The Berkshires is a land of sanctity and solace
“It was God’s will that this was the right place,” says Mother Joan Bernadette, making a sweeping gesture with her robed arm. “We must have looked at 20 or 23 properties. We left it in the hands of Divine Providence.”
In the winter of 1995, Mother Joan Bernadette journeyed with her other sisters from Wilmington, Delaware, to the thickly forested hillside of Hop Brook Valley. With three feet of snow underfoot, their arrival to this new land was memorable for the cloistered Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, whose number still remains at 18. They funded the construction of their Tyringham monastery with the sale of the Delaware property, along with the help of longtime benefactors and some investments. It took two years to build and it is set up high, a good distance from the main road running through the tiny village that lies between Otis and Lee, barely visible through the shroud of mist, especially in the morning hours.
“We felt it in our hearts that this was the place,” says Mother Joan Bernadette. “It is mystical.”
She and the other nuns are seated behind a half wall, like a long take-out counter that stretches across the length of the room. They are cloaked in black habits that reach down to the tips of their shoes and black veils, save for one white veil for a novitiate. There is no opening or door to get to them; a single chair has been placed on the other side of that wall, for visitors. Sister Mary Ruth, the self-proclaimed “talker” of the group, reaches her hand across the top of the wall to give both my hands a long squeeze.
“We really love having visitors,” she says, then laughs. “Sometimes it can get pretty quiet around here.”
The monastery is indeed very quiet, especially in the front lobby and the chapel itself, which is often dark save for the natural light coming in through the stained-glass windows. Visitors are welcome from dawn to dusk, many coming to pray in the chapel or to speak with one of the sisters. But make no mistake, the sisters are not bathed in solitude all day long. They pray and hold mass daily with their appointed priest chaplains from the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, stewards of the sprawling Eden Hill property just over the hill in Stockbridge. They are all a spiritual family. And, like a family, the sisters eat together and work alongside one another, tending to the everyday tasks of a household—meal prep, washing dishes, cleaning, mending, gardening. They even play basketball on the outdoor court, sans habits.
“It’s not all hymns and solitude,” says Assistant Superior Sister Miriam Rose. “There is still time for a little nonsense. We’re human after all.”
Despite the mundane trappings of earthly life, the sisters remain steadfast to the heart of their original mission set forward in 1610 in Annecy, France, by St. Francis de Sales and Saint Jane de Chantal: to give to God, and to the world, daughters of prayer. And that is precisely what they do. Sometimes in word, sometimes in song, the Visitation sisters pray—for themselves, for friends, for family, for complete strangers, for the entire world.
“We remain in the heart of Christ. There is beauty here in silence and in prayer,” says Mother Joan Bernadette. “We can do more here. People often ask us to pray for them, to help them with family problems. And we announce those requests in our community, with intention. This is the commitment we’ve made.”
“We are living each day trusting God,” adds Sister Teresita, a novitiate from Puerto Rico. “That is how we manage to keep millions of people in our prayers. The presence of God.”
The Tyringham monastary is one of a handful of spiritual communities that dot the Berkshire landscape. Several miles away, and several generations ago, in 1792, a group of Shakers established the state’s fourth United Society of Believers on Jerusalem Road. The Tyringham Shakers, as they were known, suffered a steady decline of support during the Civil War, and eventually disbanded in 1874—some joining the Hancock Shakers and Mount Lebanon Shakers. They opened the spiritual gates for the Visitation sisters, says Mother Joan Bernadette. Previous to the sisters’ move from Delaware, they had heard of the nearby Shaker history. “We thought, this being New England, that we were being inserted into more of a Puritan environment,” says Mother Joan Bernadette. “But, actually, there was a spiritual connection to the Shakers here, somewhat similar to our own as cloistered nuns.”
Like the Shakers, the Visitation sisters were drawn to the mystical energy that hangs like the mist around most of these hillside sanctuaries. “Visitors often say that they are called here by some kind of force,” says Maribeth Cellana, communications manager for Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield. “I do think that what they feel is part of the shadow of legacy. With that kind of spirituality at the core of everything the Shakers did, that energy remains long beyond the people who brought it here.”
The West Pittsfield Shakers, as they were known, lived relatively open to the world, mostly out of necessity. Visitors from New York City came to buy what they produced—cheese, baskets, and furniture, in particular. “They were so known for the quality of their goods and their dairy,” says Cellana. “The train would come from the city multiple times a day for the cheese. To the outside world they were known as good citizens, and honest.”
Despite their craftsmanship and fervor, and despite adopting orphans to fill their celibate ranks, regional Shaker sects dissolved into a historical footnote in which non-believers—historians, secular craftspeople, horticulturalists—are the keepers of their flame. Some would argue that celibacy was the Shaker undoing, and yet many spiritual societies commit themselves to celibacy. It may have been a problem of relevancy. After the Civil War, society had moved towards accepting changes instead of striving for utopia. But in these modern, chaotic times, people from all walks and all nations are seeking a deeper spiritual connection.
That desire is matched by the cloistered nuns in Tyringham, who take their duty with great weight and intent. “We are responding to the call from God. He makes that will felt in a person’s life and in their heart,” says Sister Anna Maria, originally from India who recently made her Solemn Profession—the final vow before becoming a consecrated nun. This way of life is a huge sacrifice in some ways—not going out to dinner, not being able to visit family, although hers made the trek from India to support her profession—but she and her fellow sisters are unwavering in their decision to consecrate their lives to a higher purpose and power.
“Grace helps us,” she says. “And the people we encounter, they strengthen us because of their faith in us.”
They receive countless prayer requests, through email, by phone, or in person by visitors to the monastery. And they respond to these calls for prayer all day, every day, beginning before the sun rises and saying their final prayer long after it has disappeared below the horizon.
Like the Visitation sisters, the brothers at the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception have devoted their lives to promoting the messages of grace, peace, and forgiveness set forth in the gospels. For the Marians specifically, it is putting forth the message of Divine Mercy (a message Jesus delivered to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, a mystic nun living in Poland in the 1930s, saying “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My Mercy.”).
The Stockbridge monastery is also home to the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, where annually tens of thousands of Catholics make the spring pilgrimage on the first Sunday after Easter—this year on April 28—to honor the message, the Virgin Mary, and their own faith in an overwhelming, overwhelmed world. On that same day, just as on every other, the sisters will be locked in earnest prayer.