Poor Clare Sister Fundraises for Original Convent

How a nun's talent, as seen on EWTN, helped a good cause. Feb. 26 issue feature.

Sister Marie Antoinette recorded Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with international concert artist Michael Matthes in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.
Sister Marie Antoinette recorded Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with international concert artist Michael Matthes in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. (photo: Courtesy the Poor Clares)

When the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration decided to re-open their Cradle Monastery in Troyes, France, they knew it was in need of major renovations, from the chapel to the earliest parts of the monastery, which date to the 14th century.

The goal to rebuild was significant for the Monastere Notre Dame des Anges (Our Lady of the Angels Monastery), which opened in 1856. The order blossomed to nearly 40 monasteries in eight countries.

The sisters re-opened the Cradle Monastery in 2007. Thanks to a major benefactor, the chapel was renovated in 2011. On Dec. 7, 2011, the vigil of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Troyes Bishop Marc Stenger consecrated the altar at the Mass to re-open the chapel.

With the chapel renovated for Our Lord to re-establish his Eucharistic throne in the heart of France, the next most urgent need is repairing the roof, a very expensive project hampered by the difficulty of raising funds in the ongoing financial crisis.

But one Poor Clare hit the right note for helping raise funds in the best “Let’s put on a show” tradition.

“We decided to try making a violin CD,” said Sister Marie Antoinette, who was assigned from the United State to Troyes to assist with the re-founding. She was a professional violinist before she entered the Poor Clares.

“It might be too optimistic to think we could sell enough CDs to repair the roof,” she explained, “but at least it would help pay part of the expense and might make us known to people who would have the means to help us with major funding. So you could say I was ‘fiddling’ for the roof!”

With the blessing of Bishop Stenger and Mother Emmanuel, the mother superior, she recorded Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with international concert artist Michael Matthes in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. For good measure on the CD, she added 18th-century Italian composer Veracini’s Concert Sonata with her own credenzas.

“The Cathedral of Troyes is blessed to have an outstanding musician and performer as the ‘titular organist,’ Mr. Michael Matthes, who is very much in demand as a concert organist throughout France and internationally as well,” said Sister Marie Antoinette.

The recording was made when the historic cathedral closed in the evening. The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration’s founder, Capuchin Father Bonaventure (Jean-Baptiste) Heurlaut, was ordained in this cathedral.

Sister Marie Antoinette is no stranger to the violin or Vivaldi. She started playing at the age of 9 and earned a bachelor’s degree in music studying violin with renowned teachers Raphael Bronstein and Ariana Bronne at Hartt College in Hartford, Conn. Then she played with the Hartford Symphony and the Connecticut Opera. In 1969, she joined the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony and also taught violin at Loyola University in New Orleans.

As a Third Order Franciscan, she was attracted by the Franciscan spirituality, devotion to Our Lady, and the charism of Eucharistic adoration she found when she visited Mother Angelica’s community. In 1984, she entered Our Lady of the Angels Monastery outside of Birmingham, Ala.

The idea for her CD has roots in those early years.

“When Mother Angelica accepted me into the order, EWTN was then in its third year on air,” Sister Marie Antoinette recalled. “The community was still small, and I was blessed to be among the original founding sisters — those brave pioneers who accompanied Mother Angelica in her great mission to found a monastery of our order in the South.

“EWTN had only four hours on the satellite, but the cost was outrageous. It was the first vicar of the monastery and Mother’s faithful friend and helper for 40 years, Sister Mary Raphael, who got the inspiration to have a telethon to raise enough funds to keep EWTN on the satellite. I was one of the sisters who answered the phones to receive pledges from viewers.”

For one of the telethons, Sister Marie Antoinette accompanied a singer for Schubert’s Ave Maria that she arranged for her violin from the piano score.

That was to be her first television performance.

“When EWTN began to televise the nuns’ Mass from the Irondale, Ala., chapel, there were many violin solos, especially after holy Communion,” she said. “I played the Ave Maria of Bach-Gounod frequently, with organ accompaniment. Many viewers commented that they enjoyed it because it was very prayerful.”

“When Sister Marie Antoinette played the violin, it was breathtaking and moved you in the depths of your heart,” said Lisa Gould, vice president of viewer services at EWTN, also the Register’s parent company. “It almost gave you a tiny glimpse of heaven. Her music touched many souls.”

Then came the move to the new monastery in Hanceville, Ala., the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

When Sister Raphael, the archivist and historian of the monastery, as well as chronicler of all of Mother Angelica Live shows, died, Mother Angelica asked Sister Marie Antoinette to take on the those duties as well as to do research for Raymond Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica.

When Sister Marie Antoinette received a copy of the order’s history in French from the archivist at the Troyes Monastery, she studied French on her own so that she would fully understand.

Mother Angelica sent her in 2005 to help re-open the Cradle Monastery. “It is a place precious to all the sisters because it was here that the founder and foundress established the original community and its charism of perpetual Eucharistic adoration in 1856,” she said. “Our foundress, Mother Marie of St. Claire Bouillevaux, is buried in the monastery garden behind the Oratory of St. Antoine.”

Connection to the history guided her work with the CD. She chose Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons because it is “one of the most popular of all classical music pieces,” she said. “I had successfully performed these violin solos several times in New Orleans during my professional playing and teaching career before entering the monastery, so I felt I could still do them justice.  Playing them with an orchestra was out of the question, so I had the inspiration to try playing them accompanied by pipe organ. There are hundreds of recordings of The Four Seasons, but I had never heard one with organ accompaniment instead of an orchestra. So we thought it might be something different, a new twist that might help it to sell.”

“But, most of all, I just love the music, and it was such a joy to be able to play them with Mr. Matthes,” she added. “The wonderful acoustics under the Gothic vaulted arches of the cathedral added to our enjoyment. The artistic mastery of our sound engineer, Luc Fourneau, enabled him to capture that joy in the recording.”

It’s a favorite with the sisters. “When we have sisters visiting from other monasteries or occasional student presentations in the parlor,” she added, “I usually play the first movement of ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons. It’s so much fun to play, and everyone likes it.”

As for the other selections, she said, “It seems that the Ave Maria of Bach-Gounod is everyone’s favorite as a violin solo during Mass, even when played with no accompaniment, just the solo violin. We had no organ or other keyboard in the chapel before the renovations, so for our first four years here in Troyes, I played everything solo. Of course, I also play the Ave Maria by Schubert, another all-time favorite religious piece.  Other favorites for Mass are Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart and Panis Angelicus by César Franck. I have also made some arrangements of Gregorian chant melodies to play as violin solos and even a melody from François Poulenc’s Mass in G, the Benedictus.”

Although these might suggest themselves for another CD in the future, right now the sisters hope EWTN will sell hundreds of this CD to carry on the needed renovations.

“It has been a great blessing to me that Mother Angelica, and now Mother Emmanuel, our abbess here in Troyes, both love and appreciate the violin and have made it possible for me to continue playing at Mass,” concluded Sister Marie Antoinette.

“Incidentally,” she added, “the patroness of our chapel and monastery is Our Lady of the Angels. Mother Angelica had no way of knowing this when she chose the same name for the Alabama monastery in 1962. Everything that the Lord has done through Mother Angelica and EWTN had its beginnings right here.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.



Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons CD, Item HCVFS, at EWTNReligiousCatalogue.com or (800) 854-6316