In the medieval world, the monastery served as a center of learning and hospitality, drawing ordinary Catholics as well as the titled and powerful.

Casa Maria, the graceful convent and retreat house of Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, serves a similar purpose for modern-day believers drawn to this oasis of joyful service and solemn worship.

Cradled in the green hills of Irondale, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, Casa Maria is a testament to the special charism of Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, a relatively new order whose constitution was approved within the last decade. Promoting spiritual renewal through retreats, catechesis and informal counseling, the 14 women religious who reside here inspire and educate a steady stream of retreat participants and local Catholics.

“Our charism draws on the spirit of St. Francis and St. Dominic,” explains Sister Louise Marie, the Ivy League-educated director of the retreat program. “St. Dominic inspires us to teach the faith and communicate an active spirit of devotion. St. Francis helps us to teach spiritual things spiritually and not to approach our faith as an intellectual exercise divorced from our life.”

In an increasingly secular world, where the devout need time for spiritual recharging and struggling Catholics look for encouragement in the face of doubt, Casa Maria offers a unique opportunity: Catholic retreats are widely available throughout the United States, but relatively few of them invite pilgrims to share in the life of a contemplative/apostolic religious order.

At Casa Maria, retreat participants are welcome to join the sisters — clad in sturdy, floor-length brown-and-white habits — for their daily prayers and devotions. Both groups also come together several times a day for Mass, meals and conversation.

Beautiful hymns and artwork, devout priests and a well-trained cadre of altar boys enhance the celebration of the Mass. No surprise, then, that those who come seeking help with individual concerns often return to their own parishes eager to reproduce the liturgical experience offered at Casa Maria.

“You can kill the faith more quickly through banal liturgies than bad catechesis,” Sister Marianna observes. She trains a group of about 15 young men and boys to assist visiting clerics and the resident priest, Dominican Father Lambert Greenan — an Irish-born canon lawyer and the retired editor of the English-language edition of L'Osservatore Romano — whose wit and learning enliven the retreat experience.

Good music is a core liturgical principle at Casa Maria, where the sisters devote time to the selection and practice of hymns, then lead the singing during the Mass.

“The music is a way of feeding people in the liturgy,” notes Sister Rita Marie, the novice mistress.

“We're an example that ordinary voices can produce a good effect through dedication, practice and good liturgical music,” she adds. “You need a high standard and the willingness to spend time on it. But it's not an inordinate amount of time. Most parishes have more resources than we do.”

Hand-Built Home

Retreat participants cherish the opportunity to join the sisters for Benediction, recitation of the Rosary and other devotional practices that have virtually disappeared from many U.S. parishes. Casa Maria's liturgies underscore the truth that religious devotions incarnate the doctrine and practice of the Catholic faith and make it accessible and real in people's lives.

If the liturgical celebrations are performed sloppily, that sends a message that they don't matter. Those who still hunger for beauty in worship, the sisters observe, will go somewhere else to find it — even if it means looking outside the Catholic faith.

Casa Maria, a hacienda-style building with tile floors and arched entrances, provides a suitable framework for an apostolate that celebrates classic aesthetics. But no one should assume that these religious women are solely occupied with transcendent matters: The sisters not only designed the convent and retreat house, but they also built most of it, too.

The sisters’ willingness to engage in the hard work of construction between 1993 and ’96 impressed their neighbors in this Bible-belt region, where Catholic practices still prompt misgivings and confusion. Today, a network of about 50 local volunteers help the order with retreat meals, cleaning, yardwork and other chores, leaving the sisters with more time for their apostolate.

“I was called to do this volunteer work,” explains Mary Hartsfield, one reliable supporter. “The sisters’ prayers get me through the difficulties I face. They work hard together with us; they laugh with us and they teach us, too.”

Changing Lives

The nuns of Casa Maria have firsthand experience with the crisis of faith that roils the modern Church. They also keep abreast of theological, canonical, liturgical and cultural trends through reading and contacts with informed Catholics. This helps when it comes to counseling, for example, casual visitors who come in seeking quick advice.

“Our lives are relatively hidden, yet we have a lot of impact on the people who come here,” Sister Louise Marie observes. “Many will open up to a sister faster than to anyone else. We help prepare the people in an informal way for the sacraments that are offered and encourage them to speak to the priest. Often, we have to provide answers that might help someone resolve their position with the Church.”

The order's motto is caritas veritas. And any sister at Casa Maria will tell a visitor that love and truth are equally important: Real love requires communication of the truth or the faith will be deformed.

Casa Maria's calendar includes a spectrum of offerings, from silent retreats to confirmation days for youth to spiritual adaptations of 12-step programs that help participants tackle stubborn problems such as addictive behaviors.

The order also provides solid catechetical materials that help their visitors follow through with regular study and reflection. Casa Maria's bookstore offers an assortment of reading and audiovisual materials on everything from chastity education and Marian devotions to classic faith-oriented movies and novels.

One might expect that an apostolate of steady spiritual counseling and logical planning would leave the sisters depleted. Instead, the spiritual bonds and affectionate ties that form during the retreat encourage the sisters to deepen their spiritual life and commitment to their vows.

“Religious life is very challenging,” Sister Louise Marie admits. “You're challenged to do things physically you haven't done before. You're challenged intellectually to learn the faith, to grow at a personal level and to live in charity in community.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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