HOT SPRINGS -- The sister rises at 5:30 a.m. and dresses quietly in her room at Good Shepherd Home. Her knee-length simple white habit and short black veil mark her vocation. She joins the rest of her community at 6 a.m. for prayer, followed by breakfast, which is eaten in silence to prepare the mind and soul for the new day.
She represents the 10 religious sisters of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge in Hot Springs and this is how they begin their day.
Following breakfast each go their separate ways. One stays at the convent to handle housekeeping and cooking. Others work at St. Michael Catholic Child Care, a ministry operated by the sisters. Others maintain the order's Web site or go to the perpetual adoration chapel. Still others do odd jobs like cleaning out one of their buildings, which will become a youth center for Catholic Youth Ministry teens in the area.
The sisters attend to their responsibilities, interacting with the general public and each other as one would at any job. At noon, the sisters come together for lunch and at different times they each take breaks to pray and visit the chapel. Daily Mass is at 5:30 p.m., which is followed by dinner and recreation.
The day ends after the community gathers for night prayers at 8 p.m. On weekends, the sisters rise an hour later and have more freedom to do things on their own.
Years ago, when a young woman joined the order, she had limited contact with her biological family, but now the sisters, even those from Canada, are able to travel back home to take part in special family events.
"We do go out occasionally to eat with friends or enjoy some time at someone's house. And we do watch TV and pursue hobbies (reading, photography, etc.) and the paper is always there for us to read as well as other good reading material," said Sister M. Thomas O'Keefe, OLCR. "We are allowed a visit home every two years, though there are exceptions where we can go more often. It is just that now as we are so few, we seem to be busier than we were before. We do have fun together and enjoy each other's company and help each other with big projects."
It sounds like a family. In fact for three of the sisters, it literally is family.
Sisters Mary Anne Lalancette, Theresa Marie Lalancette and M. Gerard Lalancette are also biological sisters. They have another sister, Victoire Lalancette, who is a Sister of the Good Shepherd in Pierre Fond, Canada.
As for the other sisters, the oldest, Sister M. Olive Cote, is close to 90; Sister M. Elizabeth Dinh, the youngest, is in her 30s. Six of the women are French-Canadian. Many of them came to the order because another family member, a sister or an aunt, was in Hot Springs. Two of the young women are Vietnamese, and they were exposed to the sisters through their ministry to the refugee community. Sister M. Thomas, director of the day care center, was a boarder at the sister's former high school.
The sisters of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge are "in the world, but not of the world" in that they work and interact with people outside the walls of their convent, but at the same time, their lives are not centered in this world.
According to the vision of their founder, St. John Eudes, the sisters follow the Rule of St. Augustine, which forms a purpose and basis for communal life. The rules encourage prayer, moderation and self-denial, as well as giving guidance for the governance of the order.
In addition, St. John Eudes believed that the order should embody a combination of a deep prayer life with active service to others by meeting the needs of whatever environment in which the sisters served.
To become a member of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge, a woman is accepted into a postulant program, which lasts about six months. During that time the woman lives in the community and participates in the sisters' prayer life and their work. If she wishes to continue, she enters the novitiate, which lasts about two years. She wears a white veil and learns the Rule of St. Augustine and the vows of the sisters of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge.
If she decides to continue, she takes her first vows and wears a black veil. After three years, she takes her final vows, which are obedience, chastity, poverty and to dedicate her life to the salvation of souls.
When asked about recruitment, Sister Theresa Marie, superior, and Sister Mary Theresa Dionne, assistant superior, shook their heads.
"When we had the boarding school, many girls were exposed to us and our simple way of life, and sometimes they would be interested in joining us. That's how we got Sister Mary Thomas," said Sister Theresa Marie. "She started as a boarder in our school and just never left. But with the day care, the children are very young and the families are often not Catholic."
"We pray a lot," Sister Mary Theresa said.
Good Shepherd Home is autonomous, in that the sisters living in the community make the decisions for their mission. It has been that way since their arrival in Arkansas in 1908 when the original five French-speaking nuns came at the request of Bishop John B. Morris.
The nuns brought with them the good will of their sisters and $18,000, a very generous gift at the time. Property was bought outside Hot Springs and a community of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge was founded on Sept. 27, 1908.
The sisters have operated some kind of educational institution for almost 100 years. Since the need has evolved through the years, so has the sisters' ministry. Today, St. Michael Catholic Child Care, a landmark on Malvern Avenue, is the way the sisters serve needs in Hot Springs.
Because the community is autonomous, there is no "motherhouse," no hierarchy to give orders or to offer monetary support. The house must support itself. And as the times change, the sisters have had to change their mission in order to remain relevant.
To pay utilities, food bills and maintenance, the sisters depend on donations and bequests from former students and Hot Springs citizens as well as fundraisers sponsored by the school's support organization.
Tuition is the major source of funding for the educational services offered at St. Michael. The day care is certified as an Arkansas Better Chance center and qualifies for state funds, but that pays the salaries of the certified teachers only. No money from the grant goes to support the convent.
Is God calling you?
If you are interested in more information about the sisters of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge, contact them at:
Good Shepherd Home
1125 Malvern Ave.
Hot Springs, AR 71901
Phone: (501) 623-1393
Web site: http://www.adorationchapel.org
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