PETERSHAM, Mass.—On the surface, there's nothing unusual about this small town in Central Massachusetts. It's a quiet place of 1,100 residents, the kind of place people picture when they think of “postcard New England.” But there is something unusual about the place. It's home to 90 priests, monks, and nuns who belong to five religious communities—that's more than 8% of the town's inhabitants. By spring, incoming candidates will increase the number another percentage point.
Geographically the state's third-largest town, Petersham's territory is largely composed of private and public land preserves and the Quabbin Reservoir, Massachusetts's largest body of water.
Though fertile ground for vocations, there was no grand design that led the communities to settle here. In 1951 the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary established Maria Assumpta Academy, a private girls' school. In 1985, four contemplative communities—Maronite monks, Benedictine monks, Benedictine nuns, and the Monks of Adoration—settled in, none of them with knowledge of the others' plans.
American Mount Athos?
Why Petersham? It's simply the type of quiet locale that the religious were seeking to live in solitude and detachment.
“There was no plan to set up a Mount Athos,” explains Father Anselm, superior of the Benedictine monks, referring to the Grecian monastic mecca. The acreage was simply the most suitable property for the communities' needs.
All five communities are orthodox in their practices, loyal to the Holy See, and cooperative with one another. That's where the similarities cease, though. Diverse indeed are the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict; the Maronite's Divine Liturgy (or Mass), which, dating from the fifth century Antiochene Church, is the oldest and most unchanged Catholic rite; and the technological journeys made into cyberspace by the Monks of Adoration.
Not the “usual” Benedictine arrangement, St. Mary's Monastery and St. Scholastica's Priory are located on either side of their newly built church. The “twin communities” join in the celebration of daily Mass and chanting the Divine Office.
“Each [community] is different,” says Mother Mary Clare, founder and prioress of St. Scholastica's Priory. “God's call takes all different forms. The reasons you stay are different from the reasons you came.”
She says that some are attracted by the liturgy, the lifestyle, the inner joy, or something as simple as the habit.
“For God all means are good,” she says, but that “obviously isn't going to make a lifetime commitment. It deepens and develops.”
Those reflecting on the spark for their own or others' vocations rarely cite any grand or glorious sign that figured into their call. Abbot William, founder and superior of the Maronite community at Most Holy Trinity Monastery, looks back to the influence of “the good Sisters of Notre Dame,” who taught him in school. Another Maronite monk, who humbly declined to be identified, credits an advertisement in the REGISTER for leading him to the community. Considering a vocation with the Benedictine order, he made a retreat with the Maronites, but had no thoughts of joining them.
“What drew me here was contemplation and adoration of the Eucharist,” he stresses. A month after his retreat, he returned—permanently. Eight years have since passed, and the monk is now a priest. He explains that the other eight men in the community came by word-of-mouth from across the country for the same reasons: “All wanted contemplative, monastic life with adoration of the Eucharist”—the charism of the community. The Maronite's growth was such that they recently established a second community. Holy Nativity Monastery in Bethlehem, S.D., founded in 1993, currently is home to five monks.
A Simple Call
Father Anselm, a Benedictine of St. Mary's Monastery—founded by a Maronite priest, says there is nothing unusual about the life or calling of a monastic religious. “We're all quite ordinary, really,” he says, citing the postulancy of a 64-year-old former Lutheran minister as the community's most unlikely prospect.
The priest, who hails from the Benedictine motherhouse, Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, believes many have vocations to the religious life, it's just “a matter of people finding the right place.” Father Anselm says he first considered a vocation at age 12. He learned of monastic life at 16, visited a few monasteries, and found one that attracted him.
“It was all very straightforward,” he says of his calling. The monk suggested it was the same mild prodding of God with other vocations as well.
“It's incomprehensible, but very simple,” he stresses. “It's God's choice. He let's them know. When things get complicated it's a sign of a human mind.” An authentic vocation should produce joy rather than anxiety as “an invitation from Christ to follow him in a particular way.”
Though he entered after graduating high school, he notes that most people come to religious life a bit older and more mature. “I hope that will change,” he says. “I do believe in younger vocations.”
St. Mary's community has seven members. “We'd like to be a little larger,” says Father Anselm, but “we like to have a sense that the Lord has taken a hand in guiding people here. And we feel more confident of that if we don't advertise.”
Mother Mary Clare quotes a French abbot in saying “‘Providence has a way of sending vocations.’ We've never advertised. We've never had to. They just come.”
“On the average we get one inquiry a week. Priests recommend [us]; people come here on retreat.”
Four candidates will soon join the 12 nuns at the priory.
Father Thomas Sullivan, secretary to Worcester Bishop Daniel Reilly, notes that whatever the Benedictines are doing to promote vocations “is very admirable. They're very cordial, very orthodox, and very authentic,” he says, and “their beautiful new chapel certainly inspires.”
Inquiries to the Monks of Adoration often come by way of their website, where the community promotes vocations and evangelizes.
“The Internet is opening things up,” notes Brother John Raymond, author of the recently published Catholics on the Internet. Though he and Brother Craig Driscoll are the only members of this new contemplative order, which follows the rule of St. Augustine, the community will double in size soon, welcoming candidates from Chicago and Los Angeles.
Always active in the Church, Brother Craig felt God's call to religious life after high school. “It was difficult to find a community of men totally dedicated to the Holy Eucharist, like so many communities of nuns.”
With the encouragement and a recommendation from Cardinal Augustin Mayer OSB, however, he received permission from (then) Bishop Timothy Harrington of Worcester to found the order and the community.
“What got me going in the right direction was coffee and donuts,” says Brother John. At a church social, he learned of study groups and a retreat that set him on a path to the realization of his calling—responding to a two-year-old vocation ad.
“I always felt the Lord's call,” says the monk. “I read the Bible and wanted to live these things we should be doing.”
Nearby, the Sisters of the Assumption have the greatest number of religious in Petersham with 60 members in the community at Assumption residence, a home to senior sisters and infirmary patients.
Powerhouse of Prayer
“The powerhouse of prayer, we call it,” says archivist Sister Marie. Though Maria Assumpta Academy is closed, for many years it was well-known and popular in the Worcester diocese. Sister Marie, a former student, entered a short teaching stint in the order's boarding school in Canada.
“We admired and loved our teachers,” she says, stressing the role of good models that are so often a key factor in vocations. “They seemed very happy.”
In promoting vocations, Sister Marie emphasizes, “We don't exert pressure. It's an invitation to come and spend an evening with us.… God is the one who calls.”
Does the loss of property taxes cool the town's local government to hosting so many religious communities? David Boeri, one of Petersham's three-member board of selectman, seems to think not.
“It's like being close to electrical power lines,” he suggests. “There is an effect even if you don't participate. They provide a positive energy field for the town.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Conn.