Holy Week a special time for nuns of St. Cyril and Methodius
BY ELIZABETH EISENSTADT-EVANS, Correspondent
Once the basilica on the spacious campus that is home to the nuns of St. Cyril and Methodius was filled with the scent of home-grown lilies at Easter, along with greens grown in the convent's own arboretum.
The walls of the imposing sanctuary would echo with the voices of the nuns as they raised their voices in celebratory hymns of praise and thanksgiving, celebrating the end of the Lenten season and the day on which Christians believe the crucified Christ rose from the dead.
Though there are now fewer nuns at the campus' Villa Sacred Heart to fill the worship space and the lilies are purchased and not grown on the grounds, the nuns of this Slavic order still bring the same resourceful spirit and rituals to their worship that characterized their predecessors, says the Rev. Gerard Heintzleman, a Catholic priest who resides on the grounds and serves as campus chaplain.
Sister Isadore, the nun who used to raise the lilies, still made sure that the pussy willows bloomed on Palm Sunday, Heintzleman says.
On convent grounds, Holy Week is marked by an intensified focus on prayer and penitence, says Sister Michael Ann Orlik, the nun who serves as the order's general-superior. A nun may choose not to send emails, or read a newspaper -- setting aside more time for God and the ways in which he reveals himself in daily life, she says.
In Roman Catholic congregations, the season of Easter begins with the celebration of the service of the Easter Vigil. Marked by the kindling of fire, the blessing of water, and numerous Bible passages that tell Christian "salvation history" the service also includes joyous singing and the pealing of multiple bells, says Sister John Vianney, a former teacher and nursing home administrator.
Knowing Heintzleman as well as she does, says Sister John Vianney, "Every nun (who doesn't have arthritic hands) is going to have a bell."
The dedication of the nuns as they work and worship together through the days of Holy Week is "just magnificent," says Heintzleman, who served at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church from October 2006 to February 2008. He is a longtime area resident who has known the nuns for many decades.
Through the week, marked by solemn observances of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the grounds are full of "a wonderful spirit of prayer" he adds.
When Easter Sunday arrives, "It's a marvelous feeling," he says. "The whole place is just bubbling."
With a touch of mischief that seems characteristic, Heintzleman also notes that the ancient Slovak Resurrection carol sung on the procession from chapel to dining room, marked by the cadences of their heritage as a "people of suffering" sounds more like a dirge than a joyous carol.
But the feast that breaks the fast of Lent is a joyous one, including special Easter bread (the pascha), colored eggs, special cheese and kielbasa, a special kind of sausage, Orlik says.
Founded to serve the residents of Pennsylvania's coal-mining region in 1909, the order of St. Cyril and Methodius is dedicated to service in institutions like schools and eldercare facilities.
In recent years, seeking a creative solution to the ongoing costs associated with running their 110-acres campus and caring for their infirm colleagues, the nuns have been sharing their living quarters with group of enclosed Carmelite (formerly in Elysburg) and Dominican nuns.
Though most of the Dominican nuns have moved on to join up with other Dominican communities, this year members of all three communities will celebrate Easter together.
The nuns at Maria Hall, their campus assisted-living and personal care facility, will join the active nuns in Easter worship services.
"As I age," says the retired Sister John Vianney, "Holy Week has a different slant. There is more time for reflection and private prayer."
But Easter Sunday, she says, is always a celebration of hope and victory.
"We, too, will be glorified someday. We just have to wait our turn," she says.
Though there may be a few tears for those friends and family members who have gone on before, she says, they are tears of joy.