New head of house
The Benedictine Sisters at Saint Martin Monastery have a new head of house, having elected, the youngest nun, Sister Marva Coakley as prioress. Coakley will serve a four-year term.
Coakley was installed as prioress during Evening Vespers on May 19 at Immaculate Conception Chapel in Saint Martin Monastery, presided over by Sister Kerry O’Reilly, president of the Federation of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Being elected prioress is something the senior mistress at Sts. Francis and Joseph School had mixed feelings about. Even though she was a part of the Monastery’s governing body, the Council, which advises the prioress in everything they do — she said it wasn’t a position she was looking forward to, because she does not feel ready for the position. Coakley believes she would do a better job with more grooming time to prepare her for the role of prioress.
“I don’t feel fully ready,” said Coakley.
But she noted that God does the calling, and that all of their elections are done through discernment and prayer.
“My first inclination was to decline, but my fellow sisters reminded me that if we are in the process of discernment, how could I decline.” Coakley kept her name in the electoral hat and was elected to the top post.
Top goals for her will be the encouragement of vocation, and ensuring the community remains financially stable.
Coakley assumes the prioress role during the Monastery’s 81st year, and at a time when the community continues to struggle to attract younger women to a life of service to God to ensure the continuity of the dwindling society that now numbers at 11 — and in which the age range is 65-plus and older. Without an influx of youth, once the current group of women die out, there will be no more nuns in The Bahamas.
Coakley said as prioress she would use the opportunity to get out more into the churches, and visit high schools, including non-Catholic high schools that Catholics attend, to put out recruitment feelers.
“We have a program called ‘Come and See’ — and they come and see, say it was wonderful, but they go. I hope I’m freed up to put more effort into public relations, because the recruitment process is lacking. I have to be more steady, consistent, and persistent,” she said.
Coakley said her attraction to the community, when she joined in the 1970s was the prayer life of the nuns, and how they lived and existed together.
She joined the Benedictine Order in 1977 and earned a Bachelor’s degree in education and theology from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and a Master’s degree in education from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Among her ministries within the community were teaching in New Providence, Grand Bahama and Bimini. Besides her senior mistress responsibilities, presently she is a vocation director at the monastery, and a religious coordinator at St. Bede’s Church.
As prioress, Coakley will have to resign from her duties outside the monastery although she will continue on in her senior mistress duties until the end of the school year.
“[Resigning] as a member of the school community frees me up to be more visible.”
While she will miss the children, she said having to resign is for the greater good.
“I’m here until school closes for the summer. I’ll be here to put closure — not that I’m looking forward to it. I have mixed feelings When they asked me to leave my name in during election process, I had to remember I came to see God and helping someone along the way to know, and love God. Being a teacher was secondary. I was the last person outside with a full-time job, now the community will be my first and only responsibility.”
Coakley also has to resign her duties as Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) coordinator at St. Bede’s Parish she said would kind of box her in.
“This new challenge as prioress frees me to be more available to the sisters and give retreats.”
Coakley is most looking forward to the spiritual part of her new job. As the last person outside the community with a full-time job, she said sometimes she would get caught up in work and things outside their walls.
“Our life is a life of prayer and service, and that’s what I hope to continue in the community that Sister Annie and the other prioresses before her started. We are still 11 thank God, but some of the sisters need care now and it’s up and down to the doctors, but the beautiful thing is we are working as a team, which makes it easier.”
In the Rule of Benedict’s monastic profession, nuns seek God through commitment to community life. Together they strive for a life of continuous growth, learning renewal and service to others.
Their vows include stability, a lifelong commitment to particular community, fidelity to the monastic way of life, a promise to seek God by embracing the pattern of living inspired by the rule of St. Benedict; obedience, a commitment to attentive listening, discernment and responding to the will of God.
She said they will continue to be team players, but the buck has to stop with someone. “It’s not like political governance, but a team, each one of us has a gift. We all have to vote on what we do. We collaborate. We pray, discern, and vote on how to carry out mission. Unity is strength and where there is teamwork, and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.”— Mattie Stepane
Coakley holds firm to the Benedictine motto — Ora Et Laboura — which means work and prayer, and prayer and work. She said life for them is balance of work with prayer life.
Coakley succeeds Sister Annie Thompson who served as prioress from 2014-2018.
Benedictines as the oldest Order in the western church have nurtured and mentored numerous women’s religious communities. St. Martin’s Monastery is one such community.