The Poor Clare Nuns of San Damiano Monastery
Have you ever driven past the beautiful grounds of the Church of the Ascension on Fort Myers Beach and wondered about the modest, pale-yellow building tucked beneath trees on its southern side? Set apart from the grand church and its adjacent administrative building, the San Damiano Monastery of St. Clare is home to six nuns of the Order of St. Clare – “contemplative nuns who live a life of prayer, community and joy,” according to the Poor Clare Sisters website.
As an 11-year Fort Myers Beach resident, and before that a part-time visitor ever since my parents (Harry and Jean Gottlieb) bought a Gulf-front cottage property here in the mid-1950s, this Jewish-raised resident has long been curious about the most isolated community within our larger island community.
When I phoned the monastery recently, Sister Mary Frances Fortin, O.S.C. (Order of St. Clare), the Abbess, agreed to meet with me so I could glimpse and share what the Poor Clare Nuns and their cloistered life are about. Warm, gracious and open, Sister Mary Frances spent more than an hour with me in the monastery sitting room on a sunny, mid-January day. A simple, decorative metal barrier separated us, emphasizing the separation of cloistered Poor Clares from the world outside.
“We take perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure,” Sister Mary Frances explained. “Our little corner of the world limits the distractions of the external world so we can focus on giving ourselves completely to God, contemplation and prayer.”
Poor Clare Nuns have no possessions aside from everyday clothing and personal necessities. Living very simply, they depend on “the work of our hands” and the community’s generosity, forsaking individual bank accounts or retirement funds. They are obedient to their Abbess – whom each community of nuns elects from among them – to the Rule of St. Clare and to the Holy See in Rome. They don’t leave the monastery enclosure except for health reasons and to conduct necessary business for their community.
While they have been part of the Fort Myers Beach community since 1988, you will rarely encounter any of the Poor Clare Sisters out and about, although on occasion a cheerful, friendly nun in a white habit is seen at a store or other local establishment. These cloistered nuns dedicate their lives to praying for the priests of their Diocese – the Diocese of Venice in Florida – for local residents and for the world.
So if you ever feel alone and despairing, rest assured that you are in the prayers of the nuns who dwell in the San Damiano Monastery of St. Clare. You are welcome to visit their lovely, simple chapel to attend morning Mass, to pray, think or just take a peaceful break from our hectic world.
The Poor Clares’ FMB home
Poor Clare Nuns take their name from St. Clare of Assisi, a devoted follower of St. Francis. She was born on July 16, 1194 to a wealthy, noble family, but at age 18 Clare forsook her family’s wealth and took refuge in the Monastery of San Paolo. Later she established the San Damiano Monastery and drew in more women who chose true poverty, as distinct from other monasteries that held lands, extracted tolls and rents, and earned income from other forms of ownership.
Both St. Francis and St. Clare lived by the Gospel of Matthew (19:21): “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Clare became Abbess of San Damiano in 1216. She died in 1253 and was canonized by Pope Alexander IV in 1255.
Today, Poor Clare Sisters number some 20,000 throughout the world in over 70 countries. Most monasteries have from four to 13 members. The Poor Clare charism (or spirit) is one of family, more suited to small communities. Florida has three such monasteries, in Miami, Delray Beach and Fort Myers Beach.
In August 1987, John J. Nevins, Bishop of Venice in Florida, invited Sister Mary Emmanuel Kilkenny, Vicaress of the Christ the King Monastery in Delray Beach, to discuss the possibility of setting up a foundation on Fort Myers Beach. Local benefactor Leonard Santini (who had donated the Church of Ascension grounds) had established a residence for retired priests on the church grounds. It had been empty for two years and after renovations, became the San Damiano Monastery of St. Clare in May 1988.
With five Poor Clare Sisters in residence – including Sister Mary Emmanuel as Founder and Sister Mary Frances from Delray Beach – Father Richard Raney arrived in 1989 to say daily Mass in the tiny monastery chapel. He remained the beloved Chaplain until two years before his death on October 11, 2013 – just shy of his 101st birthday – and spent his final years in his own quarters on the monastery grounds.
Local friends and benefactors soon found ways to support the San Damiano Monastery and the nuns. Besides longtime Fort Myers Beach residents Jim and Ellie Newton (who built Newton House, now a public park owned by the Town of Fort Myers Beach), then Lee County Sheriff John McDougall became a supporter. In 1992, a Protestant couple, Susan and Larry Adams, paid off the 99-year lease for the Monastery at a cost of one dollar per year.
An expanded monastery and residence for the nuns plus an enlarged chapel followed – with a frightening Christmas 1994 punctuated by the shriek of a fire alarm (but no fire). “The fire station called and shortly thereafter a big red vehicle arrived, not with Santa Claus, but with a full crew of firemen,” states A Brief History of the San Damiano Monastery of St. Clare.
