A close observer of our contemplative community once gave a brief description of our life to a friend as follows,
“These Sisters don’t just pray for priests; they live for them!”
What are we doing here in Knoxville?
We are here to live and give our lives most particularly for priests and their sanctification. Each priest has been called to live a ministry which is love without limits, a mystery of the mercy God. Sharing in the frailties of all humanity, he is nevertheless called to daily renewal in communion with Jesus. We are indebted to their ‘Fiat’ to God’s call to the altar and have found that Christ the High Priest asks us to sacrifice for priests everywhere. That is the Handmaid vocation…to stand beneath the Cross of Christ in union with his immolation for souls and ask him to make all priests, especially those in spiritual need, holy priests.
We do this through Eucharistic Adoration, life in union with Mary, and the daily pouring out of our lives as fully as Jesus’ Precious Blood was given. Our motto “Pro Christo In Sacerdote Suo” (“For Christ In His Priest”) is our specific focus. We enfold the needs of the entire world as well. As cloistered contemplatives we live this best in hiddenness, silence, and solitude, and pray that we will be able to continue and deepen this life as we build the first woman’s cloistered monastery and community Motherhouse to be in the Diocese of Knoxville.
How did we end up in Knoxville and where did we come from?
Though young in the eyes of the Church, our community is older than the Diocese of Knoxville. Seventy years ago, in 1947, we were founded in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe by Father Gerald Fitzgerald. Father’s desire was to have enough Handmaids for Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration to pray and sacrifice for the sanctification of priests. But with a cadre of professional women skilled in nursing, administration, and education, the small group of “pioneers” soon found themselves applying their capabilities throughout the Archdiocese in very active apostolates at the request of the Archbishop. Father Gerald advised joyful obedience despite the nature of the work not being strictly related to the priesthood as he intended; knowing the Lord would be pleased with this sacrifice, he predicted that one day the Church would direct the Handmaids to the contemplative life for the sake of priests and all those depending on their prayers.
From contemplative to semi-contemplative to contemplative again.
As the community grew in the 1950s and 1960s, Handmaids of the Precious Blood could be found in England, Vermont, South Dakota, and Missouri, as well as several locations in New Mexico. Eucharistic Adoration was central to the life, although the varied locations and diverse duties prevented one location with Perpetual Adoration as Father had envisioned. After Father Gerald’s death in 1969, when religious communities were studying their patrimonies as sources of renewal, the Sisters approved interim Constitutions which stripped away the active works which were not related to the charism of prayer and sacrifice for priests; all convents were closed and all the Sisters were recalled to the Motherhouse in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, with the exception of the Clinic for the Poor in Santa Fe. By 1978, Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration with Exposition was begun, 31 years after our founding. Growth in the community allowed three more convents to open beginning in 1980, first in Lake Villa, IL; in 1981, Spokane, WA; and in 1991, in Italy.
Finally, Father Gerald’s prophecy that Holy Mother Church herself would see to our fully contemplative desires came true. Cardinal Paul Augustin Mayer, OSB, visiting the community in Jemez Springs and, examining the day to day lives of the Sisters, suggested that we apply for recognition as a fully contemplative community of pontifical right, since we had been living such a life for over 16 years. With the guidance and help of the Servant of God Father John A. Hardon, S.J. (our spiritual guide after the death of Father Gerald), the Rule of Life was revised and submitted to the Congregation for Religious Institutes, and approved by Saint John Paul II in 1992.
The invitation to move.
Over the years, it became more difficult to sustain the enclosed, contemplative community in the remote location of our Motherhouse in the mountains of northern New Mexico. In 2010, Cardinal Leo Raymond Burke, then Archbishop, strongly encouraged us to relocate our Motherhouse. After an extended period of prayer and reflection about the matter, we held a special Chapter of Affairs and voted to “follow God’s will wherever he would lead us.” Abraham-like, we trusted God to reveal that next step when the time was right.
Over the next few years we contacted nine Bishops and Dioceses and received both invitations and offers of land in some cases. Bishop Stika learned that the Handmaids were searching for a new home; from the moment he was appointed the Bishop of Knoxville, he was actively seeking a contemplative community to have a presence in the Diocese. The first three Handmaids arrived in May of 2013 and God’s providence quickly arranged for more to follow with the sale and closing of the Motherhouse in New Mexico.
Mother Marietta expressed appreciation for the southern hospitality shown the sisters when they moved to East Tennessee, “The welcome, support, assistance, and prayers of so many Catholics and non-Catholics here has been heartwarming.”
