Preparing Him Room: How Sister Wilhelmina’s Benedictines Prepare for Christmas
The Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri, has unique ways of entering into the Advent and Christmas seasons.
The Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri, have seen a year filled with the unexpected: the discovery of the seemingly intact remains of their foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, in May led to scores of pilgrims entering into the quiet of their monastic life to be touched by the life of a woman whose vision birthed an order dedicated to prayer for priests and a love for the Church in all her rich traditions.
Now, at the beginning of this new liturgical year, the sisters again await the unexpected of 2,000 years ago: the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Like any family, this order has its unique ways of entering into the Advent and Christmas seasons. The Register spoke with Mother Abbess Cecilia to learn more about the traditions that help remind this order about the extraordinariness of these seasons.
Preparing for His Coming
As the sisters enter in to Advent, theirs is a preparation made in simplicity and silence. They leave off decorating for Christmas or listening to Christmas music during this season. “Even the preparations take on something of a sober joy when it actually does come time to do so,” Mother Abbess Cecilia says. “We do not put up the Nativity scene, for example, until the feast of Our Lady’s Expectation, Dec. 18, in the midst of the ‘Great O Antiphons’ preceding Christmas.”
Another special tradition is the celebration of a Rorate Mass, which Mother Abbess Cecilia describes as: “a special Mass in honor of Our Lady, celebrated in darkness on a Saturday preceding Christmas [this year, it will be Dec. 9]. This Mass allows us in particular to enter into the mystery of Our Lady’s awaiting the Christ Child, bringing forth the Light of the world to redeem it from the darkness of sin.”
As the sisters prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ, they seek to grow their hearts, their capacity to be “Love in the heart of the Church,” as they take on Advent practices and small penances, as Mother Abbess Cecilia describes:
“Letters and gifts are not exchanged within or outside of the monastery, and incoming mail is held to keep the silence of Advent better. We have the practice of ‘Advent Angels,’ that is, having a prayer partner through Advent, and we are also assigned particular virtues to work on during this holy time, to bring as a gift to the Christ Child. We also have the custom of making sacrifices and placing straws representing them into a manger. On Christmas Eve, a large statue of the Christ Child is placed on top of the gathered straw.”
Always close to their hearts during this time of preparation and contemplation is Mary. Noting that there are many Marian celebrations in December, Mother Abbess Cecilia says that “Our Lady takes the center stage for the Advent and Christmas seasons.” Our Lady of Expectation (celebrated on Dec. 18) is especially resonant to the sisters who “enter into Our Lady’s expectation in earnest” while also endeavoring to remain near her in her poverty. As Mother Abbess Cecilia explains:
“Once, when we ran out of water, Sister Wilhelmina commented, ‘Now we can be like Joseph and Mary in their poverty.’ We do not often think of the hardship they faced in the absence of modern conveniences but also modern means of travel. So we try to emulate Our Lady’s sacrifice and her virtues in the time proceeding Christ’s birth, in preparation to welcome the Christ Child to Earth amidst poverty.”
Also near to their hearts are the priests for whom the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles are dedicated to praying.
“In our constitutions, Elizabeth of the Trinity is quoted as saying the life of a priest is a continual Advent, bringing the Incarnation into souls,” Mother Abbess Cecilia says. “This is an invitation to enter into this spirit through our prayers for priests, but also in our contemplative life.”
Entering In to Christmas Joy
As to be expected, when Christmas arrives, there is an outpouring of joy at the monastery. There are multiple Christmas liturgies, and the sisters spend extra time together, both in prayer and recreation:
“We have three Masses at Christmas, beginning with midnight Mass, after which we break and share Christmas wafers, according to a Polish custom, and wish one another a ‘Merry Christmas.’ The liturgy is very full on Christmas Day and much of the time is consecrated to that. We enjoy opening gifts and letters from family and friends and spending time together. We listen to Christmas carols, bake, cook extra-special meals during the Octave, and even recreate during some of the meals, a rare thing in the monastery. In general, we deeply enjoy one another’s company throughout the day between the liturgical hours and Masses.”
The Christmas Masses, open to the public, are at midnight, 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Memories of Sister Wilhelmina
Christmas is often a time for remembering Christmases past and the precious people who populated those memories. As Mother Abbess Cecilia remembers past Christmases at the monastery, the figure of beloved foundress Sister Wilhelmina comes to the forefront. Reminiscing on Sister Wilhelmina’s love for singing Christmas carols, Mother Abbess Cecilia shares, “One of the funniest memories we have of Sister Wilhelmina was when we had just come out of the second Mass of Christmas, called the dawn Mass. Sister Wilhelmina took up her tambourine and began to sing Feliz Navidad at the top of her lungs and danced around the kitchen with the tambourine.”
Also important to Sister Wilhelmina was a special tradition: “Sister Wilhelmina had a little Black Infant Jesus statue that she picked out once in our founding days. We all loved this statue, especially because it depicted the Christ Child trying to put his little foot into his mouth. Sister Wilhelmina thought this was particularly funny, and it gave her food for meditation, as well, to behold the Christ Child in the fullness of his humanity.” When it comes to Christmas treats, the sisters share their foundress’s love for chocolate, a dessert made extra special by its absence during the Advent season.
Perhaps best known to some by their beautiful chant CDs, the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles, are guided by the structures of their liturgies when it comes to singing during the Advent and Christmas seasons: “Our music-making in Advent and Christmas is largely contained within the liturgy; nevertheless, we do make time for some official caroling around the choir, especially on the feast of Epiphany.”
As to plans for future recordings, Mother Abbess Cecilia says, “We are currently hoping to record an album focused on the martyrs and possibly making a CD of Sister Wilhelmina’s favorite songs and hymns associated with her, for example, the Litany of Loreto that we chanted at her reinterment.”
As the faithful make the journey to Bethlehem in our hearts this Advent, may we, like the sisters, take the hand of the Blessed Mother and, in the silence of our souls, allow her to lead us toward the Little King, who desires not gifts of silver and gold, but our entire beings.
As Mother Abbess Cecilia observes, “In the gift of her own life, Sister Wilhelmina faithfully pointed to the God-Man she loved so much, who came to earth for us and grants us every blessing, given to us to love and serve him all our days. I pray that we all be as welcoming to the Christ Child.”