Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Mother Superior Mary Jane Frances, left, and Sister Josefa Maria, right, laugh while reminiscing at the Monastery of the Visitation in Snellville late last month. Frances and Maria have dedicated their life to prayer while living at the Monastery of the Visitation in Snellville for a combine 64 years which is under the Roman Catholic Archdiose of Atlanta.
SNELLVILLE -- When Matthew Coles first stepped on the grounds of the Monastery of the Visitation, the grass was easily four or five feet tall, the sidewalks obscured and the landscaping was done only once or twice a year.
So Coles, a Lawrenceville attorney, offered to do some landscaping work on the 27-acre property where about 11 nuns live near Ga. Highway 124. The offer was initially denied by the mother superior at the time mainly because so many volunteers had offered, only to stop showing up.
But 10 years after Coles was introduced to the monastery because of a legal notice that didn't amount to anything, he and a group of men from his church, St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Lawrenceville, volunteer to do mowing and landscaping work around the property.
Coles said society needs this group of contemplative nuns who devote their lives to prayer.
"It is an oasis of peace and quiet and tranquility," Coles said of the land that has a pond and fruit trees. "It is a benefit to the community."
Coles noted a Biblical scripture where Saint Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit gives people certain spiritual gifts, and while he admitted he couldn't spend all day of every day in prayer, it's valuable that prayers are offered on his behalf and for others around the community.
Called by the Lord, mother superior Mary Jane Frances said the women who live at the cloistered contemplative monastery spend an average of five to eight hours a day in the chapel and the majority of their day in prayer to God. While the sisters range in age from 40 to nearly 90, they come from around the world and all walks of life.
"It's not a natural way to live," Frances said. "It's supernatural."
The closest monasteries of this kind are in Conyers and Mobile, Ala. The order the monastery follows was founded more than 400 years ago by St. Jane, a widow who sought a life of charity and holiness, and St. Francis de Sales in France. The Monastery of the Visitation has been in Snellville since 1954.
They come because they feel they have a vocation to the monastery. And they come from around the world, from places such as Germany, Nicaragua, Italy, Slovakia and Colombia.
"This is not a girls' club, not a sorority, not a boarding house, not a retirement home," said Frances, an Oklahoma native and former registered nurse, whose late husband was a colonel in the Army and a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
While they lead a more peaceful life than the average Gwinnettian, their weekend entertainment options include watching episodes of "Columbo," "Little House on the Prairie," the old "Mission: Impossible" series and "All Creatures Great and Small." Their television subscription includes EWTN, the Catholic Television Network.
For companionship, the monastery has two very friendly Great Pyrenees rescue dogs that offer some protections for their half-acre compound.
The monastery has one email address, and two cellphones, and Frances handles all of the group's errands, such as going to the grocery store and bank, along with taking the sisters to doctor appointments when needed.
For income, the monastery, which is a nonprofit and tax exempt, provides Communion bread to about 100 parishes, Frances said.
Frances is aware of events in the outside world, and shares information such as the introduction of a new Pope, with the other sisters.
"I am the boss; I am in charge of taking care of the monastery. Whatever is wrong I have to decide what to do about it," she said. "The superior runs the whole thing. They're the CEO personified. They cannot open a window without my permission. If everybody did their own thing, can you imagine the chaos with 11 women living together."
When Frances joined the monastery 19 years ago, her daughters had mixed emotions and didn't entirely support their mother's decision. But one later told her, "We can sure tell you're praying for us." And Frances said her nine children and 28 grandchildren regularly visit her at the monastery.
Frances said when she joined, she bounced her ideas off of a spiritual director, and first thought her feelings were part of the grief process following her husband's death.
"I frankly came kicking and screaming," she said. "I really didn't want this vocation. I wasn't too fond of sisterhood."
Raised a Protestant, Frances said she began studying the church when she was 16.
The process of becoming a sister takes at least five and a half years, Frances said. Then there is the action of taking solemn perpetual vows with the order, which are the highest a person can take except for being a priest.
"You want to do what God wants you to do," said Frances, releasing one of her hearty laughs after a comment about telling God your plans. "How many people end up doing something for a living they never thought they'd do?"
One nun who left and was scheduled to return this month has a doctorate in archeology and anthropology.
"You're overqualified," Frances told her.
"What do you want me to do?" the nun said. "Go in the backyard?"
Frances added that the nun said that we all go through stages in our lives, and the Lord leads all of us where he wants us. Then she explained how one of her sons worked for a newspaper for nearly 20 years, and now works for a railroad.
That son was a great baseball player, she said, and could have played professionally, but didn't want to play a game for a living.
"Nobody is 100 percent happy, no matter what they're doing, because we're not made for this world," Frances said. "We're made to be with our Lord. The Lord created us to be with him."
Coles, the attorney, said the monastery is a benefit to the community physically because of its pastoral beauty that's been shielded from developers who would love to turn a portion of it into a subdivision or shopping center. And because of the prayers the sisters offer for individuals and the community, it's also a spiritual benefit, he said.
"The interaction is close," Frances said of the outside community. "We know about our families, our friends call. So we're not isolated."