GREENVILLE — The Poor Clare sisters of South Carolina have a problem.
They live in a monastery that is a 50-year-old relic of a 17th century design. It’s a warren of long, narrow passageways and convoluted, linoleum floored rooms emptying into one another like the thieves’ holes in “Oliver Twist.”
It’s too big, too hard to heat and too close to a noisy highway.
The sisters’ problem is that St. Clare of Assisi, their founder, called the members of her order to be contemplatives, separate from active ministry in the world at large. They need money for a new cloister, but they are not equipped to raise it.
“Our main work here is prayer,” said Sister Bernadette Marie Cappola.
And they work hard at it, congregating in the choir chapel to pray six times every day and maintaining an attitude of prayerful silence except at one meal.
The chapel and other public spaces are on the first floor, along with the veiled and barred visiting rooms where sisters before Vatican II stayed hidden from view; but the work spaces where the cloistered nuns try to support themselves by retailing altar breads are below ground, in chambers known within the community as the catacombs. Storage areas for their product are small and separated.
“It’s not too efficient,” said Sister Helen Godfrey. “The plumbing’s poor and we have no loading dock. We really need a whole different set up.”
The 16 sisters in residence at the Monastery of St. Clare met over a period of months and reluctantly decided that their home for 50 years is no longer a safe and healthy environment.
The passageways above ground and the six feet by nine feet cells where the sisters live cannot accommodate wheelchairs, nor can the communal bathrooms.
The dampness in the below-ground rooms is bad for anyone suffering from arthritis, mold infiltrates the air and electrical problems are a cause for concern.
No one mentions the possibility of a fire, but an emergency evacuation in such a case could be disastrous. And fixing all the problems will be hugely expensive.
“We found out that it’s actually cheaper to build a new monastery than to try to renovate the old place,” Sister Cappola said.
The cost for the construction project is a staggering $5 million. It is not certain yet if the Poor Clares will build further back on their seven-acre lot on busy Pleasantburg Road or look for a new location. Either way, they have contracted with Lyn Furrh to raise the development funds.
“She’s top-notch,” said Sister Godfrey, “someone we can work with. Our benefactors are our friends, and we would never subject them to any kind of pressure.”
How do they raise five million dollars without pressuring anyone to give? One thing to do is write for grants. The abbess, Sister Carolyn Forgette, will announce a large grant that will be awarded at the kick-off celebration for the 50th year of the community on Nov. 5.
They have also enlisted the help of the Knights of Columbus.
“We feel we’ve been adopted by the Knights,” Furrh said. “They’ve been so helpful.”
Still, the Poor Clares have a long way to go in their quest to continue their simple life of self-sacrifice and prayer in suitable surroundings.
The Poor Clares are not funded by the Diocese of Charleston, yet their main income is supplied by the donations of parishioners.
Furrh has asked that parishes and church organizations invite the sisters to talk to their memberships, at Mass or at a meeting.
“The sisters do not have the life experience to ask for money, but when they talk about their simple life of prayer people will see that they have the faith,” she said.
From that revelation, Furrh said, generous people will become God’s instrument for solving the problem of the Poor Clares of Greenville.