The Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus

Photos: William Heyer Architect

The Rule of St. Benedict is, in many respects, one of the most significant documents in the history of the Church.  Little wonder that from this Holy Rule grew in the ensuing centuries thousands of monasteries which became in time not only centers of religious life but also of social and educational development and cultural renewal.    

The traditional monasteries each became a refuge where classical education, Latin, music, history, languages and learning were safely preserved.  One cannot write the history of Western civilization without giving generous attention to the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Benedictine monasteries and their crucial role in preserving civilization.  

The Benedictine tradition treats the community of female monks as family with the abbess as mother.  Everywhere St. Benedict exhibits an understanding of human weakness with a calm patience in the presence of its failure as well as a serene confidence that the human can be perfected.  Benedictine monks, both male and female, seek the life of perfection.  It is precisely this vocation, seeking out ones perfection in the life of the monastic enclosure, that attracts so many to the very successful Benedictine model of greatness.  

A sure sign of the renewal of life in the Church are the establishment of new Benedictine monasteries.  One of the most important today is the female community known as the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles.  This cloistered convent, in the cornfields of Missouri, is named Ephesus.  It is located outside the small town of Gower, northeast of the farming town.  Vocations are booming.  The community is the only such abbey for traditional nuns in all of North America.  The nuns seek to be united with Our Lady at the foot of the cross, seeking above all else a cloistered life of union with God in prayer under the Rule of St. Benedict.  Today there are about forty sisters (while the new convent was built for a capacity of fifty).  The average age of the sisters is about thirty.  Most of the nuns were homeschooled while growing up, a testimony to the Catholic parents.  The year 2020 marked the order's 25th anniversary.  

The sisters have a contemplative charism of praying and sacrificing for the sanctification of priests.  They also maintain their own vestment design company known as House of Ephesus.  With each stitch is said a  prayer for the sanctification of the priest who will benefit from the vestment.    

The community was originally founded in 1995 by an already professed nun,  Sr. Wilhelmena (1924-2019).  She collaborated with Fr. Arnaud Devillers, FSSP to establish a traditional order of nuns and so the nuns originally established themselves under the aegis of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP).  The foundress was a remarkable woman, a black American who had made her religious vows in 1944.  As her order went through the typical drama and vitiated turmoils of the 1960's and beyond, she longed to go back to a lost dream, to return to the roots of tradition.  Happily, she succeeded in founding a new order that has been radically successful.  After a full life she passed away in 2019 at the Abbey at age ninety-five after seventy-five years of religious life, having just celebrated her diamond jubilee.  Sr. Wilhelmena had been an Oblate Sister of Providence and so when she founded the new order of nuns affiliated with the FSSP, the nuns first chose to call themselves the Oblates of Mary, Queen of the Apostles.  

The nuns were based in Elmhurst in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania.  The founding day of the community is celebrated as the day Sr. Wilhelmena arrived in Elmhurst, the feast of St. Bede the Venerable: May 27, 1995.  The nuns first worked and lived at the FSSP seminary, at that time located in Elmhurst.  In 1997 the nuns moved to their own house in Scranton.  In 1998 Bishop James Timlin of Scranton received the first private vows of the new sisters.  In 2002 the sisters bought a rural farm and moved to Starrucca, Pennsylvania before moving to Gower, Missouri in 2006.  Today the nuns have a close relationship with both the FSSP and the Benedictine monks of Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in nearby Hulbert, Oklahoma.   

This new order came as a fresh response to young women who were discerning and feeling perturbed by a lack of options for traditional Catholic women.  At that time there were no existing female religious orders in the U.S. that were traditional.  Many of the existing orders had gone bonkers as they morphed into a cult of social justice advocates, selling their properties and disbanding their convents.  The majority were not recognizable after renouncing their inheritance, already in their terminal stage, having discarded too much, too soon, having become devoid of the Church's traditions, demure in the area of evangelization, stuck in the cold mechanics of "spirit of Vatican II" politics and lacking healthy rigor in the face of the grim reality of their own failure and dearth in vocations.     

In 2006 the sisters, slowly growing, were led to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri.  There they moved to Kansas City and were established canonically as a public association of the faithful with a new and permanent name, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles.  In 2008 they acquired land just north of town in Gower, Missouri that was mostly donated, while putting them nearly $2 million in dept.  In 2010 the new home the nuns had built in Gower was completed.  That same year Sr. Cecilia, OSB became the prioress of the future abbey.  Born with the name Martina Snell in New York, Mother Cecilia had joined the sisters in 2003 after having retired from the Columbus Symphony where she played the French horn from 2000-2003.  She is a graduate of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, Texas.  In the convent she had the position of music director before being named prioress and later abbess.     

