Vocations of women religious
'Our whole life is a prayer,' says Carmelite Mother Virginia Marie O'Connor
Nov 5, 2019
Deep in Southern Maryland in the rolling hills of Charles County, 10 Carmelite nuns live in individual hermitages, complete with a bed, a working table and a bathroom. Their lives are devoted to prayer for the Church, said the prioress, Mother Virginia Marie O’Connor, who explained they work to “maintain this life of prayer.”
“The contemplative vocation is the inner energy of the mystical body,” Mother Virginia Marie said, explaining how the Church needs the heart “pumping vitality into it,” which she believes her community can help support through prayer.
Along with nine other nuns, the mother prioress rises early in the morning, and attends daily Mass with them. Each day, the nuns work to sustain their lifestyle -- knitting and crafting things for their store, gardening and mowing the lawn, sewing clothes, and cooking.
The cloister, which separates them from the outside world, is a “symbol of the separation” that they have chosen, she explained. Their lives of prayer enable them to lift up the Church in silent prayer and devotion, she said.
For Mother Virginia Marie, religious life was a life she felt drawn to from an early age. As the youngest child of seven children, she remembers one specific ride to school when she was in the second grade and someone asked her older sister what she was going to do when she graduated. Her sister responded, “I think I’m going to be a nun.” Mother Virginia Marie instantly thought that was a great idea and that she would do the same, only to be disappointed at the laughs of her siblings realizing that her sister was joking.
“I remember I got really mad at her because I thought it was a great idea,” Mother Virginia Marie said.
“I never lost that desire,” she said.
Mother Virginia Marie said she was inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux and guided by the Holy Spirit to enter a Carmelite community in St. Louis in 1952, right after graduating high school.
“Reading (St. Therese’s) life, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I knew that teaching or nursing wasn’t for me.”
Mother Virginia Marie remained in St. Louis until 1982, when then-Archbishop James Hickey of Washington requested help for the Port Tobacco Carmelite monastery, which was not getting any vocations at the time.
The Carmelite monastery in Port Tobacco, established in 1790, is the oldest Carmelite monastery in the United States.
There is beauty to the silence, Mother Virginia Marie said. “We maintain silence for the idea of prayer. Our whole life is a prayer,” she said. “Some people say it's a penance, and maybe it is, but really it is an atmosphere of listening to the Holy Spirit.”
While the nuns do keep silent for the majority of the day, they end their evenings with recreation, where they share stories and work on their crafts. The nuns came from around the world and from varied careers prior to entering the convent, she said. “They come from many backgrounds, God is not choosy when He calls,” Mother Virginia Marie said.
As mother prioress, Mother Virginia Marie said her role is “serving the servants of the Lord, something you do for Christ and His servants.”
The nuns are allowed to leave the convent for a few reasons: to visit the doctor and to vote, and for necessary grocery shopping. But modern conveniences, such as online shopping for goods like sandals, has helped eliminate trips outside of the convent.
To women who are open to Christ’s call to religious life, Mother Virginia Marie said, “the most important thing upon entering is not talent, it is their love for Jesus Christ. If they love our Lord, they can endure anything.”