The Poor Clares in a pre-pandemic portrait
Last winter, Poor Clare Sr. Luisa Bayate pulled out her luggage and started making plans. For the first time in three years she would fly home, to the Philippines, to visit her family.
Then suddenly, her plans – like everyone else’s – came crashing to a halt because of Covid-19. Overseas travel was out of the question. “When Luisa couldn’t go for her home visit, I think I was more upset than she was,” says her Poor Clare sister, Vickie Griner. “She handled it very well. In a lot of ways, it made me appreciate my sister more.”
Despite its sadness and uncertainty, this year has left the Clares with an overwhelming sense of gratitude: for each other, for their way of life, for the ministry of prayer they have been given by God. Theirs is a burden that few of us would welcome. Since last spring, prayer requests submitted to their website tripled to as many as 40 a day at the height of the pandemic. Those with nowhere to turn pour out their hearts to the sisters in letters and over the phone.
“People trust us with their most basic, desperate requests for intercession,” says Vickie. “You have to be called to a life of prayer to have the spiritual wherewithal to listen to people’s needs. We all see this as a privilege.”
“By waiting and calm you shall be saved, in quiet and trust your strength lies.” These words from Isaiah have become my strength in the days of quarantine, and as we still continue in this pandemic.
–Sr. Rita Cheong, OSC
At the Monastery of St. Clare in Cincinnati, each email, letter and phoned-in request is shared with each sister, “so everybody can pray in their own way,” Luisa says. She answers most of the petitions with a simple assurance of prayers, and some with a note of support for a particular need or loss. “Our intention is to pray for every one of them.” For many of us, the pandemic has been a series of scary stories played out on our TV screens. For the Clares, it is much more.
“This is our life,” says Sr. Pia Malaborbor, “to pray for the world, to feel their sufferings, and to be one with others in our prayers.” Even so, they could not have imagined where this year of pandemic would lead them.
“Covid first touched us as a community last March when we shut down,” says Sr. Dianne Short. “There were no Masses, no visiting Sr. Alma,” who lives in a nursing home, “no giving or receiving spiritual direction, no retreatants in our guest area, no physical contacts with the ‘8:15 a.m. regulars’ who [come in to] pray with us, no home visits, no one using our meeting room. Pia was the only one to go out to do grocery shopping and of course, we wiped everything off when it came in.”
Isolation was easier for some than for others. “What helped me most was that we were a community of nine,” Vickie says. “We were all in this together.” When Sr. Anna Marie Covely entered religious life, “It was strictly cloistered,” she says. “I’ve lived that way before.” Like everyone else, they adapted. Vocation Director Vickie interviewed women discerning a call to Poor Clare life via Zoom. They made masks and wrote notes of appreciation to frontline workers, confident that, “By Easter, everything would be back to normal,” Anna Marie says. But “Once we had to have Easter services” via livestream, “it was really starting to sink in,” and they realized, “There’s not going to be any normality for a long time to come.”
What helps me
¥ Keeping our regular community prayer schedule (keeping a routine);
¥ Staying faithful to my personal prayer time;
¥ Keeping my focus on helping others, even when all I can do is pray for them and their needs;
¥ Getting some form of exercise each day;
¥ Spending some time outdoors (and in the sun if possible) each day.
–Sr. Vickie Griner, OSC
For Anna Marie, “Kind of a memorable moment was [in April] when Pope Francis had that prayer service in St. Peter’s Square all by himself. To me, that brought home the emptiness, that it’s not just our little world [being impacted], it’s the whole world. And when Andrea Bocelli sang Amazing Grace [at Milan Cathedral], it was showing London, and Paris and New York, and all the streets were empty. It was just surreal.”
As the enormity of the tragedy hit home, “One of the things that helped me was, I would go to the chapel and play the organ and sing the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘All shall be well,’” says Anna Marie. “I would pray and sing it, holding up everybody who would be suffering, like a mantra. I was praying for others, but it was helping me come to peace, and the assurance that God is in all of this.”
They would need that assurance when one of their own tested positive for Covid-19.
“I had Covid over Thanksgiving but was not hospitalized,” Dianne says. “I have no idea how I got it. I can understand what others are going through physically and emotionally…the uncertainty, the fear, the guilt. We have a tendency to lump everyone who wasn’t hospitalized as having a ‘mild’ case, but that is not always true. You still feel crummy.” While her sisters self-isolated, Dianne quarantined in the guest area. “It made me realize once again my dependence on my sisters as Anna Marie patiently brought me meals and food that I could prepare.”
Ultimately, “I was alone but not alone, and it could have been so much worse. I felt like I was spoiling our community Thanksgiving, but at the same time, felt a different level of gratitude than I have experienced before.”
