Our first Christmas morning is a fond memory - at least now it is! We were awakened by the piercing sound of our brand new fire alarm. Utter confusion took over as doors flew open, the cats headed for the woods and we held our ears trying to decide what to do. The fire station called and shortly thereafter a big red vehicle arrived, not with Santa Claus, but with a full crew of firemen in all their yellow gear, oxygen tanks and axes in place. They determined that some dust had accumulated on the heating coils of the a/c system and burned off when the heat was turned on for the first time. Not unusual in new buildings they said. It was unusual for us! “Merry Christmas” indeed!
A great deal of work had been accomplished but there was still more to be done in the months ahead. It was time to enlarge our little chapel to a suitable cloister chapel with more seating. Again, Bernie White was our designer and builder and wasted no time getting started. The interior walls of the central section of the old building were gutted and we literally “raised the roof”. We were very happy with the end result, both inside and out. Our first Mass in the new chapel was Christmas Midnight Mass of 1996. This was in question until almost the last minute, but with God’s help and that of some good friends, folding chairs notwithstanding, we did it. At last we had a lovely place for prayer and our cherished enclosure. In February of 1997 we held three days of Open House so that all our friends who had been so important in bringing this part of our history to a close could share our joy and tour the new monastery to which they had so generously contributed. A new era began and many guests soon filled our little chapel to join us for daily Mass with our dear Father Raney.
The beginning, August 1994 ....
............ the end.
We moved into our new building in
Our daily monastic life of prayer and work was enriched by the many new friends we were making. Among them Sheriff John McDougall was quick to offer any help we needed and Jim and Ellie Newton stopped by to welcome us and offer their assistance. Their friend, Franz Cardinal Koenig of Vienna, Austria chose to say Mass in our little chapel when he visited the beach in summertime. It was a grace for us to meet this prince of the Church and to hear first-hand stories about the conclave which elected Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1978.
Of course, as happy as we were in our new little monastery we always knew it would be necessary to expand for future growth of the community. We pondered the weighty question of whether we should remain here on Fort Myers Beach by adding an extension to the existing building, or relocate and build elsewhere within the diocese. Our pastor, Fr. Eugene McCarthy introduced us to Mr. Bernard White, a retired building contractor, who said he was very happy to give us his advice on the possibility of putting an addition on the present building and what the costs might be. Obviously, we chose to stay on the beach and with a little encouragement from his dear wife Mabel, Bernie came out of retirement and assumed a major role in making the monastery we have today a reality. Bernie White truly became our ‘St. Joseph’ and we are forever grateful to him.
The decision to build on the beach having been made, many more decisions loomed ahead. Build for how many? A woodframe or concrete building? How to raise the funds needed? On July 30, 1992 we signed a 99 year lease for the property with the Diocese of Venice for the amount of $1 per year. Our very kind non-Catholic neighbors, Susan and Larry Adams, immediately came by with a check for $99 to pay for our lease. So, we are here at least until 2091!
By Aug. of 1993, after many meetings and discussions all the drawings for the expansion were complete. We would build a new residence for twelve sisters and after that we would renovate the old building and enlarge the chapel. A building committee was formed to make plans for fund-raising. It included Sheriff John McDougall, Mr. John Poelker, Mr. Thomas Poelker, Mr. & Mrs. Mark Stahlman, Mr. Harold DeMunbrun, Mr. Ray McKenna and Sr. Anna Mae Frenzik, S.S.N.D. A large percentage of the funds needed to begin construction were raised through the kindness of nine parishes in the diocese who generously allowed us to make an appeal at each of their Sunday Masses on a given weekend. Because of this initial support from the people, we were able to obtain a loan from the Diocese of Venice, which was repaid within the next seven years.
Things were moving ahead quickly now and on August 2, 1994, the 800th anniversary year of the birth of St. Clare, we broke ground. Rev. Thomas Anglim, Vicar General for the Diocese of Venice, represented Bishop Nevins. Our pastor Fr. Thomas Goggin and a number of other priest friends attended along with a few of our sisters from Christ the King Monastery and many good friends. It was a very special occasion and we had great fun passing the shovels around so everyone could turn a little earth.
Father Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap. our Franciscan brother made his first visit that Christmas. He has faithfully filled in for Fr. Raney at Christmas and Easter and whenever Fr. Raney Returned to Peoria for short visits in the summertime.
1989 was a banner year for this foundation with the arrival in March of Sr. M. Seraphim Cox, O.S.C. from our monastery in Jamaica Plain, MA and in October Sr. M. Paschal Sadlier, O.S.C. from Darlington, England. Both sisters very generously offered themselves for the building up of this community. It was great to be five!
