SEARLES - Mother Mary Clare Roufs said she felt a calling by God that led her to begin a religious order of sisters called the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus who now live in a convent in Searles near the Church of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.
This calling kept coming back to her heart for several years and she eventually knew that she had to trust God's leading of her life.
Seven women ages 23-30 years old, all from Minnesota, live at the convent. Two are from Staples, Minn., four are from the metro area and one is from Winsted, Minn.
The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus religious order of sisters stand in front of their convent in Searles. Pictured front row from left: Sister Regina Marie and Sister Magdalena Marie. Middle row: Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Beata Marie and Sister Miriam Rose. Back row: Sister Maris Stella and Mother Mary Clare A.C.J.
The sisters rise for the day at 5 a.m. A period of time each morning is spent in prayer, reflection, adoration, and the chanting of psalms in the chapel in their home.
"It's a way to praise God and to grow in understanding His ways," said Mother Mary Clare.
After their morning prayers, the sisters usually go to New Ulm to attend Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
Following Mass at the Cathedral, the sisters return to Searles for breakfast followed by study, chores, or apostolate (charitable works) until noon when they break for mid-day prayer, scripture reading, and lunch.
"It's a way to stop in our day and be with the Lord," said Mother Mary Clare.
All of the sisters are masters' students who are attending the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, which is a part of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The sisters go to school in St. Paul one day a week for their classes.
Every evening about 4:15 p.m. they again have time for silent adoration, prayer, and reading of scripture.
At night, they also have time for night prayer and examination of their day, Mother Mary Clare said. In the evening the sisters observe a respectful silence with the remembrance that they are each the bride of Christ.
"If it's a really sacred space and if it's expected that we won't talk - then we won't talk (to each other in the evening) ... we'll actually talk to the Lord," said Mother Mary Clare.
The sisters rely on divine providence for their livelihood. This means that whatever needs they may have, they put their trust and faith in the Lord to provide for them.
"We do it for the spiritual fruits that it brings ... and the relationship with the Lord that He is our spouse and He'll take care of us in whatever our needs are," said Mother Mary Clare.
She said people have been incredibly generous to them in giving food and other items they need.
"Everything that we have in this house has been donated to us," said Mother Mary Clare, "Everything in this house - the furniture, the pictures, the food ... everything ... we rarely ever have to go to the grocery store. Everything becomes a gift. It's not, 'I've earned it, I deserve it.' It's everything is a gift from God. It opens our hearts to keep giving freely."
When they don't have what they want, it makes them think about how many are hungry and are starving.
"We've never gone without a meal ... we never are really hurting because God is so good to us," said Mother Mary Clare, "But we might go without things that we might want. This world is passing ... it's not all about (having) ice cream or what we want. It's about heaven and we offer our lives to witness to this truth."
Meals are shared by the women in fellowship in their dining room.
"We're an active community so we would be apostolic sisters, coming in and going out (of their convent)," said Mother Mary Clare, "We're a public witness ... people are always coming to us and we want them to - we want to share our home with them."
One space of the convent is considered a "cloistered" area where only the sisters are allowed.
"The convent was in great shape when we moved in," said Mother Mary Clare.
The sisters do apostolic work such as teaching children or anything really in the parishes to help people come to know the Lord, Mother Mary Clare said.
"Other things we do are more humble, hidden services," said Mother Mary Clare.
They will soak and wash about 100 sacred cloths a week used at various church Masses. The sisters will also iron and starch the cloths before they are returned to the St. Paul Seminary or the Church of St. John the Baptist in Searles.
"It's really important for us to make everything beautiful ... even if it's a small, little thing because we do it all for Jesus. Everything becomes important," said Mother Mary Clare, "When I'm ironing a linen ... I think, why am I ironing this linen? What is He going to say to my heart right now? We try to create a space for the Lord to speak to us throughout the entirety of our day."
The sisters have made their own habits with their own design.
"For us, our habits are really our wedding garments ... because we're brides of Christ," said Mother Mary Clare.
The tunic is their wedding dress made with black fabric which symbolizes death to the world. Their white scapula symbolizes heaven and their purity. Their white veil symbolizes their espousal to Christ. These garments are a sign to all that they are living for heaven and belong to God alone.
"We're handmaids of the heart of Jesus and we live in imitation of our Lady as handmaid," said Mother Mary Clare.
Mother Mary Clare has taken her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The other sisters are in a two-year period of training, called novitiate, to see if this is their vocation.
Mother Mary Clare said the sisters who live with her are very responsible for their lives.
In 2007, she said that when she had asked the other women if they would want to live the religious life with her and they agreed she was shocked that three other young women readily agreed to give up their life so radically for the sake of the Gospel. They started with four sisters - one left and joined another religious community. Another sister joined them the following year, then last year they had three women join them. This September they hope to have one or two more sisters join them.
"It was so clear this was God's work," said Mother Mary Clare, "I had to say yes to Him, and not try to will it myself, but just to let it happen as He wants it."
Mother Mary Clare said they ask that the women have a four-year degree before they would come to live at the convent.
The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus are a public association of the faithful under the protection and the guidance of the Bishop of New Ulm, John M. LeVoir. The next step for the sisters is to eventually become a religious community of diocesan right (with the Diocese of New Ulm) which could take a number years for them to achieve.
"There's something about the Midwestern culture that the women want to stay here and serve in the Midwestern life," said Mother Mary Clare.
"We have an invitation from the Lord to be given in love," she said, "We are living the Gospel and Jesus is actually faithful to His promises. The purpose is to respond to the Lord's invitation to love and to be loved, now and for all eternity."