Leaving New Mexico and beginning in East Tennessee.
“We know that God is at work here. We could have done none of this ourselves, alone. In 2013 we were only planning on sending a few Handmaids to begin having some representation in the Diocese of Knoxville while the move of our community got underway. We expected the task of moving everyone to take years. And even longer for the selling, closing, and packing and moving of Cor Jesu Monastery and property in New Mexico. Instead the sale went smoothly in less than two months. Both we and the Jemez Indians are thrilled that they once again own their ancestral lands. That was a sheer gift from God.”
Another move and just as miraculous.
As usual, once you begin assuming you know God’s plan’s for you, his sense of humor comes into play. Initially settling onto the grounds of the Christ, Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton, TN, we planned on building there, when an unexpected opportunity arose for our community to purchase land closer to the city of Knoxville. With Bishop Stika’s blessing and permission, we began looking at various locations. Very similar to the surprising smoothness of the transaction with the Jemez Pueblo, we quickly found ourselves able to obtain beautiful land on the Holston River in New Market, TN, confirming for us that this was indeed where the Holy Spirit wanted us. You just can’t move a motherhouse twice with such ease without God being in charge of it all. The Tennessee Handmaids moved to New Market on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16th, 2015. The Sisters remaining in Illinois traveled to the newly moved motherhouse in May 2016. Proceeds from the sale of the New Mexico monastery and Illinois Priory have enabled us to make the necessary repairs and renovations on the existing buildings as well as build two additional houses for our community’s needs while we go about building the new Cor Jesu Monastery when God wills it.
Addressing the Need to Pray for Priests Now More Than Ever
Amidst the ongoing scandals of clerical abuse and coverups on a global scale, we take the opportunity to further embrace our Founder’s charism of giving our lives for priests in spiritual need. If all priests were as holy as God desired them to be, there would be no scandals and no victims. We pray for all priests and, as a special way to honor those who strive to live their vocations as other Christs bringing us Jesus in the sacraments, we broke ground in August 2018 for the Mary, Mother of Priests Garden, dedicated to Blessed Michael J. McGivney, Founder of the Knights of Columbus. Together with the Knights, we are partnering our prayer resources to their active mission in the Church to honor and support priests and to pray for all of them.
So, in strengthening the priest, you strengthen the whole foundation…you strengthen everything in the whole Church.
Father Gerald Fitzgerald, sP
Founder, Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Have nuns? Then you need a monastery building.
“We are now in a position where we can look forward to our next immediate task; the business of building the first cloister in East Tennessee and spreading Father Gerald’s charism of prayer and sacrifice for priests, especially in Eucharistic Adoration, far and wide.” summarizes our Mother Prioress, Rev. Mother Marietta. With the promulgation of Vultum Dei Quaerare and Cor Orans, updated guidelines for the lives of enclosed nuns in the Church, we are looking forward to incorporating the directives and constructing a monastery where we can all pray, live, and work under one roof again.
The need for enclosure.
People sometimes ask if a life of silence and solitude isn’t hiding from the problems of the world. Far from it. A microchip in an iPhone is tiny and is very hypersensitive, it is made in a clean room, where all foreign contaminants are not able to enter – or chips are hurt or ruined in their efficacy. Likewise our spiritual contaminants, if you will, are those things which interrupt our focus, and we are giving 100% to the call of Jesus. We want to be pure, so that we can live our lives perpetually for Jesus, and keep prayer going. Many people have trouble finding time to pray. We channel all we are and do for our priests and the thousands of people who send in prayer requests. We are connecting to them all the time. We can reach out by Internet, Facebook, Twitter…but under our Rule of Life and our Mother Prioress through our Director of Communications. This allows us to share the cloister with the world, the fruits of our prayer life, without jeopardizing enclosure.
Our vocation is not an occupation, but following a call from Christ. All of it is about service. Everything goes back to Jesus and his priests, who are here to connect us with our salvation; the mission is for Jesus. The Holy Spirit does it. The monastery is the message of the Holy Spirit’s work. The mission of cloistered contemplatives is to be the power house of prayer at the heart of the Church for the good of the entire world and for us, that is best accomplished in an enclosed environment, even though its actually an apostolic and evangelical mission. We strive to live in the Heart of Christ through prayer and prayer has no walls or boundaries.
“The Handmaids of the Precious Blood – a life dedicated to the sanctification of God’s priests – today, tomorrow, everywhere.”
Father Gerald Fitzgerald, sP
Founder, Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Scenes from our old home in the Jemez Mountains of north central New Mexico as well as some from our new home in East Tennessee!