God sendest, the Franciscan Poor Clares of Brenham, Texas, “goest”—even
to pitch manure. Their primary means of support: breeding and
selling miniature horses.
Founded in 1981,
Monastery Miniature Horses is a natural business for the contemplatives.
The order’s patron, St. Clare, was a spiritual protégé of St.
Francis of Assisi.
who have an ardent following, have names for the horses. Among
them are Pinto Bean, Cherry Ice and Easter Lily. “They’re our
friends,” the sisters say.
Cuba With Divine Assistance
Not yet 40 years
old, the Brenham monastery is full of grace. The sisters don’t
just believe in God, they consistently ask for divine intervention.
Nobody knows that better than the monastery’s founders, the
Poor Clares of Cuba.
In 1960, Fidel
Castro’s guerrillas invaded the Poor Clares’ Havana house. The
revolutionaries demanded the nuns’ money, devoured their food
and desecrated the compound.
Meanwhile in New
Orleans, American Poor Clares were praying—and plotting a God-offensive.
Inspired, “they hatched up something about a meeting that all
Poor Clares had to attend,” grins the Brenham abbess and monastery
spokeswoman, Sister Angela Chandler.
Communists bought into what was a complete lie. Packing two
duffel bags each, nearly all 30 sisters hopped cattle ferries
for freedom. The sisters left behind watched and hoped. Maybe
they would be able to regain control of their compound.
“You’ll harm the
sisters over my dead body,” a gardener threatened the guerrillas.
His chivalry was prophetic; the gardener was found dangling
from a monastery archway the next day. The remaining sisters
abandoned the monastery and headed for the United States.
at the New Orleans convent, the refugee nuns contemplated founding
a new monastery in largely Spanish-speaking Corpus Christi,
Texas. The sisters asked for God’s assistance.
The bishop of
the Corpus Christi Diocese also prayed. When he was in Italy
to see the pope, the bishop had stopped at the tomb of St. Clare
in Assisi and pleaded to have Poor Clares in his diocese. When
he arrived home, the bishop found a letter from the sisters
The nuns relocated
to Corpus Christi in 1961 and began building their monastery.
Another series of events took the sisters to another monastery
and a new calling—Monastery Miniature Horses.
of the Dead'
the Poor Clares of horse fame, St. Clare was born into Assisi
nobility. She was trained and expected to marry well. One day,
however, teenage Clare heard St. Francis preaching in the town
“She had this
longing in her heart and Francis’ words connected with that,”
says the abbess. Accompanied by a relative, Clare often met
Francis in the woods to discuss the gospel. Forsaking all on
Palm Sunday night in 1212, Clare left home through the door
of the dead—a door used only to remove a dead body.
“Francis cut off
her hair, clothed her in his habit,” the abbess chronicles.
Afraid her family was in pursuit, the friar hid Clare in a Benedictine
monastery. A rescue attempt fizzled when Clare’s family saw
her newly shorn hair.
When Clare’s sister,
Agnes, left home, it was a different story. “Some of her uncles
grabbed Agnes,” the abbess continues. “They were going to take
her out by force.”
While Clare was
praying, Agnes grew so heavy that not even her strong-willed
uncles could lift her. Agnes, the heavyweight for God, stayed.
Sometime later, the sisters’ widowed mother joined them at San
Damiano, just outside Assisi.
It was there in
1206 that “Francis had predicted poor ladies would come and
live,” says the abbess, “and their light would shine throughout
“The Poor Clares
had a hard time getting started” in the New World, the abbess
says. Arriving in 1875, the two Italian nuns and real-life sisters,
Mothers Maddalena Bentivoglio and Costanza Bentivoglio, traveled
from place to place. The rugged frontiersmen wanted nurses and
teachers, not contemplatives.
ethic was, if you’re not out working and doing something, you’re
useless,” the abbess explains. “Contemplatives just weren’t
understood here like in the European countries.”
prayer won out, and in 1878 the sisters opened their first house
in Omaha, Nebraska. The second house, the New Orleans monastery,
began in 1885. The largest contemplative order worldwide, today
the Poor Clares number over 18,000.
