By Natasa Wilkie
The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles were founded in 1995 as a tiny community of traditional nuns. Today, forty five young sisters — whose average age is 29 including the 94-year-old Sr. Wilhelmina — live in the magnificent rolling farm country near Gower, Missouri.
And they’re famous, too. Their albums of chant and hymns have sold very well indeed, with their debut album soaring to number one on the classical Billboard chart in 2013.
Inspired by Our Lady’s hidden life and her role in the early church, the sisters pray for the sacred priesthood. They follow the traditional monastic horarium and chant in Latin – and they are now putting the finishing touches on perhaps the most astonishing feat of all: the construction of a classical stone monastic church.
In a time when the Church is experiencing virtually no young Western vocations to the Orders of ‘liberal’ women religious, such success is newsworthy. REGINA writer Natasa Wilkie interviewed Mother Abbess Cecelia and some of her nuns recently to explore their experience and this extraordinary sign of the times.
Four sisters arrayed like brides before their Bridegroom, about to become Benedictines.
REGINA: Tell us a bit about yourselves.
Mother Abbess Cecilia: I grew up in northern New York, the last of five children. I understood at a very young age that God was asking something very special of me, something that would involve the complete and unreserved gift of my entire being.
I entered Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, Texas to further my studies on the French horn, which I had been playing since 5th grade. I received a Bachelor’s of Music in 1999, and went on to play with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago for one year. I then won a position with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, where I settled down to a very comfortable life, with the newfound ability to buy all sorts of things including a new car, and even my own house.
REGINA: Sounds like a successful start in life.
Mother Abbess Cecilia: But the thought of giving my life entirely to God never left me. I was happy enough on the exterior, living “the good life” as they say, but in the depths of my soul I did not have the peace that comes when you know you are doing God’s will. So, after three years in the Symphony, I searched for a traditional religious order, and found the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles.
Life on the prairie for traditional Benedictines.
REGINA: And by comparison?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: Though I could not say that these years as a religious have been easier than my years out in the world, I can say that I truly have no regrets, as the good God is never outdone in generosity. He has given me the peace that the world simply cannot give, and so much more besides.
Sr. Scholastica: I came from a large and devout family in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. I attended a Mass with Pope John Paul II in New York City, where he brought up the topic of young people and religious vocations, and I thought he was talking to me. I had also read St. Therese’s Story of a Soul en route to and from, and was deeply moved. I was thinking “Is this possible? Is God really everything? Does He want me as surely as He wanted this little soul’?” It was as if He suddenly claimed me for Himself, and since that moment of grace, I could never seriously look back.
REGINA: And your family?
Sr. Scholastica: My family was extremely supportive as soon as I told them. Through the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, I discerned a contemplative calling. This was something a little more difficult for my family to understand, but they could see after a while that there was no other way for me!
Sr. Emmanuel: In my childhood I was very attached to the Lord. It was my privilege to place the Baby Jesus in His manger after Midnight Mass every year. Somehow I knew, intuitively, that the Babe in that manger was a real Person.
REGINA: Lovely tradition.
Sr. Emmanuel:: It was the tragedy of my life to have lost that little Babe. The tragedy is that my Catholic upbringing did not reinforce that Personhood of God. As a family we attended Mass on Sunday, we received the Sacraments. My parents were very loving, and I understood very well the depth of their generosity and sacrifice.
However, when we attended Mass and catechism I never understood that God was at the root of my worship. It seemed to me that Mass really had nothing to do with the Babe in the manger. The Mass in itself held no attraction for me, and not finding God therein, I gradually lost my faith. The world soon became very appealing.
REGINA: Yes, makes sense that it would.
Sr. Emmanuel:: The pivotal moment of my life occurred when I came to reside with my sister and her husband in Philadelphia. One extraordinary Sunday we decided to attend a Latin Mass. Immediately I was struck by the silence in the church and the reverence of the liturgy. The priest wore beautiful vestments while the choir sang heavenly music. I was spellbound and moved to tears. I knew at that moment that after a lifetime of searching I had finally found my heart’s desire.
