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Inside a Boston monastery, 9 nuns are contemplating their futures

A monastery in Boston is closing after nearly 90 years. Nine nuns, ages 60 to 92, will be moving to a much smaller compound.
Posted at 5:46 PM, Mar 24, 2023

Muted rays of sunshine do their best to illuminate the halls of the Franciscan Monastery of St. Clare as Sister Clare Frances McAvoy points out what was once a bustling congregation in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

These days though, most of the hallowed halls are shrouded in silence. 

Nine Poor Clare Nuns call this monastery home. As the building around them has aged, so have they. And now they are left to contemplate their future. 

“We do everything communally," said McAvoy, 84, who serves as the abbess of the monastery. "We eat together and work together.”

When McAvoy first joined the Poor Clare Nuns in the late 1950s, the women were fully cloistered, sheltered and kept away from the outside world. Today, things are much different.

The sisters regularly welcome in the public for Mass and special occasions. 

There's no shortage of technology in the monastery, including a Zoom setup they had installed during the height of the COVID pandemic. It allowed them to connect via video chat with other congregations all over the world. 

There are only two dozen or so Contemplative Women's Monasteries left in the United States.  The Poor Clare Nuns of the Franciscan Monastery of St. Clare first opened in 1934. In the 1950s, there were 64 sisters living at the monastery. 

The building’s brick exterior needs repairs, asbestos has to be removed and a new heating system needs to be installed. But more than anything, the three story building is no longer practical or safe for these sisters to live in. So, they’ve made the difficult decision to move out.

“I knew we had to move, I knew we didn't have the numbers we use to have, but we can't live as a community in this large building,” McAvoy said.

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The sisters range in age from 60 to 92. In many ways, the decisions these nine nuns are facing are the same as any other aging American.

“They live in a big house, they try to keep it going, they close one room off then another room off. You put a band-aid on this and that, but all of sudden those band-aids come off,” she admitted. 

Shrouded in a kind of heavenly light, the process of letting go and packing up has begun.

“You have room so you accumulate stuff,” said Sister Mary Francis, another nun at the monastery. 

At the beginning of May, the Poor Clare Nuns will leave this sacred space for a much smaller compound outside of the city. 

Developers already have plans to turn the building into a community center and potentially build condos on the property.

“Unfortunately it took this long to do, I would've done it years ago. But it has to be done as a group,” said McAvoy.

There is another religious reality facing this congregation. Like many other monasteries across the country, it has been years since any new nuns have joined.

“We're not growing. Not that people aren't interested, I feel people aren't willing to make a commitment to one specific thing,” she added. 

But they aren't sad about leaving. Quite the opposite. McAvoy sees the move as an opportunity. 

“The one constant in life is your faith... and it's tested all the time," she said. "Things have to happen to bring it into focus.”

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