Our History Celebrating 100 Years in Spokane


Drama marks the beginnings of all religious communities. God sets the stage, lines up the cast, and at the moment willed by Him from all eternity, the curtains part and the play begins. Every religious community is God's work; yet in this work we witness the interplay of human weakness and limitations with faith in God and towering trust in His all-wise Providence.

When souls risk everything for the cause of God, he will not be outdone in generosity. Why some groups succeed and others fail that is God's secret. Sometimes it would appear that all He seeks is the effort. At other times, He plants the way with success.

Back in the days when the world seemed much younger, although it is only 100 years ago, the Monastery of St. Clare was founded in the city of Spokane, Washington. The Diocese of Spokane had been officially erected earlier that same year, and so the history of the Poor Clares in the Pacific Northwest is intimately caught up with the growth of the Church in the Inland Empire.

Most of Spokane's streets were dusty roads when the Poor Clares came to town. The horse-and-buggy days were on the way out; the first horseless carriage was fast giving way to the prodigy of the fabulous Ford. True, the fire department's trusty steeds still raced to conflagrations with thrills unknown to our less colorful days. And the streetcars clanged their merry way around town with a zest born of newness and achievement. But Spokane was young and on the move. Culbertson's was THE department store in those days, with liveried footmen to assist patrons from their carriages. And the stately presence of Gonzaga College in her midst added distinction to the name of Spokane.




Back in Omaha, Nebraska, the foundling Franciscan Monastery of Saint Clare watched with quiet maternal solicitude this small and struggling daughter-house beyond the Rockies, the third to be established directly from the parent trunk. Thirty-six years earlier, in 1878, after three weary and heart-rending years of setbacks and discouragement of all kinds, the venerable Foundress of the Poor Clares in the United States of America, Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio and her blood sister, Mother Mary Constance, had sunk the roots of the Primitive Rule of St. Clare deep in the fruitful soil of the Midwest by establishing in Omaha the first monastery of the Primitive Observance.

The two lonely and bewildered Bentivoglio sisters had eventually found help in their struggle for acceptance by the bustling society of America of the 1870's. Cloistered contemplative nuns in the United States? Of what use were they? All right for Europe perhaps, but hardly the mold for this country! Even some members of the Catholic hierarchy considered the Poor Clares "out of tune" with the American way of life and did not hesitate to say so.

But out in Nebraska there was a Vicar Apostolic who was himself a pioneer, a man who knew privation and hardship, and who had tested also the invincible power of prayer and penance. This was Bishop James O'Connor. Without a cent himself and "with nothing to offer but good wishes," the Bishop nevertheless welcomed the cloistered Poor Clares to his see city, and gave permission for a permanent foundation to be built by the famous John Creighton the man whose abilities, determination and courage had made his name almost legendary in those times.

Twice, wrenching cyclones demolished the rising monastic structure; and Mother MaryMagdalen's spirit, plunged into blackest depths, knew Gethsemani's hour. "This cannot be God's will for us," she sobbed, seeing all her efforts fail. But her Jesuit confessor counseled patience. "No, Reverend Mother," came the serene advice, "stay where you are. God will take care of you. This is the work of the Evil One, who is jealous!"

Undismayed, the intrepid John Creighton had his word, too, laconic, conclusive:

Let the devil throw it down! What of it? I'm here to build it up again!

And build it he did!

Spokane sprang from hardy stock. True to the pattern, she too would wrestle with storm and blast. But that is to get ahead of our story.

It was July 22, 1914. A world crazed for power tottered on the precipice of the First World War. In faraway Rome a broken-hearted Pontiff, Pius X, pleaded with the chancelleries of Europe to avert the murderous carnage. A few days more, and the bullet which but a month before had snuffed out the life of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo would ignite the globe.

But on the old Union Pacific, speeding eastward across the Cascades, four Poor Clare Nuns said their prayers in peace. Each sat alone with her thoughts, mindful in some way of the humble part that was hers in the great work beginning that day. Now and then an exclamation of anticipation broke the silence. But that was all. God's work is done in silence. Why should they be afraid? They were doing God's work.