Called to vows
of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure (a cloistered
life), the Poor Clares are given exclusively to God in prayer.
The Divine Office calls the sisters to pray many times a day.
“We are the official
pray-ers of the Church,” the abbess says. “It’s our mission...uniting
ourselves to God in prayer.”
The sisters’ monastic
life-style is a curious thing. Where some people see “extreme
penance, extremely extreme penance,” the Poor Clares see freedom.
In Corpus Christi,
the sisters faced a new dilemma: how to retire their monastery
debt. Even with baking altar bread and firing sister-made ceramics,
funds were short. Enter Sister Bernadette Muller’s “wild kingdom.”
A New Orleans
Poor Clare, Sister Bernadette had moved with the Cuban nuns.
With a flair for the untried, she also possessed a big-as-God
“I can very easily
imagine Sister Bernadette saying, ‘Let’s raise birds,’” the
abbess says. And the nuns did, shipping parrots, parakeets,
cockatiels, lovebirds and finches to pet stores nationwide.
“I think if it
flew, they raised it,” chuckles the abbess.
Bird-care Impresses a Baptist
Call it fate,
call it divine circumstance, but without the nuns, Sister Angela
may not have been abbess today.
“I was not, and
my family was and is not, Catholic. We were Baptists,” Sister
father was a civil-service jet-engine mechanic who raised parakeets
to supplement the family income. When one military base closed,
the family relocated to the next base. Eventually, the Chandlers
moved to Corpus Christi.
bird-buying day,” Sister Angela reminisces. “People came with
their little cages of birds, and one person at a time, Sister
Bernadette would count out the birds, make sure they were healthy,
put the birds back into the cages and then buy them.”
Before long, Sister
Bernadette had enlisted Angela’s father as the monastery’s part-time
handyman. One day, Sister Bernadette’s plan changed. She gave
up birds and began raising monastery cats: long-haired Persians
Since the monastery
was short of help, teenage Angela joined the rehabilitation
crew. Bird cages were cleaned, painted and converted to cat
cages—and Baptist Angela converted to Catholic Angela.
“I worked up there
so much,” Sister Angela says, “that I didn’t have a social life
anymore. The sisters were my friends.” To understand the sisters
and their faith, Angela began reading, and Sister Bernadette
began sowing seeds of faith.
One day Angela
asked Sister Bernadette how to become a Catholic. She received
no response. “She doesn’t know that I’m just curious, that I
have no intentions of becoming a Catholic,” Sister Angela says.
A week later she asked again.
This time Sister
Bernadette took the inquiry seriously and initiated talks with
the chaplain. Meanwhile, two postulants, who had been inviting
Angela to adoration, handed the future abbess a prayer book
inscribed, “Laura entered on January 1. Esther entered on February
2. Your entrance date should be March 3!”
the abbess gasps, “and I wasn’t even Catholic.”
Studying the dates,
the chaplain said, “March 3 is Ash Wednesday. You can’t enter
on that day. You need to enter on a day of rejoicing. How about
the Sunday before—February 29, 1976?”
God’s will, 19-year-old Angela walked the streets of Corpus
Christi in pouring rain. “I was still very much clinging to
my Baptist faith, yet at the same time I was being drawn to
the Blessed Sacrament,” she says.
something more personal,” the abbess continues. “It was letting
God control my life, to the extent that if I pray and want to
do God’s will, he won’t let me do something that would harm
the Church one Sunday—and the monastery and full-time cat production
the next. It was perfect until a Monastery Cats customer, a
pet store in Florida, asked to inspect the registered cattery,
then bought out the sister’s business kit and caboodle. Their
monastery debt retired, the nuns soon realized they needed another
source for sustaining income.