Sr. Emmanuel:: One day after Mass I received a powerful grace. God was pursuing my soul and calling me to be His bride. Everything in my life up until this point was directing me to that end. I could not resist. I had to follow Him. I needed to visit only one convent to discover His will. It was so clear and I was elated to have finally found where He wanted me to belong. I once more found my little Babe of Bethlehem and I was fully resolved never to lose Him.
REGINA: What a story, Sister! And you, Sr Miriam Esther?
Sr. Miriam Esther: As a young girl raised in an orthodox Catholic home, I grew up in wonderful familiarity with the lives of the saints and the riches of the Faith. I always understood the purpose of the religious life within the Mystical Body of the Church — to be a sign of the primacy of spiritual things and to save souls through prayer, penance, teaching, and example. My parents encouraged me to remain open to that calling. However, in those years, I regarded it primarily as a sacrifice which one hoped to escape, but accepted staunchly if required.
Benedictine Sisters in the choir stalls of their new monastic church.
Sr. Miriam Esther: After graduating from high school, I attended Christendom College with plans to leave after one year and pursue a more practical degree from a secular university. But, before long, the liberal arts — particularly philosophy and history — captivated my interest, so broadening and enriching my understanding of the Catholic tradition that I decided to stay and complete the Bachelor of Arts program there.
REGINA: What was so attractive?
Sr. Miriam Esther: Through my philosophy classes, I discovered St. Thomas Aquinas’s account of human nature which provides a logical basis for the superiority of the contemplative life. Through my history classes I learned also of the powerful spiritual force which monastic life wields over culture. In particular, I discovered the wisdom of the Benedictine Rule, how it enlivened and molded and preserved Christian culture from the early centuries of the Church.
REGINA: What effect did that have on you?
Sr. Miriam Esther: My desire for the consecrated life slowly grew. I felt as though the Lord was courting my soul, offering me a glimpse of the joys experienced by those who accept a loving union with Him through the consecrated life. Though I still appreciated the beauty of a lay vocation to marriage and family life, my heart was made captive to Love Himself.
REGINA: And Sister Jacinta?
Sr. Jacinta: I was blessed to grow up on a ranch in a very rural area in eastern Montana. My parents converted when I was three months old and passed on to our family of eight, of which I was the second and oldest girl, the value of hard-work, honesty, and the charity that is still among “country folk” of always being ready to offer a helping hand plus the shirt off your back if needed, without hoping for a recompense. My mom was especially careful to pass on the faith and to us as she learned it and I can say from her I received the seed of my vocation. My home life was beautiful and simple as we worked with the animals and were outside working as a family together. God allowed me to feel when I was very young that He desired something of me and I remember a few distinct times when I was alone, either praying or sometimes when riding my horse gathering cows when all was still that He wanted me to do something for Him.
REGINA: How did you find your vocation?
Sr Jacinta: In Montana there is little opportunity to experience religious life, but when I think I was eleven I read St. Rose of Lima, who I took as my confirmation sponsor, and she stole my heart and I knew I was supposed to be a nun like her. Unfortunately, when I went to public high school I fell away from living my faith from the peer-pressure and absence of God in society. It wasn’t until college, where I was studying to go into nursing, that God in His mercy, allowed me, like the prodigal son, to loathe the corn husks of sin and come running back to Him. Everything was very rapid after that and my godfather, who is a priest and a true father, helped me to get in correspondence with the Benedictines of Mary and set up a visit. I knew even before I visited that God wanted me there.
REGINA: Are there any obstacles young women tend to come across when discerning?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: The faith that the Sisters here must have by their obedience and denial is tremendous, but it leads to so much grace and so many blessings.
Sr. Scholastica: One’s own independence costs the most. The distraction of social media has also created a false sense of security, making it harder to renounce oneself when casting it aside. The silence we observe is painful because it is the silence Christ needs to form us after His heart.
College loans also sometimes pose a problem. We have an active aspirant in the Laboure Society, which also works to eliminate student loans for vocations.
Sr. Miriam Esther: I suspended the application process — although my interest continued — daunted by the realization that my college loans might take years to repay entirely. My confessor advised me to pursue the religious life more seriously, recommending particularly that I investigate resources like the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations.