At ten o'clock that night they steamed into the Union Depot. With a thunderous grunt and a tired sigh the old Union Pacific slid to a stop and relieved herself of all manner of curious baggage, human and otherwise. There they stood, four Poor Clares, hot and dusty, muffled from head to foot in woolly choir cloaks and enclosure veils. A queer spectacle in mid-July hardly an enthralling sight!

On the platform, shifting from one foot to another in masculine impatience with feminine delay, stood the Jesuit Fathers James Brogan and George Bailey. Amid handshakes and greetings flavored with Irish brogue, the two drowsy priests hustled the little band of Franciscans off to St. Joseph's Orphanage for the night. The Superior, Sister M. Tranquilla, and her assistant Sister M. Renata, were waiting them. The warm Franciscan hospitality extended that night made its way into the community annals, never to be forgotten by future generations of Poor Clares. Four tired heads fell on pillows that night, but hearts were happy and contented. This was where God had sent them, and that was all that mattered. This was home.

They had come together in God's service from all parts of the world. Ireland had mothered three of them: Reverend Mother Mary Leopolda McNerney, Sister Mary Constance Hanley, and Extern Sister Mary Gertrude O'Malley. The fourth, Sister Mary Rose Daly, was a native of Omaha. Two additional nuns, also assigned to the Spokane foundation but due to arrive a few days later, were Sister Mary Aloysius Elbert of McCook, Nebraska, and Sister Mary Gulielmus Lyman, a native Bostonian.

Differing in age and temperament, they were drawn on by the love of the same ideal. Reverend Mother Mary Leopolda, appointed Abbess of the new foundation, was courageous and energetic, venturesome and resolute; Sister Mary Constance, large-hearted and childlike in her ways, generous and enthusiastic, Extern Sister Mary Getrude, quiet, serious, outstanding in fraternal charity; Sister Mary Aloysius, serene and serious, constant in endeavor, with a quiet balancing humor; and Sister Mary Gulielmus, austere and precise, neat as a pin, gentle and well-bred. Younger Sisters of today struggle with repressed laughter every time they hear the name "Gulielmus." To Sister Mary Gulielmus however, the name was anything but funny. A convert to the faith, she deeply revered the parish priest who had directed her to religious life, and had asked to bear his name in religion. But anything as commonplace as a mere "William" would never suffice for Sister, she requested the Latin form of the name. Older Sisters regale recreations with tales of how aged Sister Mary Anne of Omaha could NEVER "swing that Moniker"! So, characteristically, she disposed of all difficulties in one majestic sweep by affixing the title "Sister Goolie" to the stately Gulielmus to the latter's desperate chagrin!

And then there are tales galore of Sister Mary Gertrude and her marvelous charity. In the old days, the Extern Sisters frequently made the rounds of the markets, begging alms from the shopkeepers. The proprietor of a certain Omaha grocery habitually displayed anything but charity toward these Extern Sisters. Returning one day from her trip to town, Sister Mary Gertrude was accosted by Reverend Mother Mary Roch Monaghan, then Abbess at Omaha. "Well, Sister, how did Mr. So-and so treat you today?" queried Mother, only to receive the unexpected reply: "Reverend Mother, I've nothing but good to say for the man. He's the nicest man you could know!" "Come now, Sister," rejoined Mother, "don't try to get around me that way! I believe you'd say the devil himself was good!" "Reverend Mother," came the reply, "he was--once." And that ended it!


These were the six humble women whom God planted as tiny grains of wheat in the fertile soil of Spokane for the building up of His Church. Strangers in a strange city, without money, without friends, knowing nothing of human influence, the fragile seeds would germinate and strike lasting roots in the Father's vineyard.


