of Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center. To help make that a reality, the Handmaids intend to start a fundraising campaign this year and sell their existing New Mexico monastery.
The Handmaids’ presence in the diocese is historical because they are the first cloistered contemplative Catholic order to be located in East Tennessee. Development of a monastery also would be a historic first. The monastery would differ from convents in that nuns residing in a monastery live and work in isolation while sisters living in a convent live and work in public.
The Handmaids have received a great blessing with the arrival of Father Jerry Daniels, who is now in residence at Christ Prince of Peace and is the full-time chaplain for the Handmaids. A native of Mississippi, Father Daniels was a priest in the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana before coming to the Diocese of Knoxville.
The past year also has seen some unique moments in the lives of the sisters in East Tennessee. Snows this past winter gave them a chance to use pieces of cardboard for sledding down the hills of the retreat center.
“We had snow regularly in the mountains of New Mexico, so we were used to it and happy to see it here in Tennessee,” said Mother Marietta. The sisters regularly post pictures of monastic life on their website to allow benefactors and others to share in the joy of their life as a contemplative order.
And sometimes there is cause for thanksgiving beyond anniversaries.
About a week ago, the sisters faced a formidable challenge when one of them discovered a copperhead snake on the grounds near their residence.
“Sister Anunziata called for a shovel,” said Sister Marie Josèphe. “She pinned the snake’s head down with it while Sister Rose Philomena retrieved a large kitchen knife and went for the head. “
After a brief struggle, the copperhead was dispatched, reduced to being merely “copper.” ■