Takes Two Horses
Sister Bernadette thought when she first answered the ads for
miniature horses in 1981. Many sisters, including Sister Bernadette,
were getting up in years and couldn’t physically handle larger
dollars!” Sister Bernadette exclaimed as she hung up. “Horsefeathers!”
she suddenly realized. “Why were we raising birds and cats when
you can get $3,000 for a horse?” She called the owner back.
“We can’t afford
$3,000, but if you’d like to donate a horse...,” the cowgirl
“Sure,” the lady
said. “We’ll donate a little horse to the little sisters.”
A mare on the
way, Sister Bernadette was already envisioning a full-scale
operation. But she first confided in a trusted friend and business
“Sister,” he admonished,
“you can’t raise horses with just one. It takes at least two!”
He then donated a little stallion.
Countdown, a chestnut
stallion, and Ginger, a pinto mare, stepped out of their TWA
crates and into the sisters’ hearts. Another 18 show horses
soon arrived, and the sisters had their first foal, Melody,
on March 27, 1982.
was in the offing. Would the monastery be bought out?
Located near an
abandoned U.S. Navy airfield, all was tranquil when the monastery
was built in the early 1960’s. A few years later, however, the
Navy reactivated the field.
“We learned to
talk in phrases,” Sister Angela says. “On a good, sunny day,
I clocked Navy planes going over every 20 seconds. The planes
were so noisy that we would instinctively duck, waiting for
them to fly in the front door and out the back.”
The Navy eventually
bought up all land within certain flight parameters.
Since many elderly
sisters were suffering from arthritis, the monastery left hurricane-prone
and humidity-soaked Corpus Christi and went inland to the rolling
hills of historic Washington County.
On 98 acres, Sisters
Bernadette and Angela oversaw construction of a guest house,
cross-shaped monastery and chapel. Before the other sisters
arrived Easter Week of 1986, Monastery Miniature Horses had
its first curiosity seekers from the local Chamber of Commerce.
“Excuse me! We
don’t do tours!” Sister Angela tried to explain. Tourists came
anyway, and they continue to have upward of 25,000 visitors
of their Arabian, quarter- and draft-horse cousins, miniatures
were virtually unheard of 20 years ago. Monastery legend has
it they were once playthings for young children of the palace,
and in the mid-1800’s miniature steeds reputedly pulled Empress
Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, around Paris.
like most fads, the winsome “toys” were almost forgotten. Intrigued
by the little fellows, ingenious horsemen, through generations
of selective breeding, began “miniaturizing” the large knights-and-armor
horses of the Middle Ages.
the miniature as a breed, the American Miniature Horse Association
was formed in 1978. The requirements included that, measured
from the withers to the ground, miniatures must be 34 inches
or less. Because miniatures evolved from many breeds, variations
in color and build are striking.
“You have Appaloosa
coloring, you have paint coloring,” says Abbess Sister Angela.
“Some will be more refined, look more like Arabians. Some will
be stockier, like your draft-horse or quarter-horse types. There
are all body styles, all colors.” There’s even a “Swedish horse”—blonde-haired
Averaging 20 pounds
at birth, miniatures stand less than 20 inches when born. “Usually
they give birth at night, preferably during a thunderstorm,”
the abbess explains, noting storms keep coyotes at bay. Occasionally,
a “show horse” will lie down and give birth in front of tourists.
Monastery Miniature Horses isn’t easy. The sisters often try
to coin a name by combining parents’ names. “But when you do
the same breeding year after year, it gets hard,” the abbess
Now totally monastery-run,
the operation isn’t about to founder. The sisters know the pedigrees
and personalities of all 70 horses. Monastery Miniature Horses
boasts several progeny at 26 inches, down from the industry’s
earlier average of 33 inches.
as the sisters are, there are no free oats at the monastery.
If a horse isn’t producing, it’s out to pasture—someone else’s
pasture. But Countdown and Ginger will always call it home.