Nucleus of a great, though hidden, work, they would be wondrously comforted by an unwavering faith in God's promise: "Unless the grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it remains just one grain; but once it has died, it bears abundant fruit." So the work of God began. And it began in a rented house at 909 De Smet Avenue. The house looked big from the outside, but it was barely enough for monastic needs. The chapel was just a little room, the first encountered upon entering the house. There was no assured income, no salary, no wealthy backing, nothing but Divine Providence plus St. Joseph. Between them, they managed.

Accumulation of furniture was begun, prophetically enough, with brooms and scrubbing brushes brought by the storied Sister Oswalda of St. Joseph's Orphanage. This has been a classic in the community ever since. No matter where the Sisters went, they always managed a broom and a scrubbing brush to start the work. "Operation Scrubbing Brush" was barely under way at the De Smet convent one day when the doorbell rang. Mrs. Klegg, a poor widow whose name is enshrined forever in the community annals, stood outside. She told the Sisters that she was breaking up housekeeping. Would the Sisters like to have her dining room table and chairs, her range, dishes and silverware? Overcome with emotion, the Sisters blessed God and Mrs. Klegg! Surrounded by the grateful band of Franciscans, she stood there, His visible answer to their trusting prayers.

But that was not all. That same day, the first postulant, Frances Lount, arrived from Seattle. Now the family numbered seven, and hearts lifted in joyous thanksgiving.

On July 29, the house was ready, and the Sisters left St. Joseph's Orphanage for their own home. That midnight, the praise of God in the age-old prayer of Mother Church, the Divine Office, rose for the first time in the heart of the Inland Empire. It has continued without interruption, through trial and misfortune, ever since.

Poverty was at home on De Smet Avenue. Food was scarce and expensive; fuel was at a minimum, and Spokane winters were bitterly cold. The Sisters worked to support themselves by making altar breads, by sewing and laundry work. The ever-faithful Franciscan sisters at the Orphanage brought them extras, a cake on a feastday, a treat of fruit. Reverend Mother Mary Anthony Birmingham, the Omaha Abbess, kept a vigilant eye on her children in the Far West and sent them their first altar. The kindly Jesuits of Gonzaga watched over their spiritual needs and became their real friends. And on October 3rd the family was increased to eight when Mary Keogh, the future Sister Mary Clare, arrived as the first postulant for the Extern Sisterhood.


Then one day in 1915 the little convent on De Smet sang for joy at the arrival of Reverend Mother Mary Anthony from Omaha, with Extern Sister Mary Leo as her companion. Great projects were afoot. Arrangements for the purchase of the proposed property site of the Spokane Monastery were to be concluded and building plans discussed. Reverend mother approved the location at Mission and Dakota and agreed to its purchase, contributing several thousand dollars toward the new venture from Omaha funds. The contract was awarded to the Huetter Construction Company of Spokane and building operations began on July 20, 1915.

Then came the news that the Franciscan Fathers were coming to Spokane - good tidings of great joy to the little band of their sister-Poor Clares. On August 6, 1915, Father Burchard Dietrich, O.F.M., arrived and, without delay, immediately set about organizing St. Francis of Assisi Parish on North Hill. Later in the year November 1, 1915, to be exact in distant Rome, the Most Reverend Seraphin Cimino, Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, canonically erected the Franciscan Province of St. Barbara, which at that time embraces the states of Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington. The Very Reverend Hugolinus Storff, O.F.M., was appointed first Minister Provincial, and the jurisdiction of the Poor Clares of Spokane was automatically transferred to him.

The monastery at Mission and Dakota was ready for occupancy early in July; and on July 5, 1916, the Sisters said good-bye to the little convent on De Smet and moved to their new and spacious home. The solemn dedication of the building took place on July 9 and canonical enclosure was established. By the end of the year the monastic family had increased to ten members, and the monastery became a beehive of prayer and work.

