“Prepare well to be a wife and mother, because either way that’s your vocation.”
That is Mother Mary Clare’s advice to young women discerning the religious life.
Discernment is a journey that has shaped and reshaped the life of the 34-year-old nun, who lived in Winsted, Minn., and graduated Trinity High School in 1997.
“I basically grew up Catholic all my life,” she explained. “I never really had a positive experience with a sister. It was never presented me as a beautiful … experience.”
When Claire Roufs left for St. Paul, Minn., to attend the University of St. Thomas, she expected to get an accounting degree, get married and have children.
Religious vocations were weird, she thought, not something normal people do. But after befriending seminarians at St. Thomas, she made a discovery.
“They were normal,” she said. “I just realized how beautiful their vocation is.”
Roufs switched her major to Catholic studies and began discerning the religious life, but she repeatedly came to the same conclusion — she was being called to marriage.
She also struggled with a lack of belonging. There was a seminary for young men, she said, but “nothing for women.” There weren’t any orders of young women religious nearby, and she didn’t feel like she fit in with older ones.
Still, there was something in her heart that desired to be given to God, so when she went to New York to see a Yankees game and ended up at Mass, she was struck.
“The whole church was full of young religious,” she added. “I got really scared at that point.”
After more praying, the meaning of Roufs’ call to marriage became clear. God was inviting her to live with him alone, to be his spouse, and to do his work.
She was ready to answer the call, with one caveat.
“I was convinced God wanted something new in Minnesota,” she said.
She didn’t think he meant her.
Roufs went to New York in 2002 to live with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, an order of young women established in 1988. She was honest with her superior and continued to pray someone would start an order in Minnesota. The longing for home would be part of her sacrifice, she thought.
“I tried, and for two years, it was really such a struggle in my heart,” she said.
Finally, she accepted that for her, New York City “wasn’t home, and it wasn’t right.” She asked God to make it clear to her superior, “help her to help me take this next step.”
“I didn’t actually trust myself,” she added.
Soon after, she was approached by her superior, who’d felt a clear sense in her prayers that Roufs needed to follow God’s will for her.
“To me, it was an answer to my prayer,” she remembers.
That didn’t make it any easier. Becoming a nun was weird enough, she thought. Starting an order? Even weirder.
“No one does it,” she said.
Returning to Minnesota from New York in 2004, Roufs was heartbroken. She’d studied the lives of women who founded religious orders. It usually involved living alone for 50 years, then being joined by one or two others before death — a life of pain and struggle.
“I just want to be normal and live a religious life,” she admitted. “Going home — it was like, no, Lord.”
Roufs sought clarity. She took a train, thinking, “It worked for Mother Teresa; maybe it’ll work for me.”
Coming home, she rejoiced in seeing the prairie. She was working for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and discerning consecrated virginity, having realized she wanted to live a consecrated life in the archdiocese. She wanted to be near friends.
“It was just so homey to me,” she said. “There was nowhere to live consecrated life in that context.”
Once again, Roufs was prepared to “just live that way,” but another detour was coming. She was at Mass on Dec. 7, 2006, when, at the words “Mary, how beautiful is the name of Mary,” Roufs felt “flooded with grace.” She thought of motherhood and parish work.
“It was that clear of a grace in that moment,” she said. She experienced the “feeling of joy, like being called to be a bride of Jesus — joy and freedom and a desire to say yes.”
Then, she went home and questioned her sanity.
But this time, Roufs felt confident of God’s intent.
“He was showing me that I wouldn’t know the way,” she said. “He would have me by the hand.”
She sought counsel from her spiritual director, who thought it was the Holy Spirit guiding her. In the coming months, Roufs would feel God telling her to approach more women and invite them to join her.
She told God she needed some names.
“I wasn’t just going to put an advertisement in the paper,” she joked.
So, with divine guidance, Roufs approached three women, asked if they were interested in starting a new religious order, and gave them time to pray about it.
“Basically, by the end of April, they all came back,” she said. “So, there were four of us. We had a community.”
Roufs went away to pray with a contemplative order for two months, to ask God’s will “so it would be his community and not ours.”
