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Cloistered community offers retreats, seeks support from faithful

August 11, 2017

BELVIDERE — September will mark five years since the Augustinian Recollect Nuns, a cloistered, contemplative order, moved from Abington, Pa., to rural Warren County in the diocese. They left a small convent in a township north of Philadelphia for a larger place in the country. The move also meant leaving behind friends and supporters, so they are seeking to make their presence known in their new home. “We used to have friends who would visit from West Orange where our community was established,” said Mother Beatriz Aguirre. “Now the people that used to help us are not coming anymore so we would like the people who are around here to know about us. We need to build a new group of people who will help us.”

Bishop James F. Checchio visited the religious community May 13. He celebrated Mass for the sisters and presided over the election of the new mother general for the convent.

Before Bishop Checchio left, he was fitted for two albs.

Sewing vestments, stoles and albs for priests and deacons is just one of the talents of the Augustinian Recollect community.

The vestments are machine and hand sewn and are made to order with options for material, color and design.

Stoles are stitched by Sister Lucia Trejo or hand-painted by Mother Beatriz and Sister Maria del Rayo Garcia. The sisters, who are self-supporting, also create stitched corporals, purificators, ambo drapes and altar cloths. In additon to working on liturgical articles, the nuns repair, repaint and restore images and statues, and knit scarves. They bake bread and cookies, and make handmade and embroidered cloths for bread baskets or pillow covers.

“We are having big trouble with money right now because we have a lot of things we can do but we don’t have the people to ask us to do it,” said Sister Beatriz Hernandez, also affectionately known as Sister Betty. “They don’t know that we are here or what we have to offer.”

The sisters are the only group of Augustinian Recollect nuns in the United States. They constitute the feminine branch or Second Order of the Recollection. The Augustinian Recollects originated as a reform movement within the Augustinian Order in 16th century Spain. This reform emphasized fidelity to the Rule of St. Augustine, especially in the areas of community prayer and simplicity of life.

In 1985, the Augustinian Recollect priests asked the sisters to found a community near them in West Orange. The sisters, who are free to go to any diocese in the world, were invited by Archbishop Peter Leo Gerety of the Newark Archdiocese to serve there. Eleven sisters traveled from their motherhouse in Mexico City to found a community. The order also has 13 houses in Mexico, 30 in Spain, two in Africa, and one each in the Philippians and Brazil.

Each community is independent and each must find the resources to live and support itself. The sisters rely on funds generated from retreats and items they are able to sell from their facility.

In Belvidere, retreats are the main source of the sisters’ income. Their facilities are available for day or weekend retreats. On weekends they can accommodate 24 to 30 people.

“We have to be resourceful and make money wherever we can. We are not always blessed with work so we are always looking for ways to make something to sell,” said Sister Beatriz.

On weekends the sisters sometimes sell their baked goods at the end of the driveway. “One sister stays there so that the people passing by can see us and purchase them,” Mother Beatriz said with a laugh. “We also have a prayer intention box at the entrance of the property. It is part of our mission to pray for others prayer petitions. Some people put their intentions there and we pray for them. Some people call for prayers.”

Sister Betty added, “They can call us if they need prayer and if they want to give us a donation that would be nice, too.”

When the sisters first moved to the 80-acre property on Manunka Chunk Road, the former home of Brothers of the Sacred Heart, they spent money they had saved to repair the roofs and many things inside the house. Now they are struggling to make ends meet. “In the winter, sometimes we don’t have enough money to pay for the oil or heat. It is very expensive to heat and maintain our house and the retreat house,” Mother Beatriz said. “But thanks to God the Lord will provide. He always does. Little by little people are getting to know us because we are selling bread at the end of the driveway.”

Sister Betty added, “We want them to know they can come in to pray. Our conference building is very old and we would like to repair it. We would like to have some people join us to help with the work or to offer donations.” The sisters are currently working on sprucing up the entrance to the property. The work includes completing construction of a Stations of the Cross garden, which began last summer, as well as repairing a Blessed Mother statue given to them for a grotto at the front entrance so people could stop to pray. Future plans include adding a rosary garden and a grotto for St. Joseph. A typical day for the sisters begins in the chapel at 5:45 a.m. with Morning Prayer and readings, followed by an hour of silence and meditation. If a priest is available, Mass is celebrated at 7 a.m.

“Right now, we have Mass on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday,” said Sister Maria. “We are still looking for other priests. It's really hard to find them. They are all busy.”

The nuns divide their work and prayer time. Each has her own talents, suited for different jobs. While some work on statues and images, others work on vestments, embroidery or work in the garden or make bread to sell. “Some of the priests that we know from the other dioceses would allow us to sell our goods in their churches once in a while. We are hoping to get to know some of the people in the parishes here so we would be able to do that again,” stated Mother Beatriz.

“We are looking, too, for new people who are willing to work and who have a good spirit. If you are 18 or older and would like to spend time with us discerning your vocation, you can contact us at the convent,” she said. “We are praying so hard that we will have people to help us. Please pray for us and we will pray for your petitions.”

While they wait for more people to come to know them, Sister Lucia said, “I am waiting for our bishop to return for a fitting. I have to measure to make sure everything is OK, then I will finish them [his albs]. I want to make sure they are just right.”

By Karen Corpora, Correspondent at The Catholic Spirit

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