- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - Abbie Reese is one the secretive nuns let inside. And she wrote a book about them.

Nuns from Corpus Christi Monastery of the Poor Clare Coletine prayed about her request in 2005 for interviews. Then, over six years, they shared stories and glimpses into lives dominated by a call from God, then prayer, sprinkled with the mundane chores of living.

Reese, 36, of Mount Morris wanted to learn about the religious subculture that exists behind the brick walls of the 14-acre compound at South Main Street and Marchesano Drive. There, 22 women isolate themselves from the outside world.

They leave only for medical care and to vote. They drop their given names and take new ones. They live a six-year probationary period before they can formally join the order.

The monastery is as anonymous as the women who live there.

“I’ve heard that people don’t know the monastery is there. They drive by and never realize it’s right there, hidden in sight,” said Reese, whose book hit the shelves Jan. 8.

Reese’s stories from inside the monastery, 2111 S. Main St., are about Poor Clares who live in simple monastic silence. They subsist on donations of money and food they can’t grow, and from selling rosaries and other items so they can pray eight hours a day for whomever calls and asks - and for some who don’t.

“They describe themselves as mothers of soul,” said Reese, whose Jewish father and Catholic mother became Protestants when they married. “So while they won’t have a child in this life, the people around the world they pray for become their spiritual children.”

Poor Clare nuns forgo family life. Relatives can visit four times a year, but a metal grille that covers space over a counter prevents them from physical contact. Outsiders, like Reese, are rarely allowed behind the grille.

The Poor Clares are part of the religious orders begun by St. Francis of Assisi that dates to the 13th century. A Rockford monastery was founded in 1916 on Avon Street, moving in 1920 to the old Broughton Sanitarium.

It’s one of 50 Poor Clares monasteries in 22 states and 1,221 worldwide. In all, there are 14,000 Poor Clare nuns.

Reese said her book started with a question about why modern women would answer calls from God to lead anonymous, prayerful lives dedicated to him through vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure.

Poor Clares also shun the material world. Some sleep on straw beds, others on hard, carpeted bed boards because good mattress straw is hard to come by these days, Mother Dominica said. Three years ago, she was elected abbess, or mother superior, by the community.

Mother Dominica said nuns range in age from 20 to 81.

Nuns are barefoot, a symbol of their poverty, unless they’re working outside or suffer from arthritis and need sandals. Only the infirmary at the monastery is air-conditioned.

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