In tough part of St. Louis, cloistered nuns pray

ST. LOUIS - During the day, the blocks surrounding the Mount Grace Convent seem to reflect the tranquility inside the cloister walls. With the exception of the hum of traffic on nearby Interstate 70 and the church bells that ring hourly, it's a quiet neighborhood.

But as night falls, that all changes.

Gunfire fills the air. Police cruisers roam the College Hill neighborhood, officers frequently stopping to talk to those on the streets. City leaders often refer to this northeast neighborhood as one of the city's most dangerous.

Inside the convent, 24 cloistered nuns pray.

The order, better known as the Pink Sisters because of the color of their habits, prays around the clock. Since the convent and chapel opened in 1928, there has always been at least one sister kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament.

"This place is much different," said Sister Mary Catherine Smith, who came here 50 years ago. The superior of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, Smith said the neighborhood changes began in the early 1980s when a guard had to be posted outside the chapel.

"Things started to get bad. People were getting accosted."

Visitors returning from prayer in the chapel would find their cars broken into, she said. The chapel, once open 24 hours, now closes when the sun goes down. Copper thieves have stolen guttering at Mount Grace, but the sisters themselves have not had any problems.

"The Lord has really been protecting us," Smith said.

The changes made by the sisters reflect the decades-long decline of the neighborhood. A recent spate of violence has made College Hill a priority for police.

Two weeks ago, about 80 police officers converged on the troubled neighborhood, where Police Chief Sam Dotson pledged saturation of law enforcement until the violence stops.

At least three murders have occurred in the neighborhood this year, as well as other shootings. The violence outside the convent does not go unnoticed inside the convent.

"We hear gunshots, oh yes, and we pray nothing happens here," Smith said. She has a good relationship with the police sergeant who works the neighborhood. Smith has his cellphone number but hopes she won't have to use it.

The sisters are known as perpetual adorers, lifting up in prayer the needs of every heart. That can be a heavy burden, but it's one to which the nuns have committed their lives. About 400 nuns share the mission at 21 other Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters convents around the world.

The sisters living here at the 2½-acre compound are from the Philippines, Germany, Holland, Brazil, Puerto Rico and the U.S. They range in age from 30 to 91. They seldom leave the immaculate grounds, restricting most of their outdoor visits to a large garden surrounded by a tall stone wall. The cloister sustains itself financially through donations for daily prayers.

The sisters pray for the safety of those in wars around the world. They pray for a "good successor" to Pope Benedict XVI, who is resigning Feb. 28. They pray for the priests who guide congregations.

And they pray for the safety of their neighborhood.

Prayer requests come in various forms, including email.

"Prayer requests received through this Web site cannot be acknowledged in writing, but be assured that we are remembering them before the Blessed Sacrament," states the convent site. "We are pleased to join our prayers to yours for the intentions that you submit to us."

The nuns keep watch on the outside world by subscribing to the Post-Dispatch and reading news on the Internet.

"We know our current needs," Smith said. There is never a short prayer list.

The Rev. Tom Krosnicki serves as chaplain at Mount Grace and lives next door to the nuns. He walks the neighborhood daily, serving as eyes and ears for the sisters, who leave for little else than medical appointments. They vote absentee.

(Eleven of the sisters did, however, attend the Mass delivered by Pope John Paul II at the Edward Jones Dome during his visit to St. Louis in January 1999. Their prayers at that time implored God to bring good weather.)

The role of the sisters is an important one, Krosnicki said, but is not enough to turn around a crumbling part of the city.

"Prayer is important, but there are some systemic problems that have to be addressed," he said. "Family life, education and jobs."

Krosnicki said his walks are restricted to daylight.

"I normally won't go out after dark. It's just not advisable," he said. He stops teens and asks why they are not in school.

"They always have excuses," Krosnicki said.

An architecture buff, he is disheartened by the decay of a once impressive housing stock, much of it boarded up or falling down. Buildings such as Lowell School and St. James Church of Christ sit vacant.

At a standing-room-only community meeting this month at the new recreation center in nearby O'Fallon Park, Alderman Antonio French said too few neighborhood anchors remain.

French attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help School at 20th Street and Linton Avenue, a few blocks from Mount Grace Convent and Chapel. It closed in the early 1990s, just after French graduated from eighth grade.

"I immediately noticed after it closed, the neighborhood going down," French said. The key to getting the neighborhood back on track, he said, is to reopen shuttered buildings and provide recreation and education opportunities.

"If you believe at all in the broken window theory, almost every window in College Hill is broken," French said. "It shows that no one cares about the neighborhood. Buildings with only three of the four walls standing. They need to be torn down, the green space beautified and make it look cared for."

One of the most beautiful green spaces in the neighborhood is the convent garden, surrounded by a towering stone wall and off-limits to the public. The view to the outside is mainly of rooftops.

Even that restricted view gives a clear picture: Gutters dangling, chimneys leaning, shingles gone.

Visitors to the convent are buzzed in and met in the lobby by a nun peering through a small window in a door. They are directed to a parlor off the lobby. A few minutes later, the superior sister enters, talking with visitors through a wall of clear plastic lattice work.

When the nuns pray in the chapel, they do so at the altar. A gate separates them from the rest of the sanctuary, where at any time during the day a few people slide into a pew to pray. An electronic counter tallies just more than 600 visitors in the 90 hours a week the chapel is open.

Cloistered nuns dedicate themselves to a life of isolation so they can devote their time to prayer. Smith pauses only slightly when asked if she and the other nuns get lonely.

"The Lord is a great companion," she said. The nuns have a social time each day, but their TV is seldom used. They watched Stan Musial's Mass and plan to watch the election of a new pope and his installation.

The nuns have a blog, but the last entry wished visitors a Merry Christmas.

French said the increased police presence seems to be paying off, and he's grateful for the support.

"If they get the three or four (people) at the center of it all, everything will calm down," French said. "The real test is going to be what happens when (police) reduce their presence."

Meanwhile, the nuns at Mount Grace will be praying. As their website states: "Every distress and hardship in the world should find a vigorous response in our prayer."

French, raised in Catholic school, is not one to argue with that position.

"Everybody's got their own approach," he said. "Surely, we accept prayers."