On March 2, 2009, with the required complement of eight sisters, San Damiano Monastery attained official status as an autonomous monastery of the Order of St. Clare. “Every autonomous house elects its own Abbess,” said Sister Mary Frances. “We are independent and, within the rules of the Order of St. Clare, no one imposes anything on us.”
On August 13, 2004 Hurricane Charley struck, causing massive damage to the fences and property of both monastery and church. A tree that fell onto one corner of the monastery broke off a gutter, part of the roof and sections of roof soffit, but caused no interior destruction. Like many other islanders, the Poor Clares suffered through hot, humid days with no water or electricity. They soon bought a generator and, with local help, repaired roofs and installed both new fencing and high-impact windows.
Walking a Cloistered Nun’s Path
Each woman comes to the Poor Clares by her own distinct path. While most arrive as young adults, some are called to the community after marriage and raising children. One nun at Christ the King Monastery in Delray Beach was born amid great wealth in Chicago, and as a child had her own servant. “You could see her in the monastery, happily scrubbing floors,” said Sister Mary Frances.
The Abbess of San Damiano Monastery since election by her peers in 2009, Sister Mary Frances grew up in Toronto, Canada as one of four children. In her second year of high school she read a book about the Poor Clares and from that moment, determined that she would join them. She graduated from high school in 1962 and in November of that year, shortly before her 18h birthday, took her vows.
“My mother was not happy about my decision, but my father was a deeply spiritual person who was glad to give a daughter to the church,” she said. “One sign of the vocation as a nun is the ability to live this intense, cloistered life. We are all human, but God is never outdone in generosity. We believe that whatever we give is granted back to us one hundred-fold in this life and the life to come.”
Poor Clare candidates feel a calling from God, are practicing Catholics who regularly attend Mass and, according to the San Damiano of St. Clare website (fmbpoorclare.com), “feel drawn to a deeper, more exclusive relationship with Christ.” It adds: “Good physical and psychological health is a basic requirement and having a good sense of humor is an important quality in someone called to community life.”
Peruse the websites of various Poor Clare communities and you will note the beaming faces. As Sister Mary Frances pointed out, cloistered nuns live simply; they don’t own individual cell phones (just one for emergencies), don’t usually watch the news – although they have a television set and various movies on DVD – and their focus on prayer and contemplation brings genuine joy. While it’s not the life most people would choose, to those it suits, this is the ideal way to live.
Poor Clares do their own cooking, cleaning and basic maintenance. A handyman and landscaper take care of specialized repairs and heavy outdoor tasks. The local community of nuns derives a livelihood by distributing the host for Mass to 40 churches, and from prayer cards, perpetual remembrances and donations from local residents and visitors. Their day is marked by three periods of prayer as well as morning Mass.
A garden within the enclosure is full of flowers and fruit trees: mango, citrus, papaya and attis – a fruit the Filipino sisters introduced. “Our garden is an extension of the monastery, and a daily connection to creation, beauty and nature,” said Sr. Mary Frances.
Perhaps most emblematic of the caring family that Poor Clares form is the story of Sister Mary Emmanuel Kilkenny, the Founder and previous Abbess of San Damiano Monastery.
On the last day of the year 2006, she was rushed by ambulance to Lee Memorial Hospital with a blood clot in her leg. After several surgeries and multiple stays in the intensive care unit at more than one hospital, it soon became clear that Sr. Mary Emmanuel could no longer live at the monastery.
Although she was able to return for occasional visits and ceremonies, she had to reside at HealthPark. But she did not stay there alone. Two sisters from San Damiano, taking turns, were with her 24 hours a day for the rest of her life.
“It was hard, but it bonded our community,” Sr. Mary Frances reflected. “And we didn’t know that she would remain in hospital for nearly the next five years!” Three of the Poor Clares have drivers’ licenses, and members of the local community also volunteered to drive them. So they brought the monastery and its family spirit to their ailing sister.
“Mary Emmanuel gave us even more in those years than in her years as Abbess,” insisted Sr. Mary Frances. The first Abbess of San Damiano Monastery passed away at age 92 on December 11, 2011, with Sr. Mary Frances and Sr. Mary Seraphim by her side.
A Community Apart, Yet Part of our Community
To characterize the Poor Clare Sisters of San Damiano, Father Michael J. McNally, a historian, author and their Chaplain since 2018, said: “They have a real sense of unfeigned joy, in the spirit of St. Francis.”
While they suffered the wrath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the sisters are happy to call Fort Myers Beach home. As Sister Mary Frances put it: “This is a perfect location for us. When we come back over the bridge after doing errands, we sigh with relief. Being on an island also enhances our sense of being apart.”
What do the local Poor Clare Nuns want islanders to know about them? “We are here to pray for them,” said the Abbess. “Our most important job is to pray for the community and the world. We rely on their kindness and generosity, and that of Providence. We have been treated so kindly and welcomed so warmly by this community.”
By Janet Sailian