The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus formed in August 2007 in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, with permission from Archbishop Harry Flynn.
The order’s four-part charism is Marian, diocesan, eucharistic and evangelistic. Simply put, they seek to emulate Mary by being the “mother” of a parish. They are an apostolic rather than contemplative order, which means they work in the community.
At the invitation of Bishop John LeVoir, the order moved to the Diocese of New Ulm in 2009. In accordance with canon 301 of the Code of Canon Law, the bishop formally established the Handmaids as a public association of the faithful in 2010. A public association of the faithful is public because its apostolate, e.g., teaching Catholic doctrine “in the name of the Church,” is the realm of church authority.
The community converted a school into a convent in Searles, where charity is their only source of income. Theirs is the first motherhouse in the New Ulm Diocese.
Today, the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus consists of 11 women — eight professed and three novices — all younger than 35 years old. Roufs, now Mother Mary Clare, was studying for a master’s degree in theology when St. Paul Seminary began offering a master’s degree in religious education. She switched majors, and the other Handmaids followed suit.
The program included theology as well as more practical knowledge on how things are done in a parish, plus instruction on curriculum development, catechesis, leadership and more. They only attend classes in summer.
According to Mother Mary Clare, they ask that postulants have a bachelor’s degree because, as a young order, the Handmaids don’t have the capability to teach their own classes. Novices receive some of their formation through the graduate degree program; another benefit is that young women gain maturity when they spend time in the world rather than moving from their parents’ household to the convent.
For now, the Handmaids only accept women 35 years or younger.
“If a girl is too long in the world, too long independent, to join becomes very difficult for her,” their mother superior explained. “She has to die in a way a younger girl doesn’t have to.”
The word “die” might sound harsh, but the language of their habits says the same. The black tunic, their wedding dress, means death to the world, and the white scapula signifies purity and heaven. The veil marks a bride of Christ.
The Handmaids designed and made their own habits, which also correlate to a priest’s garments and their parish-centered charism. Habits are worn daily until 10 p.m., another reminder of each woman’s deliberate choice to retreat from the world and focus on God and prayer.
Mother Mary Clare had no intention to enter religious life, but every intention to get married and have children. Still, she found it difficult to accept the role of mother.
“I wanted to be humble, and like everyone else,” she explained. “Basically, our first few years were very rough. Our community really suffered from that.”
By seeking counsel from mother superiors in other orders, she came to realize she had a duty to be “faithful to the Lord’s choice of me.”
“I came to realize that I had a responsibility as mother,” she said.
Once she’d surrendered to that responsibility, there was a “night and day difference” in the convent.
Still, there’s a learning curve.
“Like any mother … you have your first kid, and you don’t really know what to do with it,” said Mother Mary Clare. She trusts God’s grace will help her and, someday, her successor. Mother Mary Clare will profess her final vows this summer — the first of the order to do so.
The Handmaids awaken at 5 a.m. each day. They pray and attend Mass until 7:45 a.m. After breakfast, they go to classes, study, do chores or work at their apostolate until lunch. From noon until 1:30 p.m., they eat, pray and rest in silence. The afternoon continues with more prayer, additional work time and a communal dinner at 5:15 p.m. In the evening, they pray, work and take time for recreation. Grand silence — the time for each Handmaid to spend alone with her Spouse — begins at 9 p.m.
The sisters’ apostolate grew out of Mother Mary Clare’s spark of divine inspiration during that 2006 Mass.
“We’re in a parish, like a mother is in a family,” she explained. “What does a mom do? She does everything.”
Their very presence attests to their consecration to the Lord, she said, and they also perform any function needed in the parish — they help out in the sacristy, clean and iron linens, provide music, help parishioners, teach religion and catechism classes and more.
Ultimately, they bring a feminine presence to parishes, according to Mother Mary Clare. When the priest needs support, they’ll offer encouragement. If conflict arises between the priest and a member of his flock, a Handmaid can help reconcile any differences.
“They’re like single-parent homes,” she said of today’s parishes. “They’re surviving, but they’re not thriving.”
She hopes the Handmaids, living in Mary’s image with God’s grace, can help make parishes a happier home.