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February 2, 1990     The Message
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February 2, 1990

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2 Illl I The Message -- for Catholics of Southwestern Indiana II I February 2, 1990 Sister Mary Martha Abbess felt call to vocation 'since I knew what a reli_mous was' By MICHELLE GIRTEN Message Staff Writer "Whenever I entered the monastery [ thought I would live and die at the old monastery on Kentucky Avenue, and be buried in the vaults underneath the chapel. Never go out to the doctor, the dentist, anything; never go out of that monastery. That's what 1 thought when I entered at 14." This is the story of Sister Mary Martha Blandford, O.S.C., abbess of the Monastery of St. Clare. Forty-five years have passed since Sister Bland- ford first entered the monastery on Kentucky Avenue with the high surrounding walls signal- ing the cloistered state of those living within. Two years have passed since Sister Blandford was called by the other Poor Clams to be ab- bess. Many things have chang- ed; the monastery of St. Clare is now located on Nurrenbern Road in a rural area to the west of Evansville. The Order of St. Clare is no longer completely cloistered; the sisters focus in- stead on contemplative seclu- sion. They are "hidden in Christ for the benefit of the diocese and the whole world," in the words of Sister Blandford. The Poor Clares are an order of religious women with a tradi- tion of prayer and discipline which is countercultural to modern society. The leader they have chosen to guide them into the 1990s must be able to balance the old and new. What kind of person is this woman that the community of 20 women now at the monastery felt confident in nominating as their abbess? In an interview with the Message Sister Blandford re- counted the events of her life which have shaped her and led her to her current vocation. She spoke of things that give her joy in life and those that give her concern. She also shared her convictions as a religious woman and what she hopes to see come to pass in the future of her community. Sister Blandford spoke softly but with great enthusiasm. Her voice is warm and low-pitched, and in everything she says are the mie,! qualities of mildness and exuberance. Doubt is not a word which coukt fit into a description of Sister 61andford's calling to the religious life. Her story is reminiscent of the prophet Samuel, who was brought to the priests as a young boy and heard Yahweh calling his name in the middle of the night Sister Blandford did not hear . voice with her ears but she mo: definitely did with her heart. Sister Blandford was born on Dec. 9, 1929, in Tell City where her parents still live today. They named her Mary Ellen. Her family had 10 children, two died in infancy. Sister Bland- tbrd stated that her parents were the earliest influence on her spiritual life. "They were very good Christian Catholics and they had a beautiful prayer life so they really influenced my piety," she said. Beyond her parents Sister Blandford cited the Benedictine sisters of Ferdinand who taught her in grade school and later in high school as important role models. Perhaps most significant in Sister Blandford's young life was the fact that an aunt belonged to the Order of St. Clare and an uncle was a Benedictine brother. "I was brought to the monastery from the time I was a baby, to visit my aunt," she said. "I was brought down after Easter 1930 for the first time. Then after that I came to visit about twice a year, they were allowed to have visitors. So we came down to visit, and go to the zoo. That was our little trip." Sister Blandford also loved to sing as a child and would sing for funeral Masses on Satur- days. "I loved to sing and to go to church so 1 went to church practically every day of my life .... I loved those kinds of things." One of the most striking aspects of Sister Blandford's story is the age at which she felt called to a vocation, and the strength of that call. For her there was never a doubt of what she wanted to do. "I wanted to be a religious ever since I was two years old," she explained, "or ever since I knew what a religious was. If I would have gotten married I would have wanted to have a large family because I love children, but I felt called to a religious life since infancy, childhood." Sister Blandford felt this call so urgently that she recalls pestering her parents and the sisters at the monastery to let her enter. They told her to wait and continue with school. When it came time to enter high school she decided she wanted to attend the Catholic academy in Ferdinand instead of the public school in Tell City. "It was very hard for my parents to let me go because we had eight children and it was war time," said Sister Blandford. "My dad...didn't make that much money but my parents made the sacrifice. I worked during the summer." After Sister Blandford's freshman year she again asked to enter the monastery but was told to go back to school. "I went back in September of 1944," she said, "and' they wrote my mother in October and said that I could come...they felt ready to take me." After a farewell party with her friends at Ferdinand Sister Blandford went home for Thanksgiving and her parents brought her to Evansville on Nov. 25. She recounted the story of her entrance to the order: "Oh I was excited. In fact when we came down that Satur, was like a funeral pro- cession. It was my father and mother and grandmother, my- mother's mother, and as many little brothers and sisters as could get into the car. I had two older brothers, but I was the oldest girl. And that was why it was so ham on my mother. I was like a mother to those children, the five younger ones .... I was the first one to leave home.. , "Coming down we hardly talked in the car. When we got down here, they (the sisters) were going to confession so we had to wait two hours in the parlor and make small talk with Sister Mary Paschal (Bland- ford's aunt) .... Then at 4 o'dlock, when I went over to the enclosure door, my mother almost had a nervous breakdown. She began sobbing. It wasn't just crying, her whole body, I can still see give up her first daughter. "It shook me up, but I was so anxious to get in there, with the sisters. But her mother was there and she said, "But Loret- ta, remember, you can visit, it's not like she's dead, you can come down to visit as often as you want to." And so she quieted her down, they went back and I came in. There were about 40 some sisters at that time, they were all lined up along the hallway, to greet me and give me the kiss of peace. I had what I wanted, what I was called to, but they had to go back without me, and that was hard, very hard." By the time Sister Blandford made her final profession, however, her family had ad-" justed and was happy in her decision to become a Poor Clare. "...for my final profes- , sion they came and that was beautiful, because they were used to being without me and they knew that I was happy and they were happy with me. So they all rejoiced at that time. That was Dec. 13, 1950." Despite the joy and surety with which Sister Blandford embraced the life of a cloistered Poor Clare, she remembers the severity of the discipline en- forced during the years before the Second Vatican Council. "I had a lot of hard times to go through," she said, "I was growing up. I had to learn what obedience meant, the vows." The restrictions on speech created a solitude even in the midst of community, she ex- plained. Hometowns were not to be revealed. The only visitors who were allowed to actually see the sisters were immediate family. Others conversed through a black veil. "We had a parlor," said Sister Blandford, describ- ing an era past, "I couldn't hug my family or anything. When I came they had grills that were about three inches apart, you could stick your finger through and touch your brother's or sister's finger, your parent's finger, that all." In 1952, these * strictures were expanded and the grates were moved farther apart. "Now after Vatican II we can go home," she continued, "And I never though I'd ever have that privilege again." She added that other orders also had greater restrictions in those days. Vatican II brought many changes. And changes call for adjustment abilities. Sister Blandford explored why the decisions of Vatican II caused her doubts, and also how she grew to appreciate the changes. "I came so young," she said, "and I didn't understand the changes, and I didn't under- SISTER MARY MARTHA BLANDFORD, 0.S.C. stand what was going on within myself .... I was tempted to leave but the Lord always kept me here and He wanted me here. Those were difficult times for all religious and for me I think it hit me harder because I came so young.'" "I hadn't experienced the teen age years as an ordinary person would. And I just had not really experienced life the way ordinary people do. We had such a set way of doing things...At first as I lived it, it was easier but I would never want to go back to the structure. "It's just more fulfilling," she explained, describing the Poor Clare life as it is lived to- day. "And we can live in a I much more mature way than we could then. It's more of the way it should be, I think it's much more pleasing to God, and much more liberating because we can do what we are called to do, before we did what we were told to do. I only began to grow, to grow up, to grow and 1 mature, after Vatican II." 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