By some measures, it might be the most exclusive club in the Chicago area.
Thirteen women, bound by a singular devotion to God, eat, sleep, work and pray inside a humble south suburban monastery virtually hidden in plain sight. Inside the smooth gray walls, set back beneath the trees, the Poor Clares, a cloistered order, leads lives of silent sacrifice.
They rarely speak and move around the home with bare feet. They sleep on thin straw mattresses and eat only grains and vegetables that they’ve grown in their backyard or that have been donated. Ask why they suffer and they’ll tell you it’s because Jesus suffered, and who are they to put their needs above his?
At a time when fewer women are entering Catholic religious life and the average age of nuns is in the 70s, it might be tempting for religious institutions to ease some of their strict rules to better fit the modern world. Nonsense, say the Poor Clares, whose Minooka, Ill., chapter last month added just their sixth new member since the monastery opened in 1996.
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“It’s not enough to simply focus your attention on God, you have to have the blessing of obedience,” said Mother Dorothy Urschalitz, the community’s abbess, or leader.
“It’s a hard life. It’s supposed to be hard. You wouldn’t want it to be easy when so many have it so hard.”
The Poor Clares pray for others, including the clergy, and their intense spirituality offers assurances to many. To accomplish their mission, their lifestyle is reduced to the most basic food, shelter and sleep.
Urschalitz, who entered religious life in the 1950s, knows the appeal of such a simple routine in difficult and harried times like now. So when people contemplate religious life, orders like the Poor Clares want to make sure they are doing so for the right reasons.
“It’s inevitable when times get tough that people start looking at the meaning of their lives more intensely,” said the Rev. Joe Noonan, vocation director for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “Sometimes, they discover a moving in their heart and hear the Lord’s calling to serve.”
The journey into sisterhood is intentionally long and difficult, Urschalitz said. The handful of women each year who approach the Poor Clares, either in Minooka or its sister chapter in Rockford, go through months of interviews to weed out those simply trying to escape problems at home.
The Poor Clares used to administer psychological tests but stopped when results seemed to give no clearer a picture than face-to-face interviews.
“A person can be psychologically normal and still not be called to a monastic life,” Urschalitz said.
One significant challenge is that today’s women find it difficult to break free of the life they know, whether it’s marriage, career or even simple hobbies, she said.
Urschalitz recalled one prospective nun who let it slip in her interview that she hoped to still pursue graphic arts, perhaps by designing pamphlets or the group’s Web site. Another woman was turned away because she expressed regret that she’d never be able to go tobogganing again.
In Rockford, Ill., abbess Mother Regina Dice said her Poor Clares did not let a woman enter because she didn’t want to give up playing the electric organ.
“They think when they come here that they’ll have all this time to pursue this interest and that one, but it’s not like that,” said Dice, whose chapter has dwindled from more than 30 members in the mid-1990s to 20 today.
“This isn’t a job where you can expect to leave after six hours of work and do something else,” Urschalitz said. “When I went, I went with the intent to give it all up.”
So, too, has the Poor Clares’ newest member, a 39-year-old Michigan woman who entered the monastery last month in the traditional way: kneeling before the front door and asking permission to be received. Afterward, the woman donned the gray woolen habit with a white veil, signaling that she is a postulant, or a first-year member.
Urschalitz said the woman, who declined to be interviewed by the Tribune, had wanted to be an artist but left midway through art school when tuition bills started piling up and job prospects seemed slim. It took many lengthy interviews and deep discussions about faith before the Poor Clares granted her entry.
Those who enter the monastery do not take their final vows until their sixth year. In the first five years, prospective nuns study and learn the ways of the convent as they graduate from postulant to novice.
They learn the humble life, surviving mostly on public donations, funding from the diocese and the small amount of money they raise through selling crafts they’ve made.
They’re free to walk away at any time, Urschalitz said, and occasionally some do. The real commitment comes in the sixth year when nuns take their final vows and receive a shiny silver ring symbolizing their relationship with God.
It’s too soon to know whether the newcomer will reach that milestone, Urschalitz said, but the nuns are hopeful. To ensure that their postulant had gotten the “real world” out of her system before she entered the monastery, the Poor Clares encouraged her to take in a little sightseeing in Chicago.
“See the science and industry museum, see the Art Institute, the planetarium,” Urschalitz said. “I told her to go ahead and see them all. Then, come see us.”