A world of worry
My family in the Philippines is struggling the same way people are here in the U.S. Back home, not everyone is being tested because they have to pay for Covid tests from their own pocket (it costs two months’ salary for those with low income), and when you’re hospitalized for Covid, that means a lot of money (hundreds of thousands in pesos). Would you imagine them going to the hospital when they don’t feel well? The hospital treats every patient as having Covid, and the patient even pays for the protective garb of the nurses and doctors every time they visit them in their hospital room.¥ Keeping our regular community prayer schedule (keeping a routine);
–Sr. Pia Malaborbor, OSC
Throughout the year, prayer requests increased in numbers and intensity. Most poignant were the appeals for basic human needs. “What really weighs on me a lot is when the intention is that there is nothing to eat on the table,” Luisa says. “That is very difficult to me because I know that feeling” from her own family’s struggles with food deprivation years ago in her native Philippines.
They learned of unimaginable losses. Outside the monastery one day, Vickie hailed a man who walks his dog nearby. “You probably wonder why you haven’t seen me,” he told her. “My wife has lost four family members in two weeks”— two from Covid-19, one from cancer, one from a heart attack. “We’re totally blindsided,” he said. “We can’t cope with this.”
A few months ago, “A friend of ours asked for prayers for her friend who was in the ICU with Covid-19,” says Sr. Rita Cheong. “About a week later we heard he had a stroke, and then died a few weeks later.” This was a strong, healthy person. “He would probably not have imagined his life would end so quickly,”
What breaks her heart, Pia says, “is when people ask for prayers for themselves or for a relative who has Covid and is fighting for their life.” Petitioners shared with them “the feeling of hopelessness when the situation was getting worse. As a contemplative, my prayer life is a powerful instrument to cope with the situation – faith in God
One day before Christmas, “We heard from a family in Mt. Healthy that had been calling different places to ask for financial help” to feed their three children, Vickie says. “The husband had been laid off because of Covid.” The sisters made a plan. “We went down to the pantry and loaded boxes with food, and drove to Mt. Healthy. We met them at the UDF. They didn’t have a car. They had to find somebody to drive them to the parking lot” to pick up the food. “We gave them as much as we could so they could get by until someone could help them.” What still moves Vickie to tears is the painful reality that “somebody a mile from you has three kids and no food for the table.”
What I learned
I did learn to do my own haircut. Before the lockdown, I used to go out for a $7.99 haircut every two months. During pandemic lockdown, there was no way to go out for haircut. I tried to do it on my own and it worked well. Now, I’m happy that I am able to cut my own hair every month.
Another thing that I learned was how to operate our bigger chain saw. We have two here and I prefer to use the smaller one. During this pandemic, a storm knocked down a huge tree right on our grounds. With the size of the tree, we needed the bigger chain saw to cut it into pieces. It was quite a new experience for me.
–Sr. Louisa Bayate, OSC
That sense of helplessness tested them emotionally. “I cannot visit my mom or other family or friends,” says Vickie, whose mother has recently been hospitalized. “Prayer requests from people not able to be with loved ones who are sick or who have died are the most difficult for me. I was able to be with my dad for the last days of his life, and I was blessed to be present when he passed. I know how important that was for me, and can hear the pain and sorrow in the voices of so many who cannot be there for their loved ones.”
Milestones came and went. In June, a 30-year anniversary celebration of the founding of their Poor Clare community, long planned and much anticipated, had to be canceled.
“When the Covid numbers were going down,” Vickie says, “we were so excited the friars were going to have the solemn profession” of Eric Seguin and John Boissy at St. Clement Church. With attendance limited, “All of a sudden, we couldn’t go.” Surprisingly, it didn’t seem to matter. Watching the livestreamed ceremony, “We were bubbling with joy. That was a sign that life goes on,” and a realization that, “We can still be together, in a different way.”
As they pray for those who are suffering with and dying from Covid-19, Rita says, “Our prayer life has become a journey together with all the scientists whose research has helped improve the vaccine, and for all the doctors and nurses in the front lines who are caring for the Covid patients.”
For Vickie, “One of the things that keeps us going is, you have to be in the present moment. That’s a lot of what contemplative life is, staying in the present and hoping for the future.”
If anything, Luisa says, this year has reinforced her belief “that life is just so beautiful, even with suffering and hardship.” And those who write or call to be lifted up in prayer have themselves been a blessing. “They ask me to carry their intentions to God, but they are the ones who bring me closer to God. I carry them in my heart. We are praying that whatever their needs, God will take care of them.”
She holds onto hope that the things once taken for granted, like visits with loved ones, will soon be possible. “We know it will be over,” Luisa says. “We do not know when it will happen.” A year later, that luggage is still sitting in her room, ready to be packed.
Garden of memories
Last year, to honor the memories of those we’ve lost, the Poor Clares created the St. Clare Memorial Garden project on the grounds of the Monastery of St. Clare in Cincinnati. “This will be a place to pray and to remember our loved ones who have journeyed to their Eternal Home,” according to the Sisters. Those who wish may order a memorial stone that can be engraved with up to three lines of text; a suggested donation for each stone is $100. A reservation form is provided on the Home page of the Poor Clares’ website at: https://www.poorclarescincinnati.org/. Availability is limited.
Prayer requests can be emailed to: email@example.com.