Host Brian Balogh heads to Our Lady of the Angels, a Trappist monastery in the Blue Ridge Mountains, to find out what life is really like behind the walls of a convent.
PETER: The convent exposés you just heard about were popular in part because most Protestants in the 19th century had no idea what actually went on behind convent walls. But it made us realize, a century and a half later, we didn’t either.
BRIAN: As it turns out there’s a Trappist monastery down the road from our studios in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s one of just 17 across the country. So I took a trip out there with our producer Emily Gadek.
EMILY GADEK: All right. Here we go.
BRIAN: Our Lady of the Angels sits at the end of a dirt road. It’s on the edge of the forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The building, it’s nothing fancy. It looks like the kind of two-story brick church you might see in a new suburb.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Hello. May I help you?
EMILY GADEK: Hi.
BRIAN: 13 sisters live in the monastery. We spoke to four of them– Sister Barbara, who helped found the convent in the late 1980s, Sister Sophy who came from India, Sister Maria originally from Spain, and Sister Kathy, who joined the community after serving in the United States Air Force for 15 years.
SISTER KATHY: I’m entering my 15th year in the monastery. So I’ve now been in the monastery as long as I was on active duty.
BRIAN: I know you don’t say mazel tov, but congratulations. Is that in order?
SISTER KATHY: Thank you. Yes, yes.
BRIAN: It’s no surprise that the sisters’ lives were nothing like the horrors Rebecca Reed detailed in the 1830s. Much of their daily life in that monastery revolves around prayer. Sister Barbara told us that their day begins at 3:00 AM. That’s when the sisters rise for their first of many rounds of prayer throughout the day.
But the nuns also work. For Our Lady of the Angels, that means making sinfully good Gouda cheese. People come from miles around to buy it. Here’s Sister Maria describing the process.
SISTER MARIA: I’m what we call the cheese cook, the one who– That’s part of the process of making the cheese, turning the milk into cheese. So besides put in the culture and all the things you have to put in there so that you get cheese at the end, most of the time we work in silence. So when we are working, we are playing with our whole body. So I do put a lot of prayers for the people who are going to have the cheese, for so many people who ask us for prayers, who tell us about their troubles in their families.
BRIAN: And just like any homeowners Sister Kathy says they have to put a lot of work into simply maintaining the place.
SISTER KATHY: So a lot of my time during the day is either doing plumbing, calling a plumber. And that’s where YouTube comes in handy, because there isn’t anything you need to fix that you can’t find somebody doing it on YouTube.
BRIAN: I have to admit, these nuns surprised me. They laughed at my jokes, unlike most people. They watched YouTube. And they had strong opinions about current issues like climate change. Sisters Cathy and Maria say they even surprised themselves by entering the convent.
SISTER MARIA: I never thought about becoming a nun. I didn’t like nuns too much.
BRIAN: Why do you say that?
SISTER MARIA: Well, we all have our own ideas of what people do. And I wasn’t the kind of person I thought that was going to be a nun.
SISTER KATHY: I had the same experience that Maria had. It was an oh, no kind of experience. I never thought a cloistered life as being for me. I’ve always been pretty active and enjoyed being in the world. But there were some clear messages that came. It just grew more and more in my heart, that, really, the significance and importance of prayer in my life.
BRIAN: I love writing history. But I will confess, if I could use that word, that there are days– and sometimes even months– where I have real doubts about my chosen life as an historian. None of you expressed any doubt about your faith itself. You’ve expressed doubt, perhaps, about being in the right place. Have you experienced those moments?
SISTER KATHY: Sure. I think that’s part of the Christian life. And doubt is the flip side of faith. It’s eventually what makes our faith even stronger. And I remember saying to our superior that I thought I had finally reached the point where I was pretty certain that I was– what’s the word for people who don’t believe in God?
EMILY GADEK: Atheist.
BRIAN: Agnostic or atheist.
SISTER KATHY: Atheist. OK. I can’t believe I can’t remember these words. But I told her, I said, well, I think I’m atheist. I don’t think I believe in God anymore. And her simple response was, well, that’s nice. It will pass. That’s fine. And she’s right. It does pass.
BRIAN: Two of you mentioned that when you realized that you were being called, your response was uh-oh. And given that a pretty typical reaction, or, to put it another way, that this is an unusual form of life in this very modern society we live in, do you ever worry about the future? Do you worry about the continuation of this way of life?
SISTER KATHY: As far as worry, not worry. I think the monastic life will last as long as the human kind lives, because it speaks to something deep in the human heart. Maria was saying a few moments ago, this desire to give oneself totally to God and to receive as much of God as God will give in this life, to put it one way. But individual monasteries won’t last forever. No human institution does. And that doesn’t matter. So concern, but not worry. And the best contribution we can make to that is just living the life as fully with as much of our love as we can.
BRIAN: Thanks to Sisters, Barbara, Sophy, Maria, and Kathy from Our Lady of the Angels, a Trappist monastery in Crozet, Virginia. You can find more information about the sisters, including how to purchase their handmade cheese, on their website olamonastery.org.
CATHOLICS LESSON SET
Note to Teachers:
This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination. Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government. Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story. Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.
There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.
These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries. Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.