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Huntington nuns choose a life of tradition, service

Sister Bernarda, right, and Mother Superior Ewa, left,

Sister Bernarda, right, and Mother Superior Ewa, left, stand in silence as the Missionary Sisters of St. Benedict make their afternoon prayers in the chapel. (November 12, 2009) Credit: Newsday/Mahala Gaylord

The bell rings at 5:15 a.m. every day to wake up the Missionary Sisters of St. Benedict at their semi-cloistered convent in Huntington.

By 5:35 a.m., all 21 of them are gathered in the chapel, dressed in long, black habits and starched veils. They pray for a half-hour, then fall into silent meditation for another half-hour.

They spend an hour tending to the 43 elderly residents of an adjoining adult home they run, then return to the chapel at 7:30 for morning Mass. As the day progresses, they will return several times for communal prayer - about four hours a day in all.

"Something inside you feels you want this," said Sister Matea Mirecka, the superior of the house. "I am very happy and I will never change."

The Sisters of St. Benedict are traditional nuns in a country where most religious sisters have tossed away their habits, moved out of the convent and entered into a wide range of apostolic works, from laboring in soup kitchens to lobbying for nuclear weapons disarmament. They are also a rarity among Long Island's 1,500 nuns, most of whom are considered "modern."

But half of new vocations are for traditional orders, even though they make up perhaps 10 percent of nuns in the United States. The trend resonates as the Vatican conducts a three-year "apostolic visitation," or inquiry, into the lives of nuns in the United States and a dramatic decline in membership. Some experts believe it is also a bid to get sisters to return to tradition, living and praying in community and working in a single mission together.

"Many people in the Vatican believe that if they went back to their traditional lifestyle, if they got back into habits and veils, if they went back to teaching and working in hospitals, and singing in choirs and living in community, and having a very traditional spirituality that was docile and obedient to the hierarchy, then all these problems would go away and the convents would be filled again," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.

He added that the Vatican sees many liberal nuns "as out of control and they want to get them under control again. That is very much what this is about."

Still, the traditional orders are filling a need, and a growing one. "It is pretty clear people are being attracted to religious life, but apparently not to religious life as it has been practiced in the United States for the last 20 or 30 years" by most orders, said Mary Gautier, co-author of a new study on religious vocations done by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

The Sisters of St. Benedict are too busy to pay much attention to the Vatican inquiry. Their days are packed with prayer and taking care of the elderly residents of the St. Joseph's Guest House they operate on their 22-acre property.

"The prayer is what makes them so exquisitely effective with us," said the Rev. Charles Kohli, one of three retired priests from the Diocese of Rockville Centre who lives at the Guest House.

The rest of the residents are women, most of them devout Catholics who join the sisters for the 7:30 a.m. daily Mass.

The sisters are all natives of Poland and their motherhouse, or home base, is in Poland. Theirs is one of the few traditional orders on Long Island.

When they aren't praying, the Sisters of St. Benedict feed, bathe, dress, dispense medicine to and entertain the residents of the adult home with games, songs, and arts and crafts. They provide round-the-clock care, with at least one sister on duty throughout the night.

They seldom leave the premises. Sister Joachima Mystkowska, a registered nurse, says that in the 30 years she has lived and worked at the convent, the only movie she has ever gone out to see is "The Passion of the Christ." She saw it twice.

The sisters live frugally, and obediently. They must ask Mirecka if they can write a letter to their families in Poland, for instance, and get money for postage. She usually says yes.

They say they love their simple lifestyle and clothing.

"The habit is very precious to us," Sister Bernarda Krajewska said. "It's a sign to the whole world we belong to Christ. We are the brides of Christ."

Sister Pia Wojtak, 35, said she treasures her time praying in the chapel. "You want to spend as much time with your beloved, Jesus Christ himself," she said.

They are loathe to criticize more modern orders of nuns, and say they welcome any Vatican inquiry.

"They want to help us," Mirecka said. "I will be happy if they come. This is good."

Some American-born women have shown interest in her order, with several in recent years joining as novices, but eventually transferring to other orders or simply leaving.

The order remains open to more Americans joining them. As opposed to most orders of nuns in the United States, their members are relatively young, with many in their 30s.

Wojtak, who came to the United States at 16 and has also lived in California and New Jersey, says she isn't going anywhere. "I'm here for life," she said. "This is it."

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