Members of Canton monastery enjoy their lives of joy, prayer.
CANTON The first thing you notice about the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration is not that they're nuns.
It is their joy.
Warm and unbridled, it's seen in the smiles that are at once contagious and comforting. It manifests through their constant laughter, a reminder that they have renounced secular living but not their humanity.
The cloistered order serves God and humanity at Sancta Clara Monastery at 4200 Market Ave. N.
Sister Mary Magdalen Colson said she knew from childhood that she would do something for God.
She calls it "the spark."
"When I was in kindergarten, at the end of the year, they had a little children's Christian gathering, and at that point, I was touched and inspired by God," she said.
At that point, she had many conversations with God.
"I asked for mature things. I don't know why I didn't ask for toys," she recalled with a laugh. "I'd always end my requests with, 'And someday, I'll do something for you.'"
A native of St. Petersburg, Fla., Colson that although her interest in God deepened, she gave herself until 24 to get married.
"I never thought of myself as a typical (religious) candidate," Colson said. "But my relationship with God was really the only thing that attracted me."
Though she continued to date, Colson said she also continued to seek God's will.
"I felt compelled," she said, adding that it worried her father, who discouraged her interest in the religious life. But, one day, her eyes fell upon a small ad in the St. Anthony Messenger, seeking candidates for a contemplative order in Portsmouth, Ohio. Their correspondence went back and forth for a year — in secret.
"A month before I was due to leave, I told my family," she said. "They were not happy."
With a laugh, Colson recalls being met by a nun at the airport.
"Me, with my long blonde hair ... and red flip-flops. That poor sister probably looked at me and thought, 'She'll never make it.'"
'The life for me'
As a child, Mother Mary Gertrude Espinella was drawn to and fascinated by the cloistered nuns she encountered in her native Philippines. She would spend weekends at their monastery.
Even after completing nursing school, the oldest of five siblings said she remained attracted to the cloistered life.
When a friend decided to apply to (emigrate to) the United States, Espinella said she went along as a favor.
"I passed the exam," she said. "She didn't."
Before long she found herself working as a nurse in Iowa.
"The calling to become a nun was always there," she said. "There was still a pull to the cloistered life. I was driving 45 miles to Illinois, for Adoration."
At age 30, she joined a Carmelite order that operated a nursing home in St. Louis.
"But it was an active order; it was not for me," she said. "The contemplative life is for me."
In May 2001, she relocated to Sancta Clara, making her Solemn Profession as Poor Clare in 2007.
"I felt right at home as soon as I entered," she said.
While living in Iowa, Espinella met Sister Mary Immanuel Lattner, a fellow nurse.
"I was moving into Iowa, and she was moving out," Espinella said. 'We shared a spiritual director."
An Iowa farm girl, Lattner grew up just eight miles from an abbey, but unlike her fellow sisters, she confesses that she felt no particular pull toward cloistered life.
"The Lord has always led me," she said. "I experienced a lot of the world for a great number of years. The Lord seemed to need to prepare me a little more. He needed to divest me of the world. I started to see the world, and what I was driven to, was simplicity."
As a nurse, Lattner worked with health programs for five motherhouses located in Dubuque.
"I really got a feel for the different orders," she said "But I still didn't feel a call to religious life. But I found myself going to Adoration more and more. That thirst began. I spent hours in Adoration. It was before the Lord that my actual calling came."
For non-Catholics, "Adoration" is honoring the presence of Christ in the form of the Eucharist. Catholics believe in "transubstantiation," that is, that the elements used during Holy Communion literally become the body and blood of Jesus, based on Matthew's Gospel (chapter 26).
During Eucharistic Adoration, participants "keep watch" in silence and contemplation.
Espinella describes Adoration as being in the presence of someone you love who also loves you.
"The Eucharist is the true presence," she said.
For Poor Clares, each day begins with a centuries-old tradition: At 12:30 a.m., a designated member known as a "knocker" awakens her fellow sisters to pray for the needy. After about two hours of prayers and meditation, members return to their cells (rooms) for a few hours of sleep.
Adoration begins around 5 a.m.
"We're in constant Adoration," Lattner said. "We're in prayer for this city, the diocese and the needs of the world. The challenge for us is here in this life is, we don't see the fruits of our prayers."
But it doesn't mean they disconnect from the outside world. They maintain a website, a Facebook page and they participate in daily public Masses at the shrine. They also conduct homemade bread and soup sales.
The public, they said, is welcome to visit Sancta Clara, which offers a garden, prayer paths, retreat spaces and its shrine.
"We're just not living in the corporal world," Colson said. "They have no idea how dynamic this life is."
"It's amazing how many people drop by the chapel," Lattner said.
Beauty of community
"Our chapel is a place of peace," Colson added. "There's an awareness that He's (God) there, listening."
The shrine helps to tell the story of the monastery's original owners. The former estate sits on 15 acres, with a 24-room house built by the late John F. and Ida O'Dea Jr. The family donated the property to the fledgling Catholic Diocese of Youngstown in 1946. After Mrs. O'Dea died, her husband had the shrine built in her memory in 1951.
Espinella said the shrine offers people a chance to enter into the kind of silence that is so often missing in the world.
"There is silence. There is love," she said. "God is present."
Being a monastery does not absolve the order from problems. During the winter of 2014, the shrine's roof required $84,000 in emergency repairs.
"It can be stressing," Espinella said. "We share the circumstances of this world. That's how it should be."
The order also benefits from the generosity of others. Someone recently donated a new commercial kitchen, Espinella said, and volunteers regularly help with maintenance and daily operations.
"There are challenges, but it's rewarding to be able to live with our sisters," Lattner said. "Your sisters become your family. It's the beauty of community life."
"The diversity of the cultures is something beautiful," Espinella added. "Living with different personalities makes us a broadly diverse order. We always have been."
The most famous Poor Clare was Mother Angelica, who died in 2016. A Canton native, she left Sancta Clara in the 1960s to establish a new order in Alabama, where she also founded EWTN, the world's largest Catholic media network.
Currently, Sancta Clara is corresponding with three possible novitiate candidates from California, Michigan and Illinois.
"They're at different stages in their search," Espinella said. "I thank God for his continuing to bring new life into our community."
She noted that with possible changes in immigration policy, she is hoping that "the Lord gives us more vocations in this country."
Currently, there are 10 members; three from Africa, three from Asia and four Americans.
"We trust that what God wants will always override," Colson said. "We're not in control. We know it's difficult to be a young person these days. So much is being thrown at them. God knows what he's doing."
For more information call 330-492-1171 or visit www.poorclares.org or visit their Facebook page.
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or email@example.comOn Twitter: @cgoshayREP