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Nuns in St. Mary's Convent shed light on everyday life

5:29 PM, Feb 15, 2011   |    comments
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It's just before dusk and evening prayers and vespers or chanting of psalms, fill the small chapel at St. Mary's Convent in Oak Ridge.

Early morning and evening prayers are part of the strict daily routine for the sisters who live there. Their day begins at 5:00 a.m. and ends around 10 p.m. On a tour inside the convent, you quickly realize that it's not as elaborate as one might think. "This house that we're standing in right now is an original "D" house in Oak Ridge, the homes were built during the war," said Sister Andrea Marie.  

Built in 1942, a home once used for the Manhattan Project during World War II, now houses six sisters of a Dominican congregation based in Nashville. The sisters are in Oak Ridge on a mission as teachers.

When the parish was started in 1950 the sisters came right away," Sister Andrea Marie explained. "When the parish began they started the school right away, so we were asked to come and staff the school."

For the community of Dominican Sisters, convents like St. Mary's can be found all over the country near schools where the sisters teach. Most people are only allowed in the parlor of the convent, but on a special tour Sister Andrea Marie shows off their modest living quarters, including the bedrooms.

"They're very simple just usually a desk or book case...a bed and a place for clothes, that's all we need," she said.

On a tour of the kitchen, Sister Andrea Marie said that she and her five roommates all take turns cooking dinner.

"We eat like everybody else hamburgers and hot-dogs and spaghetti and chicken."

However, it's how they eat their meals that sets them apart from most dinner tables. 

"Almost always we eat in silence because we're listening to a spiritual book on tape, so the idea is our souls are being fed while we're being fed."

After supper, the sisters enjoy a time of recreation in what they call the community room.

"All of our convents have a room dedicated to just the sisters just relaxing and enjoying themselves," Sister Andrea Marie explained. "We don't watch a lot of TV, people always wonder do we watch TV, but we watch the news once in a while.

Believe it or not, the sisters are also pretty tech savvy. All of the convents are equipped with a computer room.

"We have areas where the sisters can work because we teach...we have to have access to the computer, the internet."

But the sisters say they don't Facebook or Twitter. Although social networking isn't too out of the question when you consider the young population of Dominican Sisters. 

Dominicans were founded as the Order of Preachers by Saint Dominic in the twelve hundreds. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia out of Nashville is one of the fastest growing convents in the country. The average sister is age 36 and some are as young as 18.

"You see movies and everything with nuns like using the rulers and I've heard stories from my parents who both went to Catholic school, but the Dominicans are nothing like the stereotype you hear," Knoxville Catholic High School Senior Claire Hendee said. "They're some of the nicest people I've ever met and they love what they do and they're passionate about it."

Claire has attended Catholic school since kindergarten. Now a senior in high school, it's the first time one of her teachers has worn a habit. Her teacher, Sister Michaela, is 26 and is part of that growing number of young sisters who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

"It's an exciting time in the church," Sister Michaela said. "We're the John Paul II generation, I think John Paul II inspired so many people by just telling us that the Lord had a plan for us and that we could make a difference."

Teaching in the classroom is part of that.

"The way we practice our preaching is in the classroom," Sister Michaela said.  

In fact, it was in college at the University of Notre Dame when she learned about the Dominican Sisters.

"I saw their joy and it was contagious, I couldn't resist, I wanted to get to know them better," she said.  

Her junior year while studying abroad in Rome, Sister Michaela says the call became more real.

"I kept asking, 'Lord, what do you want from me, is this what you could want from me?'"

"It was a wise priest who told me to spend some time before the blessed sacrament everyday. One day I was praying and the Lord said, 'I want you to be mine, I want you to be my bride.'" 

Sister Michaela said she couldn't resist the call. Her commitment to an intimate relationship with Christ is more of a sacrifice then it may seem.  

"You know in high school I loved being with my friends, I dated, I wanted to get married, have lots of children," she said.

She said she even dated in college.

"But there was just something in my heart that was saying there's more, the Lord wanted my heart just for himself."

With her whole life ahead of her, Sister Michaela said she has no regrets.

"This is my wedding gown, it's my privilege to wear it everyday."

While Sister Michaela may never have children of her own, her decision to say "yes" is raising up a generation of young people who are learning to embrace their faith.

"She has no doubt in her mind that what she's telling us is the absolute truth and that's really cool to hear and it makes me know in my mind that this has to be what's right," Claire said.

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