Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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As Abbess of Poor Clares community, ‘You are listening constantly, you’re tuned to the Sisters, what their needs and anxieties are’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 24, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Sister Rita Louise McLean is Abbess of the Poor Clare Sisters in Spokane. (IR photo)
The Poor Clare Sisters have had a community in Spokane since 1914, not many months following the establishment of the Diocese of Spokane.
When the present monastery was built in 1926, it was located on what were then the outskirts of the city, surrounded by scrub pine trees with not much of anything nearby. Today, the monastery is located in the neighborhood that grew up around the Poor Clares, two blocks east of St. Francis of Assisi Parish.
Today, five Sisters make up the Poor Clares community. One year ago, the Sisters elected a new Abbess, Sister Rita Louise McLean, who has been a member of the community since September 1966.
Regardless of the stereotype of an Abbess or Sister Superior anyone may have lodged in his or her head, Sister Rita Louise fits no stereotypes. Quiet-spoken, dressed in the order’s habit of brown with a white three-knotted cord at the waist – the knots signifying the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – and with a small veil perched comfortably on gray hair, Sister Rita Louise’s demeanor is gentle, her lips likely to break into a smile at any moment.
Sister Rita Louise’s “job description” is fairly broad. The buck stops with her, of course, but in the day-to-day scheme of things, she is as likely to be found preparing meals in the kitchen – she’s the monastery cook, too – weeding a garden, taking one of the many phone calls the Sisters receive from people requesting prayers, answering correspondence – both written and digital – dusting and cleaning, or occupied with any of the chores almost without number that need to be taken care of on a daily basis. In other words, she’s the last member of the community to be found spending her day behind a desk handing out orders to the other Sisters.
She was born in Tacoma in 1948. Three years later, the family moved to Yakima. There she attended St. Paul Cathedral Grade School, which had a faculty of 24 Dominican Sisters and 1,200 students. Each of the eight grades had three classes, with 50 students in each class. “There wasn’t a lot of personal attention,” Sister Rita Louise said, “but I still think we got a really good foundation, especially in our faith. I’m sure I owe those Sisters a lot for their example and their teaching.”
When she was 9 years old, the McLeans’ oldest daughter read a life of St. Therese of Lisieux, “and,” Sister Rita Louise says, “she inspired me to want to love God and live my life that way. I had a growing attraction toward Religious life, and when I was in eighth grade in the Catholic diocesan paper I read an account of a young lady receiving the habit of the Poor Clares in Los Altos, Calif., and in that article there was a phrase, ‘laughter floating out from behind the grille’” – a reference to the grille that serves as a symbolic division, more loosely understood these days than then, between the monastery and “the world” – “and that rang bells,” she says. “In a short time I knew what I wanted to do, and I maintained that desire through high school.”
Rita graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1966. “The four years I was in high school,” the Abbess says, “were the same four years that the sessions of the Second Vatican Council took place.” One result was that the new member of Spokane’s Poor Clare community was both the recipient of and the spark for some of the updating that took place in the life of the community in the wake of Vatican II.
“When I first came here,” she says, “I expected everything to be the way it was. I didn’t realize that this was the threshold of the new beginnings. I was on the cutting edge, and unwittingly I was the catalyst for change in the community, because after I was here for a year as a postulant, trying out the life, it came time to receive the habit.
“The Sisters said, ‘Shall we give her the habit that we’ve always worn, or shall we update?’ – which is what they decided to do. Then they asked, ‘Shall we give her a new Religious name, or shall we go back to our baptismal names?’ And they decided to do that, too. Also, traditionally the Sisters had always prayed Matins at midnight, and they looked at me and said, ‘That won’t work, she’ll never make it.’ Besides, some of the older Sisters could no longer get up at midnight, so they changed those prayers to a daytime hour so everybody could attend.”
After one year as a postulant, and another year as a novice, Sister Rita Louise made her first profession of vows on Aug. 4, 1968, and her solemn profession on Sept. 11, 1971.
