San Damiano Monastery Celebrates 25 Years
Through the ages, people of every culture have engaged in religious practices that have provided them with comfort and a means by which to be closer to God. What that means is different from one belief system to the next, but for the Sisters of Poor Clare, celebrating their 25th year here on Fort Myers Beach at the San Damiano Monastery, it means a life of prayer and contemplation. And whether you are a practicing Catholic or not, if you spend time with them, you will find that these women radiate a level of heartfelt love and devotion that literally illuminates the air around them.
In 1987, Sister Mary Emmanuel Kilkenny of the community of Christ the King Monastery in Delray Beach, Florida, was invited, along with Sr. Agnes Valimont and Sr. Mary Frances Fortin, by the then-Bishop of Venice, John Nevins, to establish a new foundation of their order on Fort Myers Beach. On July 9th of the following year, after much hard work by the then-Church of the Ascension pastor, Father Eugene McCarthy, assisted by other priests, nuns and parishioners, the new monastery was ready, and the Fort Myers Beach Sisters of Poor Clare were officially welcomed to the Diocese of Venice, Florida.
After a few years, it became necessary to expand the monastery, and with an outpouring of help in the form of money, labor and expertise given toward that end, ground was broken for the new construction on August 2, 1994 - befittingly, in the 800th anniversary year of the birth of St. Clare.
Founder and Sister Superior Mary Emmanuel Kilkenny 'went home to God' on December 12, 2011. But one of the founding nuns, Sister Mary Frances Fortin, is still at San Damiano, along with Sister Mary Paschal Sadlier, who is 95 years young and arrived only a year after the monastery was officially opened. The other nuns with them are Sister Esperanza Agrabante, Sister Pilar Alindogan, Sister Mary Seraphim Cox, Sister Anunciacion Matabalan and Sister Maria Marra Rosales.
Sister Mary Paschal tells why she chose this life which led to the order of the Sisters of Poor Clare on Fort Myers Beach - a long way from "home in Ireland" as she puts it."It's the contemplative life; to be alone and pray with God - that's my idea of it," she says with a hint of her homeland brogue, adding that she got her calling when she was twelve years old. "My brother was an agent selling holy pictures. He had different pictures of all the saints, and I found this one - St. Paschal Baylon, a Franciscan lay brother. I said to myself, 'That's what I'll be. I'll be a lay sister and I'll have the name of this one, Paschal Baylon.I entered the convent in 1936." She was 22 years old when she embarked upon this lifetime of devout dedication. Throughout the Second World War, which broke out in England two years after Sister Mary Paschal entered the convent, and for decades after, she prayed for all souls, living or deceased, as was her dedication and obligation as a Poor Clare nun in England. But in 1989, Sister Mary Paschal got a calling that would take her to America for the first time in her life."The word went out they were looking for volunteers among the sisters who would be willing to go to the United States to start a new foundation in Florida, so in 1989, I came here." As monumental a change as this would be, she says she didn't think about it too much once she made up her mind, even though she had never been to the US before. "I just thought, 'I'm going' and that's it."
All of the sisters at San Damiano were asked what it was about this life as a Poor Clare that led them to it. "I think I can speak for all of us when I say it's a calling," Abbess Sister Mary Frances said, with the other sisters smiling and nodding in agreement."It's an individual calling from God to this particular type of life. For me, it was a book about the Poor Clares that I read when I was fifteen years old that attracted me to this life. I entered two years later in the Bronx, NY."
The nuns spend many hours of every day in prayer. Sister Mary Paschal says this is most the most fulfilling part of their life at the monastery. When the nuns were asked for whom they pray, Sister Esperanza said, "We pray for the whole world - the living and the deceased."
To celebrate their 25th anniversary, the sisters baked over 3,000 cookies, served to the over 300 guests who came to the Church of the Ascension to celebrate with them. The Sisters of Poor Clare were honored to have eleven priests present for the celebration, and expressed nothing but love and gratitude for the outpouring of support they have received since they arrived on the island.
"We want to say 'Thank You' for welcoming us to this community," Sister Mary Frances says as the other sisters nod in quiet agreement, "for the support given to us.We have never had a bad experience on this beach and we are very, very grateful."
The Sisters want everyone to know that all are welcome to come pray with them, or attend Mass in the chapel with them. "If they just need a quiet place to pray, they are welcome to come sit in the chapel for quiet reflection," Sister Mary Seraphim adds.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the San Damiano Monastery on Fort Myers Beach, home to the Sisters of Poor Clare who have prayed for all of us everyday, we offer The Blessing of St. Clare:
May The Lord bless you
and keep you.
May He look upon you with the eyes of His mercy
and give you His peace.
Here below may He pour forth His graces upon you abundantly,
and in heaven, may He place you among His saints.