As we settled in we were blessed with many visitors, including Fr. Michael McNally who made frequent trips with his car loaded down with books and other items for our new monastery. Sr. M. Emmanuel’s brothers Jim and Joe Kilkenny both visited and did some little repairs and fixing up. Sr. Mary Frances’ sister, Rosemary came and took the photo at right to mark our first Christmas on Ft. Myers Beach.
And the invitation was accepted by the community of Christ the King Monastery in Delray Beach on Dec. 31, 1987. After all the needed permissions were granted and some of the sisters from Christ the King Monastery paid a visit to Fort Myers Beach, three sisters were designated to begin the new foundation, Sr. Mary Emmanuel Kilkenny, O.S.C., foundress and
superior, Sr. Agnes Valimont, O.S.C. and Sr. Mary Frances Fortin, O.S.C.
The building Bishop Nevins had in mind for the new monastery had been built as a residence for retired priests in 1977 through the generosity of Mr. Leonard Santini. In the end it proved to be unsuitable for that purpose, mostly because of the location. It had been empty for two years prior to the Bishop’s invitation to us. Fr. Eugene McCarthy, pastor of Ascension Church was asked to prepare the building and several area pastors assisted him with funds to do this. The hands-on work was done by Fr. McCarthy, Srs. Anna Mae Frenzik and Margaret Barry, S.S.N.D., who worked in the parish at the time, and by Richard and Joyce Bruder, also employed by the parish. They did a tremendous job and when we arrived to stay on May 14, 1988 there were dishes in the cupboards, sheets on the beds and towels in the bathrooms. We felt like we were moving into a hotel! It was so lovely and we were deeply grateful for those responsible.
Memories of the first weeks include boxes underfoot, assiduous map-reading by two new drivers trying to find their way around a strange place and meeting new friends and fellow parishioners. Some of you are with us still and some have already taken their place in eternity. You are all in our prayers.
July 9, 1988 was designated as the day we would be officially welcomed to the Diocese of Venice by Bishop Nevins at a Mass in Ascension Church with open house afterwards.The Women’s Guild of the parish prepared refreshments for our guests in the parish hall, the first of many such occasions to come.
Another historic moment and great blessing for our community was July 26th when Rev. Richard Raney offered to say daily Mass for us in our chapel. Fr. Raney had just celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination. Little did we think he would be celebrating his 75th anniversary with us in 2013. We and our guests in the chapel have been so blessed to have Fr. Raney with us these twenty-five years. At 100 years of age, his homilies still inspire and lift our minds and hearts to God.
Fort Myers Beach, Florida
Once the busy season of 2011-2012 passed the community gradually readjusted to a more normal routine of work and prayer and the days passed quickly. We were all home for Christmas and Easter this year and soon we were preparing for another great event. Father Raney would be 100 years old on Oct. 19th, 2012 and his good friends, Pat Sabatino and Norma Crawford had been a long time planning and preparing for this big day. Bishop Frank Dewane officiated with many other priests attending along with members of Father’s family and about 200 close friends. There are simply no words to express our gratitude to God for sending us Father Raney to minister to us, to inspire us day by day and to become a most beloved part of our community.
And now, 2013 was about to begin and we realized that we had been here, on Fort Myers Beach for twenty-five years. It hardly seemed possible but it was another reason to celebrate the goodness of all those who have supported our life and contributed to the foundation of this monastery. Most of all, we want this anniversary to be about you, our friends and benefactors. We want to thank you for your warm welcome to this island and to this parish, for your continued support and many kindnesses over the years. You are very dear to us and each and all are remembered every day in our prayers. We thank God for you.
This brief history was written to mark our 25th anniversary of founding, but many events, large and small, have been left out by necessity. In addition, we have focused on the physical and chronological history of the monastery, the people involved and the evolution of the building. However, there is always a concurrent history unfolding through all the years and that is the spiritual growth of a community. There is no way to measure or explain the growth in fidelity and love, the joys and sorrows that are shared, the many hours of fervent prayer, the individual struggles or the bond that is woven between us and with the local community and those individuals especially whom God seems always to send us when we most need them. Hopefully we have grown stronger and more fervent in our vocation as we strive to continue being faithful to the will of God.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to our bishops, Bishop John J. Nevins who invited us to come to the new Diocese of Venice, most particularly to pray for the priests of the diocese, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane who has continued to support us in every way possible, encouraging us in our life and making our community more widely known within the Diocese of Venice.
Likewise, we thank God for the wonderful pastors we have had at Ascension Catholic Church, Father Eugene McCarthy, Father Thomas Goggin and Father William Adams for their friendship and support through these twenty five years.
Our prayer for everyone who has supported and encouraged our life in so many ways these past twenty-five years can be summed up best in the following words of the Blessing of St. Clare.
Sister’s funeral was held on Dec. 16th at Ascension Church and the sisters and the Knights of Columbus escorted her casket from the monastery to the church. Again, the women of the parish prepared a beautiful reception in the parish hall for everyone.
Holy Thursday of 2011 turned out quite differently than most years. Just after celebrating the solemn liturgy for that day a call came from HealthPark Care Center that Sr. Mary Emmanuel might be on her final journey home to God. Fr. Regis Armstrong, O.F.M.Cap, who had celebrated the liturgy with us, drove Sr. Mary Frances to the care center while Sr. Mary Seraphim gathered the rest of the sisters and took them up as well. In a sense, we moved our adoration before the altar of repose where Christ was present in the Most Blessed Sacrament to Sr. Mary Emmanuel’s bed, where Christ was also present in her unconscious form. Fr. Regis administered the anointing of the sick and we prayed beside her. As the time became extended, we decided to divide up to share our vigil as the hours progressed. Some of us headed home at 10 p.m., but before we were ten minutes away, a nurse’s aide called to say sister was wide awake and asking for something to eat. God was not ready for her yet but we later learned that her dear brother Jim passed away that very night in the early hours of Good Friday. It was not hard to surmise there might be some connection between the two.
Shortly after Easter of 2011 our dear Fr. Raney moved into his own quarters here at the monastery. At 98 years of age, to quote scripture, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Gen.2:8) Well, he isn’t alone now. He has a caretaker four days a week and the sisters are in and out every day doing one thing or another. Sr. Mary Paschal often has tea with him at 3 p.m. They can’t understand one another because of Father’s hearing loss and her Irish brogue, so they watch golf together on TV. We are delighted to have Father with us and our little congregation is amazed at his continuing ability to say Mass and preach an inspirational homily every day.
As the days of 2011 waned, so did Sr. Mary Emmanuel’s strength. In the early hours of December 12th we were again summoned to her bedside. Fr. Bob Murphy from Ascension parish administered the Sacrament of Anointing. After several hours of prayer Sr. M. Seraphim returned to the monastery to bring Fr. Raney to Sister’s bedside as well. At 9 a.m. some of the sisters went back to the monastery with Fr. Raney to prepare for the 11 a.m. Mass. Sr. Mary Frances and Sr. Mary Seraphim stayed with Sr. Mary Emmanuel. At 9:30 a.m. when Sr. Mary Frances leaned close to her and whispered in her ear that she could go home to heaven, Sr. Mary Emmanuel opened her eyes wide, breathed her last and slipped away from us. It was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
It is next to impossible to put into words what this moment meant for our community and the deep sense of gratitude we all felt for all that Sister Mary Emmanuel had done for us. She took on the challenges of the foundation from the beginning, saw the first roots grow into the soil and through her patient suffering, shared with each of us, she drew us together and taught us how to embrace God’s holy will with patience and generosity. We feel her presence still and depend on her prayers for all of us from her place in heaven.
We decided that as soon as possible we needed to get a generator so we would not be in the same situation again. There were also a lot of pieces to pick up, literally, with downed trees and fences. The biggest project involved replacing the damaged and crumbling concrete fence with a more permanent enclosure wall. This became Bernie White’s last gift to us as he did the drawings and drew up all the specifications from his sick bed in Georgia. Bernie went peacefully to God on September 21, 2004. We are forever grateful to God for sending us our ‘St. Joseph.’ He has a very special place in our hearts and prayers.
Some of our friends and neighbors became aware of the costs we faced in recovering from Hurricane Charlie and encouraged us to ask for help from the local community. Jean Matthew did a lovely article in the Sand Paper on Dec. 9, 2005 highlighting our needs. Many very kind and generous people responded. We formed a committee of talented and capable men, headed by our good friend Ron Landisi, who had assumed Bernie’s mantel, and they all got right to work. Dan Hahn, a master electrician researched and supervised the installation of our new generator which Father Raney blessed in June, 2006, on the feast of the Sacred Heart. New, high-impact windows were installed in the most vulnerable places of the new building. Roofs were repaired and a new vinyl fence replaced the one that had fallen and both buildings were repainted. One room of the old building, Sr. M. Emmanuel’s former office, was renovated with a lot of help from Phil Gangemi, a master carpenter. Our grounds were restored and have been in the capable hands of Jose' Sigala who has done a wonderful job of keeping them beautiful for us. He and his wife Blanca both contribute so much to the parish and our monastery.
Our lives changed drastically on Dec. 31, 2006 when our Sr. Mary Emmanuel was rushed by ambulance to Lee Memorial Hospital with a blood clot in her leg. Little did we realize that she would not spend another night in her own bed at the monastery. These were anxious days for us as sister had two additional surgeries and more than one stay in the ICU of more than one hospital. She seemed to be knocking on heaven’s doors during that time. So many good friends assisted us with trips to and from the hospital and HealthPark Care Center. To you and to those of you who sat with her when we could not be there, we thank you from our hearts.
God always provides and miraculously He did so again so that we could care for our beloved Sr. Mary Emmanuel. Two of our Filippino Sisters who came in 2004 had returned to the Philippines in 2006 when their two-year temporary transfers expired. However, in March of 2007 the Poor Clare Monastery in Quezon City granted permission for Sr. Anunciacion to return to us and also to Sr. Pilar Alindogan and Sr. Esperanza Agrabante to come along as well. This was an extraordinary gift for which we will forever be grateful to our Sisters in Quezon City. After Sr. M. Frances and Sr. Marra picked them up at the airport on May 14, 2007 their first stop was to visit Sr. Mary Emmanuel at HealthPark Care Center. It was surely her patient suffering and her prayers for this community that had brought them here.
After consulting with medical and professional staff we had come to realize with great saddness that we could not meet sister’s needs at the monastery and that, at least for the forseeable future, she would need to remain at HealthPark Care Center. None of us wanted her to be alone for even a moment, so we began our twenty-four hour shifts so that a sister would be with her around the clock. We didn’t expect this would go on for four and a half years, but simply did what we felt needed to be done out of our love for Sr. Mary Emmanuel. We didn’t do it alone either. As so often before, our friends and neighbors drove us back and forth when shifts changed and sometimes spent long periods with sister while we celebrated Holy Week services or Christmas Midnight Mass at the monastery. For a while sister was able to come home on Sundays for Mass and spend the day with us, or to celebrate her birthday or Christmas. Many times our friend John Poelker loaned us one of his cars, which was easier for sister to get in and out of, and John McDougall would fetch Sr. M. Emmanuel and her companion from the center and then take them back later in the day. During season this was no small task! God has indeed sent us wonderful friends all these years.
Though life in the monastery had taken on a whole new rhythm, each sister adapted to the circumstances and our monastic schedule went on as usual, albeit there were always two sisters missing from the house. We felt that absence keenly and each of us looked forward to our day with Sr. Mary Emmanuel at the Care Center.
Other improvements to our monastery moved ahead and included new pavers on the front walks and a coating on the inside walks that enhanced the appearance and visually pulled the old and new buildings together. The work on our new enclosure wall got underway and it included a niche at the front entrance reserved for a future statue of St. Clare. Mother Lilian Ibe, a Poor Clare from the Philippines had promised us she would get a statue from there and ship it over. This proved to be more difficult than expected, but she kept her promise and on the feast of St. Clare, August 11, 2008, our Bishop Frank Dewane blessed the statue and unveiled it for the many guests who had joined us for the feast. It was another dream come true.
Now that there were eight sisters in our community we fulfilled the requirement for canonical establishment and so we decided to ask Rome for that privilege. After much paperwork, consultation and letters back and forth our petition was sent and it was granted. On March 2, 2009 Bishop Frank Dewane officially established San Damiano Monastery as an autonomous monastery of the Order of St. Clare. Our greatest joy that day was that Sr. Mary Emmanuel was able to be with us for the Mass in Ascension Church and the celebration afterwards. This was her dream come true. God is so good! Once again the Council of Catholic Women from the parish prepared a beautiful meal for all our guests.
On February 16, 2010 another special celebration was held to mark the affiliation to the Order of Friars Minor of our dear Fr. Richard Raney. We had requested this honor during the Year of the Priest as a way of thanking Fr. Raney for his faithful service to our community. Our good Minister Provincial, Fr. John O’Connor, O.F.M. not only graciously granted his permission, but also traveled from New York City to personally confer the Franciscan habit on Fr. Raney.
Two other wonderful priests who enriched our lives during these years were twin brothers, Father John and Father Joe Beattie, O.S.F.S. No history, however brief, would be complete without a remembrance of these men who acted as our confessors for so long. On August 9, 2008, two days before the feast of St. Clare, Fr. John died peacefully in his sleep and only two years later, on August 15, 2010 Fr. Joe followed his brother into eternity. Both shared a long history of diabetes and heart disease, but their sudden deaths came as a shock to us and we still mourn their loss. We believe St. Clare was there at the gates of heaven to thank them for their service to us, her daughters. After all, their own sister was a Poor Clare in Philidelphia! We were delighted when another priest from their community, Fr. Thomas Gillespie, O.S.F.S. took over as our confessor.
Once our chapel and enclosure were complete we asked for some women to volunteer to help us in answering the front door and the phone. What a wonderful experience this has become! Some of these great ladies are still with us and others have replaced those who could no longer continue coming or whom God has called home to heaven. Words cannot express how grateful we are for these wonderful women, not just for the hours of time they give us, but for their warm friendship. They are truly our extended family and are deeply entwined in the history of our community. God bless them!
During the years of planning and building some other changes took place as the ebb and flow of life went on. We said good-bye to our dear pastor, Fr. Eugene McCarthy in 1990 when he was transferred to San Marco Church on Marco Island. We welcomed Fr. Thomas Goggin in his place. Sr. Agnes Valimont returned to the monastery in New Jersey and a few Poor Clares or other sisters came for short visits, or to try their vocation here. We are always delighted to have other sisters with us and from time to time we were able to make a trip to our monastery in Delray Beach to see our sisters there.
Though he struggled valiantly against Lou Gehrig’s disease, Fr. Goggin could no longer function and Fr. William Adams was sent to serve, first as administrator of Ascension Parish and then as pastor. Fr. Goggin passed away in July of 2002. We are very grateful to God that all the pastors of Ascension Church have been so supportive of our life and such good friends to us. They will always be in our prayers.
Life after construction fell into a more normal and peaceful rhythm, but many significant events impacted our prayer and our world. In Nov. 1998 Sr. M. Emmanuel had major back surgery from which she recovered completely. In 2001 the tragic events of 9/11 were felt everywhere. We were especially aware of the silent skies – no planes going over the beach for days. Fr. Raney celebrated his 90th birthday in 2002. Those who wished him a hundred years have gotten their wish. In 2003 at age 85 Sr. M. Paschal had both knees replaced at the same time and ten years later they are still working just fine, thank God!
2004 turned out to be an eventful and historic year in our community for more reasons than one. We had asked our monasteries in the Philippines if they could send us sisters to build up this still new foundation and so it was on January 23 and 24 that we received our first Filippino sisters into the community. Sr. Anunciacion Matabalan and Sr. Mary Martha arrived on those days respectively and on May 11th Sr. Maria Marra Rosales arrived. What a wonderful gift from God and truly miraculous in our eyes! Now we were seven.
Our beloved friend Mabel White went home to God in 1997 and Bernie moved to Georgia in 2000, but he wasn’t finished with us yet! When it became evident a new rectory was needed in the parish, Bernie took on the job of planning and occasionally got back down here to see us again. One of his visits coincided with hurricane Charlie on August 13, 2004. All of us, Bernie included, got to see how well our new buildings held up under a really strong storm. They did amazingly well. Only one corner of the old building was damaged when a large tree fell and broke off the gutter and part of the roof. Thank God there was no interior damage. Many sections of roof soffet were blown out as well. There was a great deal of damage to our fences and our property. While the storm was amazing to watch, the aftermath was anything but entertaining. It was incredibly hot and humid and there was no water for a few days and for the better part of two weeks, no electricity. Initially we got a lot of help from Sheriff Matt Powell and his men, the beach fire department and from some wonderful friends, especially Jim Foster who drove all the way down from Illinois with supplies for us.
Seated: Sr. Mary Emmanuel Kilkenny, Sr. Mary Frances Fortin
L to R: Sr. Mary Paschal Sadlier, Sr. Esperanza Agrabante, Sr. Pilar Alindogan,
Sr. Mary Seraphim Cox, Sr. Anunciacion Matabalan and Sr. Maria Marra Rosales, O.S.C.
The Poor Clare Nuns
St. Michael the Archangel
An Anniversary Gift
San Damiano Monastery of St. Clare
6029 Estero Blvd.
Fort Myers Beach, FL 33931
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May He look upon you with the eyes of His mercy
and give you His peace.
Here below may He pour forth His
graces on you abundantly,
and in heaven,
may He place you among His saints.”