Hidden Within the Mystical Body: An Interview with the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles; Part I
An interview with the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
This month, I have had the immense blessing of interviewing Sr. Mary Josefa, OSB, the local superior of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles’ daughterhouse in Ava, Missouri. In the first part of this interview, found below, Sr. Mary Josefa shares the beauty of the cloistered life as lived by her order in rural Missouri. In the second part of this interview, which will be published soon, Sister will share more about the daughterhouse of which she is the superior and the projects they are undertaking there for the glory of God. Sister will also share more about Sr. Wilhelmina and the recent exhumation of the foundress that has revealed her body in a remarkable state of preservation.
A very special thank you to Sr. Mary Josefa for doing this interview with me, as well as to my friend Margaret Pinkerton who provided photos from her visit to the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus for use in these articles.
CL: To begin, could you please give us a brief history of your order? When were you founded?
Sr. Mary Josefa: The name of our community is the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. We were originally founded in 1995 as the Oblates of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Our foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, was an Oblate Sister of Providence, belonging to a teaching order that had been founded in the United States in the 1800s as a community of Black women devoted to giving Catholic education to poor children. Sister Wilhelmina taught in inner-city schools up and down the East coast before being assigned as the community’s archivist. During the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the community began to give up certain aspects of religious life, such as the habit, silence and community prayer, which deeply grieved Sister Wilhelmina. She herself never gave up the religious habit, and she prayed and sacrificed and even collected donations in the hope of beginning a traditional branch of Oblates of Providence who would preserve these essential elements of religious life. When this proved more and more impossible, she began to explore the possibility of founding a new community instead - a daunting task for a religious Sister about 70 years of age and more than 50 years in vows! The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter invited her to begin a new foundation of Sisters as parish helpers near the Fraternity’s headquarters in Pennsylvania. Sister Wilhelmina was appointed the first superior of this fledgling community, the Oblates of Mary, Queen of Apostles, on May 27, 1995. Because of her age, she did not serve as superior for more than a year, but her fidelity and perseverance remained a powerful source of inspiration for the young Sisters joining the community.
(A more complete account of Sister Wilhelmina’s courageous undertaking may be found in our community’s book “GOD’s Will: the Life and Works of Sister Mary Wilhelmina,” available through our website, www.benedictinesofmary.org).1
From its small beginnings in Pennsylvania under the aegis of the Priestly Fraternity, our community increased in numbers and discerned a more contemplative call as a monastic community. In 2006, we re-located to the diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph, Missouri, at the invitation of Bishop Robert Finn, who had been praying for a community of nuns to come to his diocese to pray for his priests. In Missouri, we received Benedictine formation with the help of the Benedictine Monks of Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri, and took a new name for our community as the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. We were given land in Gower, an hour north of Kansas City, where we built our first permanent Monastery, capable of housing 48 nuns. We were raised to a society of diocesan rite in 2014 and given the status of an Abbey in 2018, when Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell was blessed as our first Abbess. Her abbatial blessing was the first traditional blessing of a Benedictine Abbess in this country.
At this point, the Abbey in Gower had reached capacity, so the following year, 2019, Mother Abbess Cecilia sent seven Sisters to found a daughterhouse in the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, in southern Missouri. In four years, this foundation, the Monastery of Saint Joseph, has grown to twelve Sisters, and our Motherhouse is again at capacity, so last summer we broke ground on our permanent Monastery, which will be capable of housing as many nuns as our Motherhouse. It is a difficult time to undertake such a large construction project, but we do not wish to turn away the numerous young women who wish to enter our community. At the time of this writing, eight candidates have already been accepted to enter in the fall. The Motherhouse in Gower will make temporary cells for them in the unfinished basement of the Abbey, but at the foundation’s temporary house there is simply no more room. So we trust that Saint Joseph will provide the funds that we need to build a permanent Monastery in his honor. If Our dear Lord wishes to continue to send us so many vocations, then we have confidence that He will also provide the means to receive them!
CL: Why did you choose Our Lady Queen of Apostles as your titular patroness? What is your charism? What does it mean to be a monastic order?
