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Nuns seek heaven in West Virginia

March 04, 2001

Nuns seek heaven in West Virginia



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


In a quiet corner of a state known through song as "Almost Heaven," three Episcopal nuns are carving out a piece of heaven of their own as they help others find spiritual peace.

Sisters Julian, Mary Martha and Miriam are part of a Plymouth, England-based order of about 18 nuns called the Episcopal Sisters of Charity. The three sisters are converting an old 10-acre dairy farm off W.Va. 45 between Martinsburg and Shepherdstown, W.Va., into a place where groups and individuals can retreat from the stresses and cares of everyday life.

"This is a place for people to come to be quiet, to listen to God, to get away from their usual routines, leave it behind," Sister Julian said of the St. Vincent's Retreat House.

"Most who come are church-goers," Sister Julian said. "People are looking for spiritual resources for themselves."

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"We are ecumenical," added Sister Miriam.

The site includes a 4,600-square-foot farmhouse, parts of which date back 250 years. The house has been upgraded to include a chapel. A dairy barn has been converted to a comfortable retreat house, where people can relax, watch television or just quietly read a book - the library holds 2,000. The sisters hold prayer sessions four times a day; all are welcome to participate.

All three sisters have a nursing background and came to this way of life later in life. Julian is 49 and from New York. Miriam is 50 and from Colorado and Mary Martha is 63 and from Iowa.

"I loved it," Sister Miriam said of her 25 years in nursing. "But I was getting to a place where I wanted more. I wanted to be of service, to be active as well as contemplative."

Mary Martha, who does all the sewing, cooking and laundry, had been in geriatric nursing. She raised three children and is now grandmother of two.

"I just had this feeling God wanted me to do more in the church," she said.

Julian was a Methodist, but was drawn to the Episcopal Church by the liturgy.

"I was just drawn more and more into the spiritual life," she said.

The order itself began in 1869 as a way to take care of children of seafaring families in England. It spread, and the Wellspring Retreat House opened in Boulder City, Nev., in 1969. It was also a child-care center.

But in 1979, new rules required new standards for those taking care of children. So the Sisters of Charity opened a retreat, where people could come to get away for a while.

"We're self-supporting," Sister Julian said. The fees they charge for retreats help pay for the property and the activities that occur on it.

The house in Nevada with its 40 beds "got to be too busy," Sister Julian said. "We were allowing our spiritual lives to suffer."

So they did what many people do who are looking to make a change.

"We got on the Internet and started looking around," Miriam said. "We decided we wanted to find a place with more room. We wanted 10 acres, close to a metropolitan area but not in one."

Near Beautiful Lane, about six-tenths of a miles from Fairview School Road, they found it.

"We found a picture of the house and barn, liked what we saw and called the real estate man," Sister Miriam said. They sold the Wellspring House, moved in August and have been working on fixing up the old farm.

"It's just a ready-made place for us to have retreats." Sister Miriam said.

Plans include a wildlife habitat and paths through the woods "so people can be quiet and walk and meditate," Sister Julian said.

The sisters said converting the farm to a retreat has been hard work, but they are delighted with their new surroundings in rural West Virginia.

Said Sister Mary Martha: "I don't regret the life I lived before and I don't regret the life I'm living now."

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