In 2011 the nuns moved to their new home, finally living on their land in Gower.  Singing together approximately five hours a day someone had the idea to release a CD to help raise funds for the construction of a new monastery.  During a novena to the Little Flower, asking her to help the nuns with their debt, record producers who had heard their music approached them about the possibility of production and distribution of a professional album release.  The record company turned the chapel into a recording studio.  Mother Cecilia conducted.  In 2012 they released their first CD, Advent at Ephesus, an album of sacred vocal music that hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart of traditional classical albums artists.  The album had been released Nov. 19, 2012.  In addition to topping the traditional classical chart, it ranked No. 187 on the Billboard 200, which covers all genres.  The nuns were heard on National Public Radio and featured on various media outlets including CBS Sunday Morning.   In 2012 and 2013 they were Billboard's classical artists of the year.  The nuns have since produced a total of nine CDs, helping to finance the construction of their new convent and chapel.   The nuns have sold more than 150,000 albums and paid their debt.  The music tells people there is more to life than what they see, because beauty touches the soul and it reminds people they have an eternal destiny.  

In 2014 the nuns traveled to the Vatican to seek approval of their constitutions.  That same year the community was raised to the status of a religious institute of diocesan right under the authority of the Holy See.  Over the years as they have grown, they have built various buildings on the property in Gower.  The gift shop was completed in 2010.  The retreat house with eight guest rooms for visiting priests was completed in 2015 and blessed in 2016.  They also built an Abbey residence (the former priory), with a proper chapter room and refectory, all matching after a fashion and offering an economical and continually developed classical language of architecture and style.  In 2017 Cardinal Burke came to visit the sisters.    

In 2018 the stunning new convent chapel was completed, an abbatial church that has a footprint of 13,790 SF.  It is a stunning stone structure built in the style of the Romanesque Revival.  The nuns successfully raised six million dollars for this project.  The design was by William Heyer Architect and the construction was completed by Straub Construction of Shawnee, Kansas.  The sisters themselves did some of the work, including the hand-painted murals and gold leaf stencil work on the inside ceiling.  

The new church building has been described as a sermon that lifts the soul.  The interior is simple in style, boasting Italian marbles, groin vaulted ceilings, splayed windows and a Renaissance style baldachin canopy over the main altar.  The completed chapel was finally consecrated by His Excellency Robert Finn, the bishop who invited the sisters to Missouri in March of 2006.  This invitation he gave in a bid to increase vocations in his diocese.  It worked.  The main altar in the chapel faces east, the holy city of Jerusalem, the place of the second coming of Christ.  The refurbished pews came from the Mother Drexel shrine in Pennsylvania.   

The year 2018 brought more good news: the monastery was to be elevated to the status of an abbey.  Its 40-year old prioress, Mother Cecilia Snell, OSB was consecrated abbess the day after the new church was dedicated.  She now wears a silver pectoral cross and ring on her right hand.  She also carries a wooden abbatial crozier in procession, both symbols of her jurisdiction in the abbey.  She also sits in a special place in the choir stall, on the Gospel side, with a mini canopy over her abbatial seat where her crozier is kept near at hand in a stand.  In 2020 a new large ranch style guesthouse was completed for visiting families as well as silent lay retreats, also located at the Abbey.  As St. Benedict said, monasteries are never without guests.         

The nuns take Our Lady's hidden life at Ephesus as their inspiration.  They seek to be what she was for the Early Church - a loving and prayerful support for the Apostles, the first priests.  They do this by interceding for priests while in the company of Our Lady contemplating the great High Priest, Jesus himself.  They are "love in the heart of the Church," with firm adherence to the Magisterium of the Church and the Classical Roman Rite.  The community has been blessed with an abundance of vocations, zealous young women imbued with zeal to offer their lives to Jesus, through Mary, on behalf of priests.     

The sisters are an EF community, offering both the Mass and Office (Breviarium Monasticum) in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  Further the community maintains the classical Benedictine ritual and liturgical calendar, with its plentitude of feasts and special occasions and processions, including the Ember Days, Rogation Days and the tradition of the candlelight Rorate Mass.  The Latin inscription over the entrance to the driveway reads: Pax Intrantibus (peace to those who enter).   

The convent has its own series of traditions.  For example, the sisters take their brief breakfast while standing, in imitation of the Israelites.  Morning chores include milking the cows and tending to their farm animals which include bee hives and even pet dogs.  Chores also include working in the garden or sacristy duties such as arranging flowers or stacking firewood in the winter months.  The nuns are also known for their incredible vestment making and altar linen sewing studio, that is always very busy and backed up several months with orders.  Another tradition kept by the nuns, a traditional monastic custom, each day before Mass and the Offices of Lauds and Vespers the sisters line up for procession by rank in the hallway designed for this purpose outside the chapel, called the statio.  

In addition to their household and farm chores, the sisters also attend to a guest house for priests known as St John's Retreat House.  Customary Benedictine hospitality is an integral part of their lives.  Particular attentiveness is given to welcoming clergy, seen as modern day apostles.  The retreat quarters are intended principally for them.  It is the hope of the nuns that the priests who visit here on retreat will find what the apostles found at Our Lady's home at Ephesus, hospitality, encouragement and a spiritual haven conducive to rest and prayer.  Priests are encouraged to contact the nuns well in advance to book their annual retreat here.    

The day is busy and the sisters spend about the first three hours of every day in prayer.  Their horarium is subject to minor variations, depending upon the summer or winter months and feasts.  The sisters typically rise at 5:00 am with the rising bell.  Matins begins fifteen minutes after rising and takes almost an hour to chant and even longer and Sundays and Feast days, with various additional prayers.  A period of Lectio Divina follows, a time of sacred reading.  At 6:50 am the Office of Lauds is chanted and immediately after also the Office of Prime.  Next is the morning Chapter meeting to discuss the business of the monastery, when the Mother Abbess reads prayer intentions sent to the nuns by mail.  This is followed by morning work.  The morning work begins in silence, interrupted only by necessary instructions, questions or directions.  At this time office work is done with answering correspondence and sending out mail.  

At 10:50 am is the Office of Terce, that precedes Holy Mass that is chanted by the community together in choir at 11:00 am.  The daily sung Mass is the center of the day -- all other activities revolve around this, as the planets revolve around the sun.  Afterwards the Office of Sext is prayed, followed by the Angelus and free time.  The loft of the Abbey church or its library or gardens provide quiet places to relax and pray during this time.  After free time follows formation classes for the novitiate, an important time for sisters to study and advance in knowledge.   At 1:10 is Lectio again, a time when all are encouraged to 
"spend some time" with Our Lady.  

Next is the Holy Hour and Rosary with Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.  The rosary is said together as a community before the Office of None, while said privately three days a week.  At 3:00 pm is the hour of mercy, with the recitation of the hour of None, followed by dinner taken in silence while a sister reads aloud (this is the main meal of the day in the European tradition, taken later than usual during Lent).  This is followed by recreation, an hour to talk after having kept silence through the day.  In the afternoon it is back to work after recreation.  At this time laundry might be done or the convent is cleaned.  

At 6:00 pm is Vespers and Lectio.  On Sundays Our Lord is exposed on the altar for Vespers.  The library is a frequent setting for Lectio, quiet spiritual reading.  The work of the day concluded, the community gathers for a reading in the chapter house.  8:00 pm is Compline, the "completion" of a long day.  Each sister bids a silent good night to a statue of the Madonna and child as they exit the chapel after the recitation of Compline.  Grand silence begins, and the sisters do not speak until after Prime the next day.  Lights out at 9:00 pm.  The sisters take turns in prayer throughout the night, with night watches in the chapel.         

The sisters offer a newsletter for family, friends and benefactors to highlight special events like professions and feast days, as well as a variety of photos to give a pictorial view of their regular day-to-day life at the abbey.  The stability of their daily life in the traditional footprint of Benedictine monasticism is shown in the newsletter, a secret to their success, a catalyst for a boon to their vocations and interest taken by potential donors.  Each year there is more and more good news coming from the convent as the community continues to grow.  Because the nuns are already outgrowing their current home, in 2019 they established their first foundation, a sister convent in Ava, Missouri, also slowly growing.  

The sisters also have an online gift shop to provide for their needs.  They offer a Novena of Masses enrollment for a small donation, cards and prints, the CDs they have produced, calendars they produce, books, handcrafted rosaries and more.  A sample of their products can be seen here.  

