On Shaw Island, Benedictine nuns share lives of work, prayer and hospitality

  • Written by Brian LeBlanc
  • Published in NW Stories
Mother Dilecta milking one of the Jersey cows. Photo: Tari Gunstone Mother Dilecta milking one of the Jersey cows. Photo: Tari Gunstone

A large, rusted Maltese cross on the side of a dirt road announces to pilgrims that they have reached Our Lady of the Rock monastery on Shaw Island, where seven Benedictine nuns live out their community’s motto: Ora et labora. Each day they pray and work the land in this remote sanctuary in the San Juan Islands.

Ladies of the RockMother Prioress at an Easter Vigil celebration with Mother Caterina, Mother Mary Grace and Mother Felicitas. Photo: Tari Gunstone

The road leads up a small, rocky hill to the nun’s enclosure, built with donated materials and labor. Their spare chapel is next door and a glimpse of Puget Sound is visible to the southeast. The view reveals guest houses below, a barn and tree-lined fields where sheep, llamas and long-horned Highland cattle roam the 300-acre property.

The rhythm of work, prayer and Benedictine hospitality fills the days of the “mothers,” as they are called. Their lives become “a simultaneous act of meditation and worship,” said Tari Gunstone, a Portland photographer who spent several months at the priory as a Land Program intern, helping the mothers tend the farm and capturing the essence of their lives with her camera.

Although each nun has a main area of responsibility, each also wears many hats — a necessity at a monastery where the mothers support themselves. So Mother Therese Critchley, the prioress, is also the cheesemaker, and Mother Felicitas is both choir director and herbalist. The nuns grow as much of their own food as possible, and they produce vinegar, hot mustard, herbs and cheese to sell at the monastery and the Shaw General Store. One of the mothers’ most popular items is the yarn spun from the wool of their llamas and Cotswald sheep.

Interwoven with the farm’s responsibilities is the recurring call to prayer.

Mass is offered daily in the monastery chapel, where a grille crafted of long, straight branches separates the nuns from the laity. Before Mass, the mothers sing in Gregorian chant the psalms and prayers of Terce, one of the eight hours of the Divine Office they pray throughout the day.

Ladies of the RockMother Dilecta tends to her garden, where she gathers blossoms to decorate the chapel. Photo: Stephen Brashear

After Mass, they exchange their traditional black-and-white habits for denim work habits, ready to begin their daily chores.

Missionaries with a blog
The mothers’ lives on this bucolic island began in 1977, after the land was donated to their community, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, by a man who was a Benedictine oblate. Three nuns, including Mother Therese, traveled across the country to start the new monastery.

Although they are a contemplative community, the mothers of Our Lady of the Rock can leave the monastery grounds for shopping and appointments, usually off the island.

“Our work is here and people come to us because we’re here — that’s what keeps us contemplative. But we have to go outside to get things,” explained Mother Catarina, the ecumenist of the monastery, who also takes care of the chickens. And the mothers participate in the island’s community life, serving on committees and marching in the Fourth of July parade.

The mothers of Our Lady of the Rock consider themselves missionaries in the Pacific Northwest through the example of their simple lifestyle and devotion to God. “You’re more actively bringing the word of God to people with your actions,” said Mother Hildegard, guest mistress of the monastery.

Although they live a rural lifestyle, the mothers embrace using technology as an extension of their missionary work. The monastery has a website and Mother Hildegard writes a blog, Island Life- in a monastery, about modern Catholic artists, saints and her impressions of life on Shaw Island.

CheeseMother Felicitas teaches an intern how to make the monastery’s best-selling hot mustard. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Hospitality and reverence
Each year, hundreds of guests — Catholic and non-Catholic — visit the Shaw Island mothers, drawn to these nuns who bring the spiritual to everything they do. Hospitality is one of the main tenets of Benedictine spirituality, and the mothers gladly share their monastery, providing food and lodging to all who come. In return, they accept donations and ask that visitors participate in some way in the monastery’s spiritual life. Guests may come for retreats, soul-searching, or just to help out during the farm’s busiest times.

Some come to do service projects, such as the wooden gate near the chapel and enclosure that was built in 2014 by a youth group from St. Joseph Parish in Ferndale. The group, which includes teens from several parishes, has come to Our Lady of the Rock for summer retreats the past six years. The teens make repairs around the farm and help the mothers with chores like baling hay and stacking wood for the winter.

Making CheeseMother Prioress stirs the whey while making the farmer’s cheese that the nuns age and then sell locally. Photo: Stephen Brashear

But the most important thing the teens experience is “the reverence of the mothers,” said Guy Bellefeuille, a St. Joseph youth group leader.  

Gunstone, the former intern, reflected on her experience of that reverence.

“I learned to work mostly in silence with the mothers when we worked side-by-side,” she wrote in an email. That lack of interaction was difficult at first, said Gunstone (who is not Catholic), but eventually she came to understand it. “They were actively practicing their contemplation and experiencing the beauty of their work by creating a space of silence and reception for God to be present and speak,” she said.

The best way to understand these women who have given their lives to God, carrying on a monastic tradition that is 15 centuries old, may be to make the trip to Shaw Island. “‘Come and see’ — the same thing Christ said to James and John,” said Mother Catarina, inviting those of the world to share, if even for a day, the spirit of the mothers’ lives.

Those who come to Our Lady of the Rock are on a journey, Mother Hildegard said, “and they never leave the same.”

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2015