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Prayer and Work: the life of a Benedictine nun on Shaw Island

Mother Hildegard at Our Lady of the Rock, Shaw Island. (Photo by Rachel Belle)
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On Shaw Island &#8212 the smallest and least populated San Juan Island that can be reached by ferry &#8212 is Our Lady of the Rock, a monastery and self-sustaining farm.

It’s home to seven Benedictine nuns who wear the traditional, long black and white habit, and spend much of their days tending to their 300 acres, raising animals and praying.

Now let’s clear one thing up straight away: these are not the nuns in the brown habits and orange safety vests, who worked the ferry dock for 27 years. Those were the Franciscan nuns and, in 2004, the four remaining retired and left Shaw Island for Oregon.

But Our Lady of the Rock, established in 1977, stands solid, despite the fact that the average age of the nuns is 70.

The Benedictine nuns lead a peaceful life up against the backdrop of vivid green farmland, thick forests and gorgeous views of the Salish Sea. Only about 240 people live on Shaw Island full time. There’s one tiny school house &#8212 the oldest in the state &#8212 a library and a historical society. Besides the little general store that closes up in winter, there are no shops, no restaurants, and no gas station.

“Thank God for Amazon,” said Mother Hildegard George, one of the seven Benedictine nuns. “Living on an island, I do 99 percent of the shopping on Amazon. Everything gets shipped in.”

The calm, quiet island is the perfect place for a Benedictine nun to fulfill her life’s calling.

“Well, Benedictines are work and prayer, ora et labora,” Mother Hildegard said. “We’ve been around over 1,500 years and those are the two main things. So prayer, we have kept the exact office as St. Benedict set it up 1,500 years ago. In other words, we say the same prayers, which is basically the 150 psalms. And then the work, hospitality has always been number one for Benedictines. In his rule, he said everyone is to be received as Christ. So whoever comes in, you take them in. And farming because you’re supposed to be self-sufficient.”

To fulfill the hospitality and farming qualifications, the nuns welcome volunteers to help out for a day, a week or a year. Marijke Brasse, 28, is from the Netherlands. She’s a few months into her yearlong stay, doing daily chores in exchange for room and board.

“We just got the vegetable garden started,” Brasse said. “Also mowing the lawn and milking the cow every other day.”

Brasse was looking for a break from her job working with the mentally ill, and her mom had clipped out an article about Our Lady of the Rock a decade before.

“I was really tired of the life where you have to sit in your car everyday and go to work and get stuck in traffic,” she said. “I was going, ‘this is not life.’ I’m really glad I don’t have to do stuff like that anymore. I feel calmer and definitely there is no stress here. It’s a very stress-free life.”

Brasse is not religious, but she attends church with the nuns and other volunteers twice a day.

“We’re now in the chapel of Our Lady of the Rock,” Mother Hildegard said, standing in the light-flooded cedar chapel. “So, we pray eight times a day in the chapel.”

They sing traditional Gregorian chants in the evenings, in Latin. When they’re not praying or tending to the farm, the nuns make and sell homemade goods.

“Mother’s [hot] mustard &#8212 it’s been featured in ‘Better Homes & Gardens’ many years ago,” Mother Hildegard said, listing the range of goods. “Vinegars. We have the herb seasonings. Mother Felicitas has done a curry, the Marco Polo. It’s the best curry in the world. The tea, that was my invention 40-something years ago. I started it at the abbey. You never know what it has in it; it depends upon what’s in the herb garden. That’s a good seller, too.”

This is just the first look at Our Lady of the Rock. I’ll talk to Mother Hildegard about why she became a nun, she’ll defy nun stereotypes, and tell us why young women in the Pacific Northwest are not interested in a monastic life.

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