SARANAC LAKE - Sister Rita Mawn felt the call of God to a consecrated life since grade school. She attended St. Mary's Catholic school in St. Albans, Vt. for 12 years. "The sisters encouraged us to go into a life of consecration," she said. "In fourth grade, I read a story about nuns who stayed in the monastery and prayed all day for the rest of the church and the world. That appealed to me. Later, I investigated the Carmelite monastery in Saranac Lake, where I lived for 29 years - until 1984."
Sister Rita entered the cloistered Carmelite order in 1955, taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
"This is the framework that we call consecration," she said. "In order to live life in community, not marry and follow the rules of your superior, we take those vows. To live in poverty doesn't mean being poor; rather, it means not owning anything. The community owns everything; whatever you earn goes into the community. It is a religious form of communism - and one that works. It is patterned after the book of Acts, a pattern churches through the ages have tried to return to."
Sister Rita Mawn
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
"All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart," Acts 2:44 - 46 NAB
The Carmelite's spiritual focus is contemplative prayer. The nuns are cloistered, or secluded from the world. Their rule of silence is often misunderstood.
"We do speak - we speak a lot," Sister Rita said. "In the morning, we pray for two to three hours. Then we go to work; during that time we only speak about our work. The work varied. We made, packed and shipped the communion bread for Mass. Some sisters sewed vestments. After lunch and dinner, we sit in one room together and talk all we want. In the evening, after supper, is our time of deep silence. So during the day, we're alone eight hours and together eight hours. This form of structure brings peace. One priest I know even counsels married couples to spend eight hours alone and eight hours together."
In 1968, Sister Rita went to Africa as a missionary.
"I helped to establish the same Carmelite life in Kenya," she said. "There were eight African sisters who wanted to be Carmelites, and five of us Americans. Since then, those sisters have established a second Carmelite house."
She returned in 1973 because her father was dying in Vermont. During this time, Sister Rita went back to college.
"I received a degree in mental health from (North Country Community College), and then a bachelor's in psychology and religion from Skidmore," she explained. "When I came home, the charismatic renewal was beginning to flourish in the U.S. The Franciscan friars welcomed the prayer group. People were in need of spiritual direction and religious books. The sisters began to do provide that.
"I was with Carmelite nuns, a cloistered order, in Saranac Lake for 25 years." Then they moved to Beacon.
"In 1982, I received permission from the bishop to come out and live among the parishioners in order to better guide the prayer group. We meet at St. Bernard's every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. It's a charismatic group; we do a lot of singing, share scripture, pray. It is very ecumenical."
The prayer group bought Resurrection House in 1986. "We incorporated as Children of the Resurrection, with a board of directors and members," she said. "The name was chosen after a vote by the members. We're all parishioners of St. Bernard's. We bought the house with the help of generous friends, since we had no money. Local carpenters fixed the walls and built bookshelves. All the furniture was donated. The purpose was to have a retreat house for anyone needing private time for contemplation, prayer or study."
The building had been used as a college dorm and needed a lot of work. "For two weeks the group cleaned and made repairs," she said. "Today, it contains a big library of books, videos, tapes, CDs, DVDs on just about any religious subject - and it's all open to the public. Because we need to pay the bills, we do rent some rooms to college students, but we take only students who want to be quiet people. It's been a haven for foreign students. We've had students from Asia, Latin America and Africa find this place welcoming. We try to keep at least two bedrooms empty for people who come to share, counsel, study or spend the day in quiet contemplation. It has now been 25 years.
Sister Rita runs Resurrection House. She describes a typical day.
"I return home from early Mass at 9 a.m.," she said. "During the day, I answer phone calls, arrange appointments and prepare lessons for various groups that meet here. People come in for counseling or to shop in our bookstore. In the afternoon I run errands, visit the sick and homebound, and bring communion to them. In the evening, I return to church for evening prayer and rosary.
"Because I was out - not cloistered - I asked Bishop Paul Loverde if I could be a consecrated virgin in his diocese."
Sister Rita professed her vows as a consecrated virgin on Dec. 19, 1995 and celebrated the anniversary of this event this past December.
"I simply transferred my vows to another form," she said. "Consecrated virgins live with the same dedication. Rather than living in a house full of nuns, I live on my own, and I don't wear the traditional habit. We continue to observe vows of chastity and obedience but have to earn our own money. We don't have a direct supervisor but obey the bishop of our diocese. A consecrated virgin is set apart to belong only to Jesus Christ, the church being christ and you're considered the bride. There are 250 consecrated virgins in the U.S.A. and 3,000 worldwide. The Association of Consecrated Virgins meets each year. We have religious discussions where everyone shares and the bishop of the diocese where the conference is held addresses us."
At a recent gathering of consecrated virgins in Rome, Pope Benedict explained the calling of a consecrated Virgin when addressing the group: "Take care always to radiate the dignity of being a bride of the church, expressing the newness of Christian existence and the serene expectation of future life. Thus with your own upright life, you will be stars to guide the world on its journey." On Feb. 2, Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate the World Day of Consecrated Life, which includes many different forms in the world.
In addition to running Resurrection House, Sister Rita has organized the annual charismatic retreats at Guggenheim and has served as the Roman Catholic chaplain for NCCC. She's also the leader of the local group of secular Carmelites.
Based on an interview with Sister Rita Mawn. Yvona Fast can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.