Sr. Emmanuel: It may be that a young girl feels she has a religious vocation but her parents are opposed. In this case, she must put all of her trust in Christ. He will never abandon her and if she leaves everything and everyone for Him alone, in the end all will be well. Though extremely difficult, her gift of self will be rewarded by Christ who is never outdone in generosity.
Low Mass in Latin at The Abbey’s new church.
REGINA: What attracted you to this particular community?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: I can directly point to two things that served to awaken this latent call in my soul, though there were many other lesser factors as well. The first was my introduction to early sacred music (at a secular university)! The music of Palestrina, Allegri, Victoria, and other Renaissance composers had a profound and captivating effect on me. The transcendental beauty of the harmonies reaffirmed in my soul that there was more to this life than can be seen with the eyes.
I began to search for a church that made use of this kind of music within the context of the sacred liturgy. That was not to happen until I attended my first Tridentine Mass in 2000.
REGINA: What happened there?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: Without hesitation, I can say it was precisely on that day in December that my life changed entirely. I wept for nearly an hour as I witnessed for the first time the beauty of this Mass. I was swept away by the angelic sounds of chant and polyphony, the incense, bells, and ultimately the overriding sense of mystery and sacredness wrought by a profound reverence.
Without knowing Latin, I understood better than I ever had in my previous 22 years, that the Mass was truly the unbloody re-presentation of Calvary. I left the church resolved to learn more not only about this ancient and perennial Mass, but to learn more about my Catholic faith as well.
REGINA: After one Latin Mass, a 22 year old comes to this conclusion. Amazing.
Mother Abbess Cecilia: The continuing and steady encounters with this new-found beauty fed my soul, and awakened the call that had been hidden in my heart for so long. While in the midst of my professional career in an orchestra, I finally and unreservedly followed after this most patient Lord.
REGINA: And you, Sister Scholastica?
Sr. Scholastica: When I was in high school, it was required to study Latin, and I took a field trip to attend a Latin Mass. After attending more as a consequence of that field trip, I learned that a new community was starting. I heard the story of Sr. Wilhelmina [founder of the community]. When I saw the community’s liturgical life, still in seed form then, I thought it was beautiful to be so deeply connected to a tradition going back fifteen centuries according to the Rule of St. Benedict, who was continuing the Roman liturgy brought by St. Peter himself. When you read the Rule of St. Benedict, he describes how the Divine Office should be said. I’m proud to be carrying on his same work in the exact same manner, and he would have been chanting in Latin. We’re centered around the liturgical life, the Mass. We draw our strength from that.
REGINA: What about you other Sisters? What drew you to this Community?
Sr. Emmanuel: The Extraordinary form of the Roman Liturgy and its accompanying Divine Office. Gradually, I developed a life of prayer aided by the sacraments. Grace was flooding my soul and I soon came to see that behind worship was a Person. It all made sense now. The liturgy must bring us to Christ. He is the center of everything. The holy sacrifice of the Mass must engender reverence, silence and prayerfulness. I realized when we are able to practice these virtues during the liturgy that we find Him. A fire was enkindled in my heart by a reverent liturgy. Though I did not realize it at the time I was receiving the first spark of a Benedictine vocation.
Sr. Miriam Esther: Soon after graduating and settling into a full time job, I stumbled upon the website of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. I knew immediately that if I investigated the religious life, I would begin with their order. I began acquainting myself with the Benedictine Diurnal and finally made a visit to the convent in October of 2007, experiencing monastic life personally for about ten days. The rhythm of the monastic day establishes a prayerful, peaceful atmosphere. I discovered more profoundly the beauty of the Psalms, as we chanted eight times a day in the chapel. As my visit proceeded, I found that the words of Scripture, repeated again and again in public worship, begin to fill your mind and supply a vocabulary of love and praise for interior prayer as well.
“When I saw the community’s liturgical life, still in seed form then, I thought it was beautiful to be so deeply connected to a tradition going back fifteen centuries according to the Rule of St. Benedict, who was continuing the Roman liturgy brought by St. Peter himself. “ – Sister Miriam Esther.
