Looking at them today, in the shadow of the peace flag flying in front of the fir-wood church, the Poor Clare sisters of Lecce are almost an icon. Of a sustainable life choice at a time when the need to safeguard the environment seems to have been placed in parenthesis in the face of aggressive development fueled by wars and violence. Of a religious vocation that has allowed itself to be questioned by the questions that life has put before it, sometimes without too much care, and precisely in order to remain faithful to its roots has been able to find a new angle. Of a very feminine ability to abandon oneself to the imaginative paths of Providence, which among its favorites can make use of prodigious benefactors as well as unlikely blazoned figures.
Italy’s first completely eco-friendly monastery is on the outskirts of Lecce, three kilometres from the triumphant baroque found in the city centre. It has white, low buildings – nuns’ cells, a small guesthouse, laboratory, chapter house and two small parlour rooms - converging around the Church. In its architecture, it recalls the farms of the surrounding area, on a nine-hectare plot of land, among young trees and paths marked by white stones and lavender bushes.
There are four people living there, Celeste, Marilù, Ilenia and Romina, all in their 50s, vocations that commenced in the Apulian Church, in Catholic Action. Twenty years ago, they would never have imagined finding themselves here, in these environments where the cloister is an open door to creation and also a welcome for pilgrims who come here in search of a space of silence and prayer.
The history of the sisters of St Clare is intertwined with the installation of methane transport and distribution pipelines in the area where the monastery was located. “Our monastery was founded in the 17th century, in Soleto. Since then we have always had vocations. Until twenty years ago, many girls asked to enter, even some Albanians”. At the end of the year 2000, “the methanisation plant was installed around the perimeter of the monastery, using a jackhammer. In a short time, many cracks appeared in the walls”. Nuns who had been there for 60 years, some in their nineties, along with the younger ones were forced to pack up in a hurry and look for “a temporary location within a few days”, says Celeste, the community leader. This sentence was not chosen at random. In fact, it is one of the most famous expressions used by Don Tonino Bello – “I think there is no better formula to define the cross” - a saintly bishop from Puglia, who smiles from a photograph on the walls of the monastery and whom Celeste herself had as a parish priest as a child in Tricase.
In the bright parlour, where the heat outside is kept at bay by the wooden walls, the story continues over some excellent strawberry and lemon juice, a product of the small home garden. “After the hasty abandonment of the monastery, we were first received in an exercise house in the diocese of Otranto. Then the Franciscan friars offered us hospitality in an uninhabited former convent in San Simone, diocese of Nardò - Gallipoli. But we were nostalgic for our diocese of origin, where our community was the only monastic presence”. The bond with the city is strong: the martyrs of Otranto, canonised in 2013, ascended to the altars precisely thanks to the miraculous healing of one of their seriously ill sisters for whom, in 1980, during a pilgrimage of the Martyrs’ urn, the community prayed, and received grace. So, in 2008, after six years, the Poor Clares returned to their home diocese of Otranto, to a convent of the Minim Friars. “For some time, however, we had been thinking of establishing small presences in other places. In 2003, the first community was founded in Shkodra, with four Albanian and three Italian sisters. We were looking for hospitality for another foundation in Apulia. We had not considered Lecce because it was in Salento anyway, so we thought of going to the north of the region. But in the end it was precisely the city of Lecce that offered all the conditions to bring the project into being”. In 2010, Bishop Domenico Umberto D’Ambrosio made part of a 16th century building in the city’s historic centre available to the Poor Clares. “A free loan on the premises where the diocesan Caritas used to be. It was a great challenge for us”. With no green space, amidst the splendors of the Baroque and the hustle and bustle of tourists, the nuns who moved in had to rethink their call to a life of prayer and silence in the heart of Lecce’s nightlife. In an area where, as in other historic centers, “the houses of very wealthy people and the hovels of very poor people from all backgrounds’ coexist. The building where the small community lived is behind the cathedral, in the same street where there is municipal housing for disadvantaged families. “As soon as we arrived, we became a point of reference. Many thought that the Caritas service, which had meanwhile moved elsewhere, had returned. We started to forge relationships with the people in the area”. One of the community rooms was used for hospitality, another was used as a chapel. “Certainