By Karen Vance
HARTWELL - For five women who have been religious sisters for more than half a century, it has been a time of reflection and remembrance. Each is celebrating a jubilee or anniversary this year.
And for these Franciscan Sisters of the Poor at the St. Clare Convent in Hartwell, it's also been a time for celebrating the freedoms they've seen become part of their lives spent in the convent.
"Now we can be ourselves. Before, we were told what to do. Now we do what we want to do," said Sister Joanna Burkhart, 83, who has been a sister for 60 years and became a chaplain after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. "I chose to do that, and because I can better work when I choose what I want to do."
It's that freedom that has Sister Madonna Hoying, 77, working with younger women in the discernment process. She thinks that while there aren't as many women entering religious life compared with the 1950s and 1960s, the shrinking numbers of religious can also be a blessing.
"Some people see the diminishing numbers as a sign that things are going backward. I don't see it that way," she said. "I think God gives us what we need, and it may be a call to be more involved with the laity. The numbers don't worry me. I think God has a plan."
And interaction with people outside the convent - once very limited - is now the norm.
Sister Antonita Mettert, 77, runs the Our Lady of the Woods group home for the elderly. It's a project the sister of 60 years initiated more than 12 years ago.
"When we were in habits, people set us apart and put us on a pedestal, like we were saints already. We're not. We're human, and now we're more accessible," she said.
Sister Karen Hartman, 68, said she sees the prayer life of religious women - once a regimented prayer at dawn with silence until after breakfast - changing as well. Now prayer is more personal and contemplative, like their lives in general.
"We have the freedom to express ourselves rather than pray from a book to contemplate God's call," she said. And that translates into the choices the sisters make in their ministries.
"The thought of obedience is now more about going where God leads us and not just to a superior," Hartman said.
Sister Mary Andrea Frericks, 87, has perhaps seen the most change since entering the convent 70 years ago. Most of her fellow sisters also entered as teens. The congregation sent the women to college and assigned them to tasks.
Now the freedom to choose ministries that interest the sisters and to express themselves as individuals is drawing prayerful women at different stages in their lives.
Women rarely enter any younger than 22 and often have had a lifetime of experiences, many with professional degrees and work experience.
"We ask our new members to be self-directive, make mature decisions," said Hoying. "A later age just makes sense in this world."
Each of the sisters looks back at her more than half century of service in religious life without regret. And while they note times have certainly changed in the way they interact with the community as religious sisters, a lot remains the same.
"There's a lot about the spirit of the past that was wonderful, and there's a lot of that spirit that lives on today," said Hoying.
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