Sr. Jacinta: The simple life of work and prayer “ora et labora” was something I appreciated from my past. Also, as a visitor it hit me that everything was for God. Nothing was for self. I finally found what my soul had been wanting as I saw that they lived for God, prayed for God, made beautiful things for God, sang for God, and shared and radiated joy and peace from God. This community’s liturgy of the Traditional Latin Mass, which formed other Benedictine saints for almost 1,500 years, was absolutely amazing and was the center of the entire day. It is so comforting knowing we are living the life that formed so many other saints.
REGINA: What does it mean to be a traditional nun within the framework of the church today? Do you see your spirituality as different to other Benedictines?
Sr. Emmanuel: It means that one is willing to embrace the cross for love of Jesus and all that it entails. This will include great sacrifice as our world is becoming increasingly more hostile to Christians everywhere and in particular to those following the church’s traditions. Hospitality is one of the hallmarks of Benedictine spirituality. In our community we express this through our service to the Sacred Priesthood.
Sr. Jacinta: It is a privilege and a joy to hold on to the Catholic roots by a hidden life of prayer and sacrifice with the traditional liturgy and “tried and tested” way of life found in the Benedictine rule. When Our Lord was preaching the Good News He had His mother and the holy women to care for Him and offer Him refreshment and solace in a world against Him. So many discouraged and over-worked priests come here and just from a place of silence with their meals and rooms taken care and being able to come to the offices chanted in choir by us, they take courage to start again, knowing they have a group of prayer warriors aiding their efforts behind the scenes.
“So many discouraged and over-worked priests come here and just from a place of silence with their meals and rooms taken care and being able to come to the offices chanted in choir by us, they take courage to start again, knowing they have a group of prayer warriors aiding their efforts behind the scenes.” Sister Jacinta
REGINA: Is tradition attractive to young people today, or is it mostly seen as a bit eccentric and out of touch with modern life?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: The Extraordinary Form of the Mass is an integral part of our community’s liturgical life, and indeed that of our whole spirituality. Through it, we experience with an unmatched clarity the tremendous role of the priest as mediator in offering the Sacrifice of Our Lord on the altar to the Heavenly Father.
This use of the Latin Mass, as well as a very traditional religious life (the habit, strict schedule, fasting, etc) is what has drawn many young women to our Order. We are receiving eleven candidates this month, another two wait to join our new foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, and six have asked to join here next year.
Mother Abbess Cecilia: Are we a “sign of the times?” Well, I would have to say, yes, because this is where you see growth in the Church at large. Communities that are faithful to traditional religious life as well as the teachings of the Church are growing by leaps and bounds. The Latin Masses I have been to are all packed with young people and children. This is truly the work of the Holy Spirit!
Sr. Emmanuel: Tradition is extremely attractive to young people today. When I first discovered the Latin Mass, in college, I became enamoured with Tradition. It contained so many beautiful elements that pierced my soul and wounded my heart. The beauty of the chant, the order of the ceremonies, the reverence of the gestures all left a profound impression upon me. They all combined together and presented a complete picture, one that contrasted drastically with the modern world. Here was something real, something that spoke of a higher reality, something that could bring me as close as possible to God. Young people want to be able to find God in the midst of this noisy culture, and they find Him in the silence and beauty of tradition.
Sr. Jacinta: Speaking for myself, it was the Traditional Latin Mass that deeply aided me in desiring to really live my faith as it showed me how to give everything to God. In the modern world everything is always changing and shifting in attempt to keep peoples’ attention and interest, but it has to always be different because what it offers doesn’t offer satiety. Talking to other friends who have found tradition, and some who because of it have since become religious, I can confidently say that it is a HUGE pull for the younger generations who want to give their all to God. When Holy Mother Church offers a way to give your best to God using the beautiful, reverent, God oriented traditional liturgy, with it pregnant silence and amazing music, people cannot but be draw by the Holy Ghost to worship their Creator. It’s authentic and real, something hard to find in the modern world.
Rehearsing under the direction of Mother Abbess Cecelia
REGINA: Your community became famous for your widely successful chant albums. What is your observation about chanting the Office?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: The Divine Office truly forms the life-blood of our devotion. St. Benedict calls it ‘the Work of God’ and says that nothing is to take precedence over it, no matter how important it may seem.