Trades and Escapades
are like potato chips or peanuts,” the late Sister Bernadette
once told a reporter. “You can’t stop with one.” Internationally
known, Monastery Miniature Horses sells to private breeders
and concerns (a zoo in Spain owns two) as well as families.
Prices begin at $500 for a pet-quality miniature to $2,000 for
The abbess is
known to deal, particularly with families. “I’ll make all kinds
of trades and sometimes money never changes hands,” she says.
“I even got a donkey in the process.”
too small except for the youngest children to ride, the miniatures
are big on horseplay, especially during spring tours. “I’ve
had them jerk my veil off and run away with it,” laughs the
are frequent objects of their winsome affection.
off with my tools,” they complain, or “They hid my jacket.”
During a Christian Lifestyle Magazine TV interview, the
playful horses unplugged the film crew’s equipment. Then they
started unloading the crew’s truck. “If they weren’t into one
thing, it was another,” quips the abbess. In good-natured Christmas
fun, the sisters traditionally deck the horses in antlers and
Chance to Evangelize
Life at the Brenham
monastery does have its serious side. The sisters do answer
a call to mission. Unlike other monasteries, the Poor Clares’
missionary work comes directly to them.
“Many who see
the horses would never think of visiting a monastery because
they’re not Catholic,” the abbess says. “We’re able to tell
them why we’re here, what we’re doing, why we raise the horses,
but more importantly, about our prayer life.”
For one Lutheran
group, the chapel talk was a spiritual balm of reconciliation.
Motioning to St. Francis, a teary-eyed woman told the abbess,
“You are so lucky to have this heritage, this tradition.”
“It’s your history,
too,” the abbess responded. “This goes back before the Protestant
Reformation, way before the Church was split.”
With Baptist groups,
the abbess talks from the heart—and from experience. “Invariably,
guides will warn people that I was a Baptist. You can tell they’re
afraid for my soul.”
beliefs in a Baptist mentality, Sister Angela dispels popular
myths, particularly the one that Catholics worship saints.
“They [the saints]
shed their blood for Christ. They were crucified, drawn and
quartered or burned at the stake. The statues, relics or holy
cards are just reminders, just like the photos in your wallets
are reminders of your family.”
Praying to the
saints is another common area of misunderstanding. “You believe
in the mystical body of Christ, right?” asks Sister Angela.
“If we can pray for one another now, can’t those who have already
gone on to God pray for us, too? Their prayers should be a bit
more powerful than ours.”
Put that way,
the Baptists agree that it makes sense to ask the saints’ intercession.
worship is expressed so differently, the basic beliefs are there,”
Sister Angela says of the Baptist faith. “I believe everything
I did as a Baptist, but my beliefs have deepened so much more
Home now to eight
sisters, including four elderly Cuban sisters who survived Castro’s
takeover, the Brenham Monastery of St. Clare is looking for
an increase in vocations.
The sisters will
no doubt be successful in achieving that goal. It is their enterprising
nature and the horse sense they have picked up along the way
that will continue to lead them to new pastures.
The monastery grounds are open daily from 2 p.m. to 4
p.m., except on Christmas Day and during Holy Week. Hershey,
a chocolate lab, an African pygmy goat named Shenanigan,
Lil Dude the donkey and some fainting goats (they really
do faint) also call the monastery home.
by St. Francis, the sisters make and sell ceramic Nativity
scenes in the Art Barn. St. Francis is credited with portraying
the first Nativity, a live re-enactment in a cave near
the way, the chapel’s modernistic stained-glass windows
of St. Clare and St. Francis glow in the afternoon sun.
A reliquary, holding relics of both of the saints, is
located on the altar. A book is provided for writing out
The Monastery of St. Clare is nine miles east of Brenham
on Texas Highway 105. Guided tours are available for groups
of 15 or more; reservations are required. For further
information, contact the sisters at the Monastery of St.
Clare, 9280 Highway 105, Brenham, TX 77833, telephone
is a free-lance writer and photographer from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
She had a heyday doing this story, she says.