The building of a large monastery of course placed the community under heavy financial obligations. With characteristic ingenuity and tireless energy, the Sisters struggled to reduce the burden. The altar bread department expanded; a sacristy laundry was set up; and needlework of all kinds was produced. Chickens were added to the monastic personnel and eggs were marketed to increase income. But times were hard and expenditure soared. All the good will in the world could not remove the oppressive debt and back-breaking toil which weighed heavily upon the little community. The cloud of discouragement began to lower; the testing time had come. The Lord would prove the mettle of His flock; He would purify the gold in the furnace of tribulation. But, above all things, God remained their loving Father. Just when hope trembled on the brink of despair, Divine Providence came to the rescue literally, in black habits and snowy garniture.

No one who has lived in religion for any length of time could doubt that the good Lord has a sense of humor. He interpreted His own divine title to the letter, whispered into Bishop Schinner's ear the compelling need of a home for the aged in Spokane, and then sent His namesakes, the Sisters of Charity of Providence, house-hunting!

In the meantime, after eight years of apparently fruitless struggle, the Poor Clares had appealed to Bishop Schinner for help. The saintly prelate, whose paternal solicitude never failed the little community, advised vacating the monastery building to make it available to prospective buyers. To the sensitive heart of the Abbess, Reverend Mother Mary Constance Hanley, God reserved the draining of sorrow's cup. Hers was the task of leaving a work once imbued with shining promise, and of starting again on the tangled pathway of beginnings. Spokane Poor Clares of today, looking in retrospect upon these years, see in them the seal of God's approval. This was the self-same road traversed by Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio long ago. Spokane was built according to the pattern.


On October 22, 1924, the exodus began. A private house at East 1011 Boone Avenue became the third home of the Spokane Poor Clares.

On March 31, 1925, the Sisters of Charity of Providence purchased the Mission Avenue monastery. Thus, the last day of his own month, St. Joseph pulled the strings, and a ray of hope broke through the darkness as the Poor Clares saw their debts liquidated and a small balance set aside toward a future new, and smaller monastery.

Meanwhile, their spiritual brothers, the Franciscan Fathers, were busy seeking a site on which to relocate the Poor Clares. Father Joseph Rhode, O.F.M., Vice Provincial of the Province of St. Barbara, came upon a property located just two blocks from St. Francis of Assisi Church and made the now famous statement describing this wilderness overrun with scraggly jack-pines: "It has tremendous possibilities!" That was enough. The new Poor Clare Monastery would go out to North Hawthorne and Princeton, the edge of nowhere!

That left just one problem: money. In such a contingency the Poor Clares came up with the unfailing formula:

Put your trust in God, storm heaven, roll up your sleeves, and get to work!

Slowly the money in the bank accumulated. On July 28, 1925, the final payment was made on the property, and the Sisters, worn out and unable to believe their eyes, found themselves the owners of a Spokane city block!

Of what use was a block without a house? So the campaign was on again. The Sisters stuffed envelopes, addressed and stamped appeals for financial aid. The Catholic lay women of Spokane rallied to the cause and sponsored benefits and collections. St. Joseph, always on the spot when excitement was brewing, roused himself to inspire remembrance of the community in several substantial bequests. Then, on July 5, 1926, when there was just enough money in the bank to assure the success of the venture and not a penny more, Reverend Mother Mary Constance signed the contract for the new monastery. The next day the Huetter Construction Company moved in and building began.

Spirits rose; shoulders squared; the Boone Avenue convent quickened with renewed hope; and the Mothers who had "borne the burden of the day's heat" smiled again. On the morning of December 6, 1926, the transfer company appeared on the scene and the big move began. Once again the Poor Clares were on their way, this time to North Hill and HOME to stay!

The new monastery was dedicated on December 8, 1926, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and canonical enclosure was established on the same day. The monastery itself was not too large, but there was plenty of room to build. Some day they would have a permanent, properly planned monastic plant. When that time came, one thing would be certain: Providence would provide again!

Best of all, God had directed them to the care of the Franciscan Fathers, their spiritual brothers. From the heights of heaven, Francis of Assisi had raised another San Damiano, simple and poor, a city set on a hilltop. Impossible to hide.