The loveliness of the chants are set off by the silence that we keep during the day, but the Office also feeds that silence of prayer. It is a joyful burden the Church asks of us, and we take it up with tremendous love, knowing we are the beneficiaries, along with the entire Church.
REGINA: And about music and the spiritual life?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: Music actually reflects God in an amazing way. If it is beautiful, it reflects Him Who is Beauty Itself, ordered and harmonious; it propels the soul upwards almost in spite of itself. Beauty is the most incontestable aspect of God, the gentlest and kindest of reformers. Gregorian chant is a prime example. Here you have the inspired Word of God inspiring in turn the old melodies based on the chants of the ancient Temple: music that is written for scripture to produce contemplative prayer. It is completely ordered, yet with a free rhythm. It is disciplined, yet freeing and almost passionate at times, but always subject to certain rules and the primacy of reason. The philosopher Simone Weil said that she knew classical music aficionados who could be morally depraved, but she never knew this to be the case for Gregorian chant. It is designed to make you a better person.
Singing the Word of God introduces formality, less personality involvement and imposition of one’s own will on a form of prayer. There is an elevation of the voice, and this is proper in addressing the Most High God. In community, there is a concerted effort to blend and produce a united sound. A spiritual reality is paralleled: restraint is needed, attention to self is dropped. It is truly the “sacrifice of praise”!
REGINA: Has the success of your albums brought any changes?
Mother Abbess Cecilia: We actually do not speak of the albums’ success. It is not out of a morbid sense of depreciation for what we have done, but I think anyone can see what fame does to people’s heads: essentially it is a distraction. We would much rather be successful at living happily and living well in the presence of God, so we do not want to invest thought in being “somebodies.” We only desire the salvation of souls, and that all be done for His greater glory and the honor of Our Lady.
Sr. Scholastica: We sometimes get less serious vocation inquiries on account of our music. We have even had an aspirant say “Oh, I expected you to be in rehearsals all day!” Generally, these inquirers have a bit of a rude awakening to our life of hard prayer and hard work! But there have been good things too, we have been able to extend our prayer to different corners of the world without actually going anywhere!
Cardinal Raymond Burke of Wisconsin blessing the grounds.
REGINA: What are your thoughts about the role of the tradition in the church in these turbulent times? Should we be optimistic about the future?
Sr. Scholastica: I agree with what Pope Benedict said, the Church is alive and young! We see it day in and day out with the zealous young women who have entered our way of life, and see monastic life as the solution for our troubled times. Even in the practical living of the Rule, Benedictines have over and over again faced the problems of the times around them and undertaken interior renewal by going back to the last thing that worked. The Benedictine order, like the Church, continually humbles herself to turn back and reflect, not to press on in frenetic action in hopes that something will change by taking on a faster pace. It reaches back only to find the time-honored tools to rebuild the future, strengthened by the example the saints of the past have left behind for us. We have a deep connection through continuity, through living up to their ideals.
Mother Abbess Cecilia: The two things young women often comment on are our seriousness with regard to the Divine Office and approach to monastic life, and the massive amount of joy they sense when they are with the Sisters. We all feel very much called to plant contemplative Benedictine religious life here in the Midwest in its ancient, original and traditional expression. It seems to “catch on” with the almost daily vocation inquiries.
Sr. Jacinta: The quiet Benedictine life lived in its simple and traditional sense has always drawn souls from the world, no matter the times, to love God. In St. Benedict’s time the Church and society were turbulent, yet he simply lived the gospel message in his monasteries, and when the world desired the sacred, it was able to find it among the monks and nuns who had kept it. There is no decrease of interest to this order, in fact I am told, only more and more inquiries. Despite the waves smashing against the boat and what looks like imminent danger of capsizing, Jesus is securely sleeping with everything in control and happening according to His Providence. As long we do our part and live our sacred Rule of St. Benedict and remain faithfully in the boat, the Catholic Church, when it pleases God, He will arise and calm the storm.
Mail: Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus
P.O. Box 303
Gower, MO 64454