The first thing you notice when you visit the Little Sisters of the Lamb in Kansas City, Kan., is the neighborhood. It isn’t the typical neighborhood where you might find a religious house. The houses are a little the worse for wear and the yards are small; the cars are old and shabby, or souped up and shiny.
The Community of the Lamb dreams of building a one-acre miniature monastic house in this lower-income neighborhood. But the way they are going about raising $1.1 million, like the way they obtain their meals, is unconventional. To say the least.
“We knock on the doors and ask for our daily bread because we live on providence,” Sister Bénédicte of France told Our Sunday Visitor. And if they don’t find food that way? “We go to the soup kitchen.”
“We like to say that we are poor among the poor,” she said. “We live in very simple neighborhoods, and we announce the Good News by being poor.”
Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said their approach is winning hearts. And souls. “The joy they derive from their simplicity of life and their living among the poor has motivated others to live more simply and to have a greater concern with the poor,” he told OSV.
The Little Sisters of the Lamb, which have seven sisters in Kansas City, are Dominicans, like the two American congregations whose remarkable growth The Associated Press noticed on Sept. 15. The wire service reported on the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., which had 27 postulants this fall, and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich., which saw 22 postulants enter this fall. Their average age is close to 28, said the story. Most of the Kansas City sisters are in their 30s.
The Community of the Lamb, made up of Little Sisters of the Lamb and Little Brothers of the Lamb, was recognized in France in 1983 by Archbishop Jean-Marcel Chabbert, then archbishop of Perpignan. Today, they are established in countries around the world: France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Poland, Germany, Argentina, Chile and the United States.
The Little Sisters of the Lamb wear blue habits belted by long rosaries. They come from Europe mainly, and they live a radical lifestyle. They are contemplatives who immerse themselves in prayer and poverty.
Most important mission
The stories of the sisters are as varied as their countries of origin. Sister Alma (they don’t use last names) comes from Austria and says she first heard of the sisters in Vienna. She said then, “It is not possible to live like this,” like throwbacks to the Middle Ages. She saw two of the sisters in the street and spoke with them almost as a challenge. A year later, she decided to join them.
Sister Stephanie is from Luxembourg. She met the sisters there at a prayer group. “I was looking for a community which lives in a very radical way in poverty and prayer,” she said.
Sister Bénédicte is French, as is Sister Marie, who founded the Little Sisters. The founder has said that she didn’t expect to start a community when she sought an answer to the problem of evil during a night in silent adoration.
“This sentence of St. Paul’s arose in my heart,” she said. “In his own flesh, Christ destroyed the enmity; in his own person, he killed hatred” (Eph 2:14-16).
That concept is central to the sisters’ mission. The motto of the community is: “Wounded, I will never cease to love.”
Sister Stephanie summed up the charism this way: “We are contemplatives, so our most important mission is prayer, and in our prayer times we contemplate Jesus poor and crucified. We learn to convert our own hearts through the Gospel that we meditate on every day. With the Gospel we learn to live in community and to forgive each other in our daily life. Then we can go and announce the good news to all those whom the Lord sends us every day.”
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a fellow Dominican, is the order’s bishop protector. But it was Archbishop Naumann who brought them to Kansas after being impressed by them in Rome.
When the cardinal visited the sisters’ house earlier this year, the joy on his and the sisters’ faces was palpable. It was like a family reunion. Accompanying the sisters on a cross-country bus ride to see the cardinal give a presentation was an experience. They read or chatted, took a lively interest in the details of their visitors’ lives, and burst spontaneously into prayerful song. Even the bus driver was impressed.
The Little Sisters of the Lamb live in poverty. Their house is sparsely decorated and even more sparsely furnished. Despite it all, it’s hard not to be struck by how happy the sisters are — or to be changed by it.
But the layout of the house doesn’t quite fit with the sisters’ community life.
The sisters’ proposed new monastery will be called Lumen Christi , the Light of Christ.
Archbishop Naumann said: “The Little Sisters’ many friends in the archdiocese are assisting them by creating opportunities for others to meet the Little Sisters, to pray with them, and to hear their witness of the Gospel. To meet the Little Sisters is to love them and to want to help them.”
How to help is the question. Theirs is an unorthodox fundraising campaign.
As the Leaven, the archiocesan newspaper for Kansas City points out, the Little Sisters have asked that potential donors pray first, and then offer whatever monetary help they wish. “We are always ready to do what we can,” Sister Stephanie told the paper, “but we also know that we will need a lot of help.”
The computer graphic of the building project may look flashy, but the finished product won’t. The plan calls for simple structures with tiny rooms in sections for candidates, sisters, and visiting priests, a refectory, and a large chapel. The chapel will be the interface with the outside world.
Otherwise, the buildings will be laid out in a square around an inner courtyard. Everything will be one story tall, so as not to be bigger than anything else in the neighborhood. Only the chapel, with its Eastern-style cupola, will stand out.
Why such a modest arrangement? Why not build more? It’s all part of the message.
“The true revolution is not freedom to do whatever you like. It is freedom to live the Gospel,” said Sister Bénédicte. “When we live the Gospel, we are in some way countercultural.”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
On the web (sidebar)
For more information on the Little Sisters of the Lamb, visit www.communautedelagneau.org
Giant Small Gifts (sidebar)
Kansas City’s John Gillcrist was surprised when his daughter Molly sent out invitations for her 16th birthday party. The parents planned a big party with more than 40 guests.
When they saw the invitation, they were surprised. Their daughter had written “please don’t bring a gift, but if you’d like, give a gift to the Little Sisters of the Lamb.”
Gillcrist met the sisters at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., when Cardinal Schonborn came to speak. “I sat with the Little Sisters, right next to Sister Alma,” he said. “They are intoxicating. You just fall in love with them.”
Sarah Book met the sisters through her husband, Mike, who does legal work for them.
“We invited them over for Christmas dinner three years ago,” she said. “It was probably the best Christmas we’d ever had. They’re just pure joy. Pure love.”
Her daughters, 8 and 6, along with two friends, kept asking permission to make a lemonade stand this summer. The timing was never right. Finally, an opportunity came. After an hour, when the parents asked the children how much they were charging, the children said, “We ask people for whatever they want to give to the Little Sisters.”