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Hold Your Holy Horses!

 


 

 

 

 

It's a story about a big state, small horses and enterprising Franciscan nuns.

Text and photos by Marion Amberg

 

 
Fleeing Cuba With Divine Assistance

'Door of the Dead'

The New Land

Retiring a Debt

Their Bird-care Impresses a Baptist

Angela's Conversion

It Takes Two Horses

A New Home

Even 'Swedish' Horses

Horse Trades and Escapades

A Chance to Evangelize

Come and Visit

 

 

"Withers” 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.

The sisters, 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.

Fleeing 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.

Thankfully, the 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.

Temporarily residing 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 requesting admittance.

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.

'Door of the Dead'

Centuries before 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 square.

“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 world.”

The New Land

“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.

“The American 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.”

Persistence and 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.

Retiring A Debt

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 faith.

“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.

Their 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 Angela says.

Sister Angela’s 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.

“Saturday was 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 and Himalayans.

Angela's Conversion

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!”

“It’s mid-February,” 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?”

Agonizing over 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.

“Faith became 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 my soul.”

Angela entered 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.

It Takes Two Horses

Monastery pet, 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 horses.

“Three thousand 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 nun appealed.

“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 adviser.

“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.

A New Home

Another change 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 annually.

Even 'Swedish' Horses

Tiny replicas 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.

But 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.

Officially recognizing 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 and blue-eyed.

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.

Christening the 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 says.

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 kind-hearted 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.

Horse Trades and Escapades

“Miniature horses 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 breeding stock.

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.”

Much 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 abbess.

Workmen, too, are frequent objects of their winsome affection.

“They’re running 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 bells.

A 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.”

Explaining Catholic 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.

“Although the 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 now.”

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.

 

Come and Visit

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.

Inspired 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 Greccio, Italy.

Lighting 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 prayer requests.

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 (409) 836-9652.

 

Marion Amberg is a free-lance writer and photographer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She had a heyday doing this story, she says.

 

 


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