The years since then have gone by quickly, filled with the contemplative lifestyle of the Poor Clares, which centers on prayer, simplicity, and the spirit of Franciscan poverty.
“Of course,” Sister Rita Louise says, “there is the community prayer schedule, and for many years I was sacristan. That was my principle job. But no one here has only one job. There is always gardening, cleaning, helping with this and that. Also, for many years we had our annual benefit tea, and we worked on crafts to sell for that.”
The rather extensive grounds of the monastery require considerable attention from the Sisters to maintain, but the lawn is now cared for by a local lawn care service. “We have fruit trees and vegetable and flower gardens,” Sister Rita Louise explains, “so we do a lot of canning and freezing, and also we always have fresh flowers for the chapel.”
Last year, the previous Abbess, Sister Mary Rita, passed away, so an election was held. “Every three years, “Sister Rita Louise explains, “an election is held for a new Abbess. The same person can be elected Abbess twice in a row, and then she has to go out of office for at least one term.”
Sister Rita Louise says that becoming Abbess has brought some pleasant surprises. Far from the other Sisters beginning, either literally or figuratively, to “tip-toe” around her, since becoming Abbess she says that she now “feels closer to the Sisters, because I feel like being the Abbess is like being a Sister, only more of it. You are listening constantly, you’re tuned to the Sisters, what their needs and anxieties are, you’re listening to their ideas and their ideals, and you’re coordinating things, and you’re making sure that everyone has a say in what’s happening. With only five people, it’s pretty easy to get everybody’s opinion quickly, and it’s working well.”
Does being Abbess come with any perks? “There aren’t supposed to be any,” the Abbess says. “You’re not supposed to be having special privileges because of it. St. Clare didn’t want that. But just being Abbess is almost a perk in that you feel closer to the Sisters. I think I kind of dreaded being the Abbess, I thought it would be one big crisis, but it’s not. The Sisters are really good. If they weren’t really good and working together it would be hard, but they’re all working together as a community, and I’m just kind of helping coordinate things.”
Sister Rita Louise agrees that their way of life only makes sense to someone who believes that it’s important for some to be doing what they are doing. “Our service is through prayer,” she says, “and many people believing in the value of prayer call on us for prayers in their needs. All day long the phone is ringing, and we get mail requesting prayers for health, marriage and family problems, addictions, lost articles, employment needs. People believe that we are giving something, and they respond. We live on alms. Many people get back to us and tell us how it’s going, and frequently they express thanks for the prayers that they feel have helped. We have whole generations of families that we have been in contact with from the early days.”
Spokane’s Poor Clares, Sister Rita Louise says, think of themselves as “part of the local church. That’s what we want to be, part of the church, especially serving the local people.”
Some years ago, Pope John Paul II suggested that contemplative orders develop an evangelical outreach appropriate to their way of life, in addition to their life of prayer. Spokane’s Poor Clares hit on the idea of publishing a book, 101 Inspirational Stories of the Rosary, which sold quite well and has since come under the distributorship of St. Anthony Messenger Press in Cincinnati, Ohio. Subsequent to that, the Sisters published 201 Inspirational Stories of the Eucharist and 101 Inspirational Stories of the Priesthood. “And now," Sister Rita Louise says, “we’re working on 101 Inspirational Stories of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It will come out in a couple of months.”
After the rosary book came out, Sister Patricia was interviewed by a Catholic radio station in Texas, which lead to a weekly meditation on the rosary by Sister Patricia, for the station. Then she started thinking bigger.
“Washington State is 70 percent un-churched,” said Sister Rita Louise, “so there is a very great need here. She found out from the people who operate Sacred Heart Radio in Seattle that they wanted to start a station here in Spokane.”
Once that organization had purchased a Spokane-area station, they needed a site. “We had space, so we have the mechanisms for Sacred Heart Radio AM 970, Spokane, here in the monastery,” she said. The satellite dish is out in the corner of the garden. Most of the programming is done by the Seattle station,” she said, with much of the content provided by Eternal Word Television Network, with space for local programming as well.
“I think it’s really going to help strengthen people’s faith,” she said.