Friday, September 13, 2019


Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee, TN

At one time, New Iberia Louisiana’s premier artist, Paul Schexnayder, and I thought of producing a book about Episcopal chapels in Louisiana. He’d illustrate; I’d do the text. However, we both got caught up in work for other books, and all that remains of the proposed volume are the rough texts for three chapels, two of which I've attended in Louisiana and another one in a non-Louisiana region, Sewanee, Tennessee.

This morning, I discovered the notes for texts about two chapels that would’ve appeared in the volume dedicated to Episcopal chapels. At this stage of my writing vocation, I doubt if I’ll get around to writing the aforementioned book, so I decided to share the notes I made in a “chapel blog,” beginning with one labeled "Lagniappe," the non-Louisiana chapel at St. Mary’s Convent here in Sewanee, Tennessee where I worship regularly and sometimes preach six months of the year.

Angel at Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee

The chapel at the mother house of the Anglican Sisters of St. Mary, Sewanee, Tennessee was designed by Architect Robert Seals and consecrated in 1988. It was constructed of native stone similar to many of the buildings here in Sewanee, and the following text (after revisions) would have appeared as lagniappe about a noteworthy Tennessee chapel in the volume featuring Louisiana chapels:

They teach us about living in stillness with the One who guides a community that follows St. Benedict’s Rule. The Sisters, dressed in their unadorned blue jumpers with white blouses, wake up to a gray world of mist, praying the words of St. Benedict: “Let nothing be preferred to the Word of God.” At 7 a.m., a bell that was transported from their original Mother House in Memphis and placed in the tower of the stone chapel, calls them to Morning Prayer and the Eucharist, two of five offices they celebrate each day. 
    The white-walled chapel is the cathedral of our faith where we feast at The Table with this group of disciplined women. A cat lurks in the hall; an aging dog curls up on a cushion beside the Prioress’s chair and frequently goes to the altar to receive a blessing. Through the clear glass window behind the altar, mist rises over the rugged steep overlooking the Cumberland Valley. Outside, a black locust tree welcomes rain now pattering on the blue tin roof. The downpour drenches a garden of roses where a miniature stone angel sits on a swing, surveying her domain. 
    At the plain oak altar with a cross carved in center front, we gather for The Eucharist. On this particular day, the scent of Easter lilies, incense, and candle wax from the Resurrection celebration mingles in the chapel, along with the fiery words of a presiding priest who exhorts us to practice inclusiveness and justice. 
    The Sisters not only offer the world their prayers for all people, they include us in the chanting of Psalms and the Eucharist, then serve us breakfast in a refectory with windows on every side where they look out at a world they praise daily. Hospitality is part of their lifework. They began offering the sacramental life to mountain people on the Feast of the Transfiguration in the 19th century and have kept their doors open to all people since that time. The Sisters are kinswomen of the Order of St. Mary once led by four Sisters, known as the Martyrs of Memphis or Constance and Her Companions, who died nursing victims of a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee in 1878. 
    At early morning Eucharist, Sister Mary Zita, a Filipino nun, sits in front of me, a sock cap with a star design on it atop her head. She is silent, bent over her prayer book. She joined the Order of St. Mary of Sewanee after Prioress Sister Lucy of St. Mary of Sewanee went on a mission to the Philippines where she visited this religious order in the mountain province of Sagada and recruited the little nun. 
    “Life,” the Sisters would say, “is best lived in community. The Community is a microcosm of the Church. We live in dependence on God for all that is needed, using what is given with care and simplicity as stewards of God’s gifts. Let nothing be preferred to the Word of God. The altar is the home of our abiding.

My notes about this chapel end here, but for those who wish to know more about the Sisters of St. Mary at Sewanee, Ten Decades of Praise is available in the library of the Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee, Tennessee. Also available is my book entitled In A Convent Garden, poetry about the Sisters.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

1 comment:

Faye Walter said...

As usual I enjoyed your blog. As usual, it is satisfying in every way--what you chose to write about, how you wrote about it, and how it is illustrated. It is a blessing to receive it. This time, I particularly appreciate the illustrations. I have a good time looking at the swinging nun having such a good time, and the picture of the chapel and bell tower that I see every Sunday takes on new meaning and significance. Thank you so much. Faye and Francis