In the succeeding years the Poor Clares struck deep roots in the Spokane community. Slow but sustained progress has marked their way. In 1932 the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, Father Bonaventura Marrani, O.F. M., sent from Rome the first copies of the new General Constitutions for the Order which effected the first updating of the Primitive Observance and the change of the religious habit. In 1950, by virtue of the Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi, Pope Pius XII restored to the orders of contemplative nuns the privilege of Solemn Vows and Papal Enclosure; and in 1956 this favor was accorded to the Spokane Poor Clares. 

Faithful to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council which invited all religious families to undertake the work of renewal and adaption, Spokane began a new phase on her Godward journey. Joining hands with her sister-monasteries in the United States and Western Canada, our community took part in the official organization of the Mother Bentivoglio Federation of Poor Clares which was designed to foster the spiritual and temporal development of the member-monasteries, to promote vocations, to provide for better religious and intellectual formation of their members and to encourage cooperation in matters of concern to the whole Order.

The years following Vatican II witnessed a concentrated effort on the part of the community to pay attention to the real situation in the Church and in the world, to a dynamic attempt to be sensitive to the constantly changing reality of the human situation and to have an effective love for contemporary life and for those who live in it. Community customs were revised and given new vitality; the monastic plant was completely remodeled; and most important of all, the Sisters focused attention on the spiritual renewal of our form of life which demanded a return to our wellsprings found in the Gospel and in the origins of our Order. In this way, fresh vigor was derived from the creative principles that gave life to the Order and the Sisters have been able to go beyond mere externals to live effectively the charisms of our Founders in the world today.

In some instances this process of renewal and adaption entailed a break with customs and rituals that had been formulated over the span of seven centuries and some of which went far afield from many of the Founders' original concepts. Breaking with tradition offers an adventure fraught with risk and sometimes, danger. The hoarier and more deeply entrenched the tradition, the greater the likelihood of resistance, the difficulty of enduring, and also, the risk of failure. Yet, every tradition begins when someone breaks with the previous way of doing things.

Francis and Clare of Assisi faced immense obstacles and even concerted opposition as they set out on what their contemporaries saw as a radical and foolish situation. Ironically, they felt that they were simply being true to an older and deeper tradition and one that had almost been lost sight of in the Church of their time. They "remade" tradition by a dauntless fidelity to a vision of life more fundamental than the social conventions of their time, the holy Gospel itself. Under the inspiration of God's Spirit, they succeeded in forming an original work which was remarkably balanced in its construction, inevitably precarious in its implementation and always in need of being directed anew toward its goal.


Ultimately, we strive daily to re-create and preserve in today's world what is best and most authentic in the wonderful tradition of our Order. Our heritage is a special one. Our history is unique. We do not know what God has in store for us in the years to come. Yet we do not doubt that our life in the Church has but begun.

Through changing eras, our vocation will not change. The Poor Clare Nun will continue to be the world's channel to the Heart of God. Customs may be altered, personnel may vary, yet the essential spirit will remain reassuringly constant.

Faith built our Spokane community: the faith of two lonely Italian Poor Clares who believed that the only lasting influence on earth is that of personal holiness and that the best service anyone can render to the world is to become a saint; the faith of our pioneer Sisters who struggled against overwhelming odds because they believed in an ideal and sacrificed to attain it; the faith of our saintly Bishop Augustine Schinner who believed that the little band of Poor Clares had a message to give and, still more, a power to exercise by prayer and sacrifice, which is a force cherished by the Church beyond all earthly help; the faith of our beloved Bishops, priests, Sisterhoods and the faithful people of Spokane who through the years have given us the treasure of their friendship, the generosity of their support and the warmth of their love. And so, we press on as "strangers and pilgrims in this world." And in the words of the prophet of old:

I shall station myself on my watch-tower, watching to see what he will say to me…Then Yahweh answered me and said, 'Write the vision down, inscribe it on tablets to be easily read. For the vision is for its appointed time, it hastens towards its end and it will not lie; although it may take some time, wait for it, for come it certainly will before too long.'

Habakkuk 2:1-4

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