A made-in-Minnesota order of Catholic nuns has moved into a second home in Duluth.

Four sisters of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus settled into their new digs in the former rectory of Holy Family Catholic Church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood Aug. 17 after months of laying hardwood, and mudding, taping, sanding and painting walls and ceilings.

The four nuns will serve the three parishes where the Rev. Ryan Moravitz is the pastor - Holy Family, St. Lawrence and St. Joseph - "in largely humble, hidden ways," said Sister Mary Joseph, 35, the local superior. They'll be involved in religious education in the three parishes, she said, and two of them will teach grades 6-8 religion on the St. James campus of Stella Maris Academy.

But their mission is deeper than that.

Mother Mary Clare with The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, a Minnesota order of nuns, sweeps one of the rooms of a Lincoln Park home that they are making into their convent. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
Mother Mary Clare with The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, a Minnesota order of nuns, sweeps one of the rooms of a Lincoln Park home that they are making into their convent. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

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"It's not simply about what jobs we'll do or what tasks we'll do, but our call to be a witness to the truth that God is real," said Mary Joseph, as she, other sisters and volunteers were putting some of the finishing touches on the convent on Saturday. "He's worth giving our entire lives for. He loves us."

It was a calling she sensed while still in high school, said Mary Joseph, who grew up in the Twin Cities. But it was not until an October 2008 phone conversation with Mother Mary Clare, the order's founder, that she knew specifically what her purpose was.

"My heart just burned," Mary Joseph said. "I honestly knew in that moment that my life had changed."

A native of Winsted, Minn., Mary Clare, 39, spent time with a religious community in New York City but felt called to starting a new order in her native state, she said on Saturday, as she also helped with the move-in.

Mother Mary Clare (left) and Sister Mary Joseph with The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, a Minnesota order of nuns, carry their alter into a Lincoln Park home they are making into their convent. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
Mother Mary Clare (left) and Sister Mary Joseph with The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, a Minnesota order of nuns, carry their alter into a Lincoln Park home they are making into their convent. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

"I'm a Minnesota girl, and New York culture is wonderful to visit but not great to live in," Mary Clare said. "(I) just love Minnesota."

The order started with Mary Clare and three other nuns living in a small house in St. Paul in 2007. It was named Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus because "we actually felt called to a new way of living the religious life, which is really living in imitation of Mary," Mary Clare said.

The community's name is a reference to the response of Mary when she was visited by the angel Gabriel, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord (Luke 1:38)."

They became established as a religious community within the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn., in 2010. The order has grown to 21 sisters as of Wednesday.

Able to expand, they envisioned doing additional work in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. But challenges in obtaining a construction permit from the city of St. Paul put those plans on hold, Mary Clare said.

Meanwhile, Bishop Paul Sirba of the Diocese of Duluth and Marovitz had been urging the order to come to the Northland. Marovitz, in his first weekend as pastor at Holy Family - more than a year ago - showed the sisters the vacant rectory adjacent to the church and suggested it would be an ideal home for them.

Sister Mary Joseph of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus paints a wall in the Lincoln Park convent which will be home to several nuns. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
Sister Mary Joseph of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus paints a wall in the Lincoln Park convent which will be home to several nuns. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Mary Clare figured it would be 3-5 years before the Handmaids could have a presence in Duluth, she said.

But with the doors closed in St. Paul and open in Duluth, they took a second look at the substantial, two-story house this past April, Mary Joseph said. During the first weekend in May, it was announced in the diocese that the Handmaids were coming to Duluth, and the sisters started renovating the rectory.

That entailed two major projects, Mary Joseph said. One was installing hardwood floors; the other was splitting the three upstairs bedrooms into six, because it's planned to eventually have a half-dozen Handmaids in Duluth.

They received significant help from volunteers from the local Catholic community, but the sisters put in hundreds of hours themselves, she said. "There are volunteers that framed the walls and did the sheetrocking. The sisters did all the mudding and taping and sanding (and) painting."

Sister Magdalena  of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus paints a wall in the Lincoln Park convent which will be home to several nuns. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
Sister Magdalena of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus paints a wall in the Lincoln Park convent which will be home to several nuns. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Whether mudding and taping or hiking the Temperance River while on retreat in the Finland area, the Handmaids always wear traditional habits. That makes them uncommon even among today's nuns.

"There are about 4,000 moose in Minnesota and there's probably less than 100 habited nuns," Mary Clare said. "So, we are a rare breed."

Mary Clare was careful to explain that she's not critical of nuns who don't wear habits. But for the Handmaids, she said, the way they dress symbolizes their beliefs.

"I get to be a sign of heaven," she said. "That God is real, No. 1, and God is good, No. 2. ... That's what we're supposed to witness, which is what we do with our habits. It's an external sign of the internal reality of what our heart has chosen."

The sisters are well aware that in Lincoln Park, they've come to one of Duluth's poorest neighborhoods, where the average life expectancy is 11 years less than in some more affluent parts of town.

"We see it very much as the Lord's goodness and his desire for us to be in this neighborhood," Mary Joseph said. "There is a real gift in being here with those who are poor or maybe have a more difficult life and hardships - to be living among them, to be that sign of hope for them as well."