[Episcopal News Service] While Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speaks of the Sisters of the Southern Province of the Community of Sts. Mary, the oldest American Anglican religious order, his voice becomes enthusiastic.
“These women are small, but, boys, they are great,” Curry told the Episcopal News Service after a recent visit.
And since the Eastern Province of the Order, based in upstate New York, left Episcopal Church in April, Curry wants something bishops should know about women from the southern province of Sewanee, Tennessee.
“I really want the church to know that the southern province of the community of St. Mary is part of the Episcopal Church, dedicated to it and loyal to it,” he said.
The Community of St. Mary is one of 32 religious orders and communities recognized by the Episcopal Church. Founded in 1865 in New York City, the community sent sisters to found a school and work with the poor in Memphis, Tennessee, five years before the 1878 yellow fever epidemic that decimated the city. Four of the five sisters died while treating the sick; today, the “Memphis Martyrs” are honored in the church’s liturgical calendar on September 9th.
The only surviving sister founded the southern province of Sewanee, where the order ran the school until the 1960s. Today, the four sisters live in the convent of Sewanee, where they live in a Benedictine monastic tradition, which emphasizes work, prayer and community. Sister services include spiritual guidance, exercise practice, preaching, and growing produce in your garden. The community also includes one sister in the Philippines and a network of wafers and lay associates who live elsewhere but follow the rules of order to varying degrees and receive spiritual guidance from the sisters.
By April, a larger eastern province with monasteries and farms in New York and Malawi was included in the community. That province voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Church in North America, after the departure of Rt. William Love, former bishop of Albany who oversaw the province. In response, members of the southern province issued a statement emphasizing their loyalty to the Episcopal Church, saying they were “going through some initial stages of grief” over the departure of the Eastern province, but “were not completely surprised by their decision.”
“This house has always been more liberal than the eastern province,” Sister Madeleine Mary, prior of the southern province, told ENS. “We knew they were unhappy in the Episcopal Church, so I was not surprised that they decided to leave. The surprise was as they told us. … All we got was a simple email. ”
However, the southern province received negative feedback from people in the church who mistakenly thought that they too had left. Curry visited Sewanee Convent on Oct. 7 “to confirm them with his appearance,” he said.
Curry was impressed by the combination of their ancient Benedictine spirituality and progressive views on topics such as accepting the LGBTQ + person, as well as the fact that the two sisters are millennials. Curry even confirmed one of them while he was Bishop of North Carolina.
He was particularly interested in their organic prayer program in which young adults stay in the convent for up to 10 months, working in the garden and living in the rhythm of daily prayer. So far, 25 people have participated in the program, said Sister Madeleine Mary.
“We help them learn that caring for creation is a religious and spiritual thing,” she told ENS, “and we also help them learn how to apply the Benedictine rule to their lives. They often use it to differentiate for the next step in their life. ”
As world leaders (as well as episcopal and Anglican representatives) prepare to attend the United Nations COP26 conference to discuss the climate crisis in the coming weeks, Curry said the example of the sisters is more relevant than ever.
“They really go deep into the ground,” Curry said. “They are an important way to understand and engage in creation. … These people pray about it and actually cultivate the soil. “
– Egan Millard is assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. You can contact him at [email protected]