- Associated Press - Saturday, February 7, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Sister Theresina Santiago answered her cellphone and heard a woman’s frantic voice.

The woman said her friend’s teenage son had just shot himself in the head and was in an ambulance racing to the hospital.

Would Santiago and her fellow nuns pray for the boy, the woman asked, her voice cracking with emotion.

Santiago told the woman yes, and immediately lifted up prayers.

“Would you, Jesus, hold him close to Your heart,” the nun prayed. “Protect him.”

The Omaha World-Herald reports (https://bit.ly/1yw9rGi ) Santiago is the leader of a small group of nuns with a 137-year history in Omaha, one that since the beginning has carried a mission of prayer.

The local Poor Clare Sisters, part of an international order of cloistered Roman Catholic nuns, start a new era when they move this spring from an aging convent in central Omaha to a new $6.4 million monastery built in the rolling hills of western Douglas County.

The cloistered lives of the Poor Clares stand in sharp contrast not just to the average person but in many cases also to the lives of other sisters. Cloistered nuns such as the Poor Clares, for example, represent just a tiny fraction of the roughly 50,000 Catholic nuns in the United States today, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The Poor Clares - one of four cloistered orders for women in Nebraska and western Iowa - also have a purpose that sets them apart, said Sister Joan Mueller, a theology professor at Creighton University. While prayer is essential to the lives of all sisters, it is the sole lifework of the Poor Clares and is how they serve God’s people, she said.

Omaha’s major orders, including the Sisters of Mercy, Servants of Mary and Notre Dame Sisters, carry out missions of both prayer and service by sponsoring schools and offering affordable housing.

Michael Wick, executive director of the Illinois-based Institute on Religious Life, said the Poor Clares and other orders that focus on prayer serve an important role in the church.

Their prayers support the work of sisters who serve in hands-on roles at hospitals and similar places, he said. Nuns with prayer missions also strengthen the lives of the individuals they pray for locally and around the world, he said.

Santiago, 76, said the local Poor Clares receive as many as 20 prayer requests per day - hundreds annually - through phone calls, emails, letters and the order’s website. Requests arrive not just from Catholics, but from a variety of faiths.

The sisters receive requests to pray for people battling cancer or seeking organ transplants; couples trying to conceive babies; people battling drug and alcohol addiction; families trying to sell houses; people seeking jobs; and students taking exams.

A cloistered life means limited time outside the monastery walls, but Santiago said the sisters’ eyes are open to the world as they scour news online and in print for people and places needing prayers.

The sisters have prayed, for example, for the three people killed in a Jan. 24 north Omaha shooting that has the community searching for answers to gun violence.

Like other religious orders, the Poor Clares have faced declining numbers nationally in the past 40 years.

There are roughly 250 nuns in the United States who belong to the same Poor Clares branch as the local order. Those sisters live in 17 monasteries in 16 states.

Ruth Ann Popp, who serves on the local Poor Clares advisory board, said fundraising for the new monastery has been challenging because of the size of the local order. It has nine sisters, and people have asked why a new, bigger building is needed for a small number of sisters, she said.

Popp said additional space will help the order increase its memberships.

Santiago said younger women want to join, but space is limited. Since 1971, the sisters have lived in a former convent near 65th Street and Military Avenue in Omaha that once housed nuns who taught at St. Bernard Catholic School. The current home has nine bedrooms available, while the new 34,500-square-foot monastery will have 18 bedrooms for sisters or those considering joining.

Half of the local Poor Clares are more than 70 years old, and new members are needed to keep the order alive, Santiago said.

The monastery will include four guest rooms for visitors. There will be a chapel with seating for 80 people, as well as a multipurpose hall, kitchen and gift shop.

Santiago said the new monastery will be more than a place for nuns. The large chapel will enable the sisters to invite the public for Mass. Parts of the monastery will be available for overnight retreats for individuals and daytime retreats for groups, including high school students.

Popp said the condition and location of the sisters’ current home also were reasons a new monastery was needed.

Their current home is near busy, four-lane Military Avenue, making it harder for the sisters to live the cloistered lives of their vows. The new monastery sits on a 6.6-acre rural site.

The sisters’ current building also needs repairs, including an upgraded heating system, Popp said.

Santiago said outside private donations have covered the bulk of the new monastery’s cost. The local Poor Clares contributed $1 million they had saved over 20 years from money donated through estates and other sources, Santiago said.

The Archdiocese of Omaha endorses the monastery project and provided $100,000 in funding, said Deacon Tim McNeil, spokesman for the archdiocese. McNeil said the archdiocese contributed because the Poor Clares’ prayer mission is important to the Catholic Church, its people and the community.

Popp said an annual dinner and auction that has raised money for the new monastery will continue, with proceeds helping cover operating costs. Those costs also will be covered by other private donations, along with the sisters’ small income from selling homemade coffee cakes and distributing altar bread to local churches.

Santiago said the sisters are looking forward to their life at the new monastery and the peacefulness it will provide.

Among cloistered orders, the strictness of rules on stepping outside the monastery vary. The local Poor Clares remain mostly inside except for trips to the doctor, grocery store and other essential errands.

The sisters fit in time each day for chores such as laundry, fixing meals and paying bills, plus a game of cards or other recreation. But the focus of their days is individual and group prayer starting every morning in the chapel at 6:30, Santiago said.

Silence is observed through most of the day, which combined with the cloistered life helps the sisters fulfill their mission of prayer, she said.

“It creates the ambiance,” she said, “for giving yourself totally mind and heart to God and His people.”

Santiago still hears from the mother who sought prayers when her son shot himself in the head.

He survived the wound, graduated from high school and is now in college. His family feels blessed.

Although prayers aren’t always answered in the way people hope, Santiago said, the Lord is listening.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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