Sr. Mary Josefa: I would like to answer these questions together! Our name, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, expresses our life as contemplatives following the monastic rule of St. Benedict and striving to emulate Our Lady’s hidden life of prayer and sacrifice for priests.
A monastic order is a community that is set apart from the world for the sake of greater union with God through contemplation. The word “monastic” comes from the Greek word “monos,” which means “one” or “alone.” A monastic life is meant to provide a soul with the silence and solitude necessary for growing in an ever deeper knowledge and love of God. This soul, in a real sense, lives alone with God as a bride with her Bridegroom, and leads a life that is profoundly unified and ordered toward growth in contemplation and deeper union with God.
Monastic orders do not usually engage in an exterior apostolate, such as teaching or nursing, but exercise an intense spiritual apostolate of prayer and sacrifice. Monasticism has a role in the Mystical Body of Christ that is analogous to the role of the internal members of a human body, like the heart and the lungs. The heart and the lungs are not seen, they do not perform exterior works to assist the body, as do the eyes and hands, but they are nonetheless vital for the body as a whole and provide the blood and oxygen that enable the exterior members to perform their works for the body. Using this analogy, we can understand the importance of monastic men and women who are set apart and hidden within the Mystical Body to seek deeper union with God and to draw abundantly from the wellspring of grace on behalf of their own souls and the souls of all the world. Thus the contemplative life is not a selfish or individualistic quest, but redounds to the unity, strength and vitality of the entire Mystical Body of Christ.
As Benedictines, our monastic life is a balance of prayer and work, following St. Benedict’s motto “Ora et Labora.” Liturgical prayer provides the structure of our day, in accord with St. Benedict’s injunction to prefer nothing to the Work of God: the times for private prayer, silent work, and community activities are ordered around Holy Mass and the hours of the Divine Office. We have various kinds of work to support ourselves: vestment-making, gardening and care of farm animals, and other household chores. As Benedictines, we have a strong family spirit, embracing every aspect of our life of prayer and work in union with our Sisters under the guidance of our Mother Abbess. This family context gives each soul the support and encouragement to persevere in her life of intimacy with God.
Our Benedictine life is further defined by our Marian consecration. We take Our Lady, Queen of Apostles, as patroness because we seek to emulate her hidden life of prayer for priests. After Our Lord’s Ascension, Saint John took Our Lady away from the persecutions in Jerusalem and built her a home in Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey), which became a haven of peace and prayer for the Apostles. Saint Paul remarks in one of his epistles: “I will tarry at Ephesus,” no doubt spending much time at the holy home of the Mother of God. Similarly, we strive to support the Church through our hidden life of prayer and sacrifice in union with Our Lady, praying especially for priests, the modern-day Apostles, and providing them a place for retreat. As an expression of this charism, our Motherhouse in Gower, Missouri, is named the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus.
CL: What is the daily life of a Benedictine nun like? Is your monastery completely self-sufficient, or do you need to travel into town to purchase some necessities?
Sr. Mary Josefa: Our day begins early: we rise before dawn and immediately go to the chapel to sing the praises of God in the Divine Office. The first and longest Office of the day, Matins, alternates the chanting of psalms with readings from Sacred Scripture and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Then we have an hour of private prayer and lectio divina (prayerful reading) before reconvening in the chapel for the Offices of Lauds and Prime. Thus the first three hours of the morning are consecrated to prayer. No speaking is allowed during these first hours of the morning, so we refer to this sacred time as the time of Grand Silence.
After Prime, we have a chapter meeting at which the Superior may give a spiritual reflection and speak to the Sisters about the business of the day and also read the prayer intentions sent by our family, friends and benefactors. Then follows a light breakfast that we take standing, like the Israelites of old, after which we go to our various places of work: the sewing room, the kitchen, the garden, the barnyard, etc. Our holy father St. [Benedict] wrote that his spiritual children are truly monks when they live by the work of their hands, so we try to support ourselves with the proceeds from our vestment-making and with the fruits of our garden and small farm. Our Abbey has chickens and a number of dairy cows and goats, and the Sisters are proficient at making cheese, yogurt and other dairy products for our use. The Sisters at the daughterhouse miss the farm animals and are looking forward to having a barnyard when the permanent Monastery is completed!