The sisters remember in a special way young women who are discerning a possible call to convent life, something every young Catholic woman should consider and experience in her youth.  Young women interested in knowing more of the life of the sisters often begin by writing the mother superior.  Sometimes young ladies are invited to visit for vocational discernment retreats or special tea times when they are able to enter beyond the convent parlor and catch a rare glimpse of the community life of the nuns.  If a young woman is actively discerning, it is recommended she be under the weekly care of a good spiritual director and confessor who can guide her in the ways of advancing in the spiritual life and mental prayer.  

Once a young woman makes application to enter the convent and discern within its walls, she enters as a postulant.  It is here the young lady begins her journey as a guest asking to be taken into a family.  She wears a special black dress with matching mantilla veil to identify her new status.  In this way she experiences convent life first-hand, seeing what it is really like while discerning with judicious scrutiny if this is her possible call. 

Then, if the postulant discerns she is called to remain with the community, and with the blessing of the ever observant and mindful superior, she is received as a novice.  This is done in an impressive formal ceremony where she is clothed with the habit, the religious garment of the order.  The habit is similar to that of the other sisters, except that the veil is white.  In her novitiate, the young novice practices the life and rule of the community, learns its details and charism and absorbs its spirit.  In some ways she is both in training and on trial.  This is because there is still no definite commitment.  The young postulant is free to leave the community at any moment and her superior may tell her to leave if it becomes apparent she is not a good fit for the community.    

The first year of novitiate is generally particularly strict.  It concentrates on prayer, meditation, mortification, obedience, and spiritual readings.  It also includes learning the community rhythms, and singing the Mass and Office.  Particular focus is on the persistent practice of the basic virtues of community living.  These virtues include dispositions for holiness, patience, charity, humble and ready obedience, kindness, respect, promptness, diligence in duties, completing tasks, and constant decorum.  

The second year of novitiate is in many ways similar to the first.  It is closely supervised by a novice mistress and guided by a spiritual director who is a confessor for the sisters.  Many convents typically have two different priests who are confessors for the community, giving the sisters a choice if they so wish.  In some cases much of the second year is taken up with studies or specific training for future tasks, or music or vestment making, etc.

When the novitiate is over, with the blessing of the superior, the novice may take her first vows.  These vows are temporary, in some convents for as long as three years.  And again as before, the young woman is free to leave and depart the community at any time.  Before taking final vows, in some places, the novice is first interviewed by the local bishop or his representative, to make sure it is best she stays, and is not under any outside pressure from any source such as family or other sisters.  Similar interviews preceded her reception as a postulant and novice.    

Next comes final vows.  Generally in most convents throughout the world this comes after about five years, once it is expected the young woman discerning has had adequate time to know her own mind and God's calling for her life.  Finally ready for final vows, the novice is ready to make a joyous lifelong commitment with a solemn profession.  After this she is bound to the community by a solemn promise she makes to God and then the community is also bound to her.  Canonically, this mutual bond can only be severed by the Pope himself, who can dispense the sister from her vows when sound reasons urge it, for the welfare of all concerned.  

The sisters take three vows by which they consecrate themselves to the faithful service of God in poverty, chastity and obedience.  The vows both bind and liberate.  The vows bind the sister and oblige her to the fulfillment of the duties she promised and they free her soul for its flight to God.  The vow of poverty is simplest of all.  It frees the sister from concerns about personal possessions.  The community is permanently responsible for all her needs.  She has no money, no worries and gains complete security.  

The vow of chastity frees the sister from family worries, attachments and distractions.  Christ is her spouse, the community is her family and the people she works with are her children.  She can give them all her love.  Yet as she adheres to the spirit of this vow it frees her more than any other.  The will of God is revealed in the rule of her order and the commands of her superior.  Obedience eliminates doubts and stress, gives confidence and adds merit to activities.  

The vow of obedience is probably the most complicated of the vows.  At the will of her superior, the sister accepts assignments, directives and work.  The nun reaches perfection through humility and the proof of true humility is patience.  Meanwhile, each of these vows is at variance with the modern spirit.  Thus the nuns have to give up something in order to be nuns and therein lies the appeal of greatness - sacrifice.   In order that an act of virtue, for example, be truly virtuous, it is necessary that it should be so in all its component parts.  Here the life of the nun is lived as something great, a life that brings immense peace.  In fact, this convent is a place of laughter and joy.         

Visitors are welcome to attend the 11:00 am Mass in the main chapel.  Let us pray that God who has begun this work in the sisters may bring it to fulfillment.  

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