Historical Background

The first seven nuns who eventually formed our community of Nuns of New Skete were originally Roman Catholic contemplatives of the Poor Clare Monastery in Evansville, Indiana. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1964) monastic women and men all over the world were encouraged to study the origins of their foundations, to examine the animating vision of their communities in the light of monastic principles and practices, and to reflect on the demands of life today. Such a call was long overdue.

Poor Clare monasteries,1 with a seven-hundred-year tradition of their own, had resisted adapting to changing times. Through the centuries they had accumulated ascetic practices, customs, and devotions that were in fact foreign to the spirit of their founder. A young woman who wanted to dedicate her life to seeking God was expected to renounce her personal talents as well as to forego any further intellectual and cultural development. The impersonal institutional life of the cloister, with its strict rules of silence and solitude, made the flowering of authentic, natural relationships among the nuns all but impossible. There was little, if any, exchange of ideas or mutual encouragement to facilitate the growth and maturity of the whole personality. Communication with outsiders was permitted (family members included) only in a parlor with a double iron grill separating the nun from the visitor. Outdated and unnecessary regulations, though they may have met the needs of past generations, now actually hindered a healthy, spiritual life.

During this time of aggiornamento (renewal) within the Roman Catholic Church at large, some of these nuns began finally to see the possibility of creating a deeper, more authentic expression of their dedication to God, of a life more clearly centered on the Gospel. In 1969, seven nuns decided to seek a better way. Trusting in God, they set out to find a place to live and fulfill this vision of an authentic monastic life.

One of the nuns learned of a recent monastic foundation in Cambridge, New York , known as New Skete, and she began corresponding with the monks. Like herself and her sisters, the monks had come from a Franciscan background and shared many similar values. This contact eventually led to an invitation by Father Laurence, founder and former abbot of New Skete, to visit for a few weeks. The nuns drove all the way from New Orleans, where they had been staying, to Cambridge . As they talked, worked, and prayed with the monks, the nuns discovered that what they had been searching for was already being lived at New Skete.

In November 1969, the seven nuns, taking the name Sisters of St. Clare, through a financial loan and some donations from family and friends, bought land and moved into their first home, about four miles closer to Cambridge than the monks’ monastery. A rustic, mustard-colored farmhouse, nearly two centuries old, became their new home. Neighbors, family, and friends from near and far kindly donated furniture and other necessities. In 1970, having taken a twelve week evening course in carpentry, the nuns, working side by side with the monks, began to build their own monastery on the hillside opposite their little house.

From the very beginning, the nuns joined with the monks in celebrating vespers and the Divine Liturgy. Later, daily matins was included, along with formal community classes, discussions, and reflections on monastic life and spirituality, together with the monks and under the leadership of Fr. Laurence. They also shared weekend and feast-day meals with the monks and took part in offering hospitality to retreatant and pilgrim alike.

At this time New Skete followed the Byzantine Rite within the Roman Catholic Church. For the nuns this was a totally new experience, an enriching immersion into daily monastic offices suffused with profound theological symbolism and liturgical beauty. Soon the nuns began sharing the responsibility of leading the mixed choir at services. They began painting icons, sewing liturgical vestments, and doing woodworking in addition to sharing in the chores of building and running a monastery. The nuns also started to participate in the monks' German Shepherd breeding and training program. In 1974, the Sisters of St. Clare incorporated as the Nuns of New Skete, under the patronage of Our Lady of the Sign.

More Recent Developments

In 1979, the New Skete Community, monks and nuns together with our small parish, joined the Orthodox Church. This brought us into intimate contact with Orthodox believers from around the world with whom we share the love of Eastern Christian liturgy and spirituality. It has also enabled us to participate more authentically and concretely in the life of the whole Church.

We believe the divine services at New Skete are the single most important common work of our community and together we sing them for the spiritual benefit not only of ourselves but of all who participate in them with us, as well as those not present for whom we pray during the celebration. The monks, nuns, and companions 2 form the monastic choir for daily matins and vespers, and for the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast-days. We welcome a steady stream of retreatants and visitors throughout the year. Individuals or couples seeking time for reflection and prayer and wishing to worship with the community may contact the guest-master to make retreat arrangements. 3

We paint icons and design and sew vestments as a creative expression of our devotion to the Church. Baking cheesecakes is our main source of income; we produce approximately 500 cakes of varied flavors per week. Our cheesecakes and other baked goods are sold wholesale to distributors, to schools, and churches for fund-raising projects, as well as through the New Skete Farms mail-order catalog. We also have a small gift shop with our cakes, original cards, and crafts. We continue to take part in the New Skete shepherd dog program.

The Challenge of Monastic Life

We are frequently asked what we as nuns, as women, do for the Church. A nun who has developed a mature awareness of herself, the people she lives with, and her chosen dedication need not try to invent a woman’s way of monastic life. By being wholly centered on a single-hearted quest for God, and striving to be a realistic and authentic person, by developing not only her innate talents but her whole self in a profound and balanced way, something will emerge that is particular to a woman, but which also transcends differences of gender, nationality, and even religion. The heart of monasticism, like that of the Gospel, is a radical way of constant human growth in the authentic love of God, neighbor, and self. Nuns and monks do this, not alone, but with their sisters and brothers in monastic tradition.

The life of the Church, whether monastic or not, is oriented toward putting on the mind of Christ. Above all, this means repentance. And repentance means changing our minds and behavior - becoming aware of the self-centeredness which blurs and distorts a clear perception of reality. This requires work. The Gospel challenges us all to work at changing our inner self, to heed the call to wholeness and holiness. This work requires courage, self-knowledge of gifts and limitations, and the wisdom to know where and how to develop and express them in serving others. To the degree that we as monastic women do this, we go beyond the limits of our individual selves in witnessing to each other and to the world that the message of the Gospel of Christ is as relevant today as when it was first preached.

Notes.

1. In 1212 the first Poor Clare, Clare Scefi, donned a coarse habit at the hands of St. Francis of Assisi. Agnes, her blood sister, followed Clare to a Benedictine Monastery until they could be in their own monastery. When ready, both women went to San Damiano to the church restored by Francis. This was the first Poor Clare Monastery.

2. A community of married couples sharing all their goods, and living and working and praying in common according to our monastic typicon.

3. For further information contact:

The Nuns of New Skete
343 Ash Grove Rd.
Cambridge , NY 12816