Although the farm animals and garden are very helpful, they do not make us self-sufficient, so we do venture into town to purchase other necessities. A growing number of friends around both the Abbey and the daughterhouse often help us with these errands, graciously allowing us to remain in the silence of the cloister.
We work in silence as much as possible in order to keep our hearts free for interior converse with God, and we return to the chapel to chant the shorter hours of the Divine Office at mid-morning, midday, and mid-afternoon. Holy Mass is the crown of the day, usually at 11 am. At Holy Mass, we strive to unite ourselves to Our Lady as she stood at the foot of the Cross to receive the Blood and Water flowing from the Heart of her Son for the sanctification of souls. We see all the hours of the Divine Office before Mass as leading us to and preparing us for union with Christ in the Holy Sacrifice and Communion, while the hours following Mass are an expression of our thanksgiving. The Holy Mass is truly the center of our day.
After Mass, we have dinner in silence, listening to a Sister reading aloud from a spiritual book such as a saint’s biography. This reading reminds us that we need to take nourishment for our souls, even as we take nourishment for our bodies.
We have an hour of recreation each day, during which we share an enjoyable conversation among ourselves while taking a walk or working at a simple task in the sewing room or kitchen. Since we spend most of the day in silence, these recreational conversations are quite lively. I have heard that the health of a religious community may be gauged by the loudness of their recreations - if so, our community is very healthy! The laughter may be heard all over the monastery!
At the end of the day, we gather in the chapter room to listen to more spiritual reading before praying Compline in the chapel. In this last prayer of the Divine Office, we commend ourselves to our Heavenly Father’s protection during the night, and we bid goodnight to Our Lady by singing one of her antiphons. Compline ushers us into Grand Silence, which will not be broken until after Prime the next day.
CL: Your order is most famous for the beautiful, heavenly music that you share with the world through your CDs. How does music play a role in the daily life of your order?
Sr. Mary Josefa: Most of our day is spent in singing and in silence: singing the psalms of the Divine Office and the chants for Holy Mass, and then working, reading and praying in silence. Sound and silence are the two elements needed for music; by contrast, sound without silence is merely noise. Interestingly, C.S. Lewis observed that music and silence belong to Heaven, but noise to Hell. Music, consequently, is a very powerful means of ordering our souls: it disposes us to be attentive to silence and to God who speaks in silence, and in this way, music prepares us for prayer.
Music is further an important means of fraternal charity and unity in our order. As Benedictines, we have a liturgical spirituality that seeks to praise God in union with one another. It can be challenging to sing so much together, trying to stay together in pitch and pace despite fatigue and the other weaknesses that we share! But mutual cooperation, forgiveness and charity are born from singing our prayer together. Our community’s motto is “perseverantes unanimiter in oratione,” taken from Acts 1:14, when the disciples were “persevering with one heart in prayer” with Our Lady while awaiting the coming of the Holy Ghost.
As a result of this perseverance, music figures largely in our recreations as well as our liturgies! We find a great shared joy in learning special pieces of music for feasts, anniversaries and other celebrations.
CL: Do you personally have a favourite hymn or chant from one of your CDs? Are there any plans yet for your next CD? :)
Sr. Mary Josefa: It is hard for me to choose a favorite! I find great joy in each piece of music as we are singing it!
And although there are no definite plans for our next CD, we have found a new way to share a little bit of our life: one of our Sisters illustrated a children’s book, “Brides of Christ,” that is now available from our website and also from Sophia Institute Press. We hope that these little drawings, like our musical recordings, will share some of the joy we find in our life!2
Please stay tuned for the second part of my interview with Sr. Mary Josefa! In part II, Sister will share some of the challenges the Ava pioneer nuns experienced, as well as their new construction projects for a permanent daughterhouse and a Fathers’ Shrine in Ava. She will also share her perspective on the remarkable preservation of Sr. Wilhelmina’s body and the hope that this occurrence brings.
The direct link to the book about Sr. Wilhelmina can be found here: https://benedictinesofmary.org/product/gods-will-the-life-and-works-of-sr-mary-wilhelmina/.
The direct link to the book, Brides of Christ, can be found here: https://benedictinesofmary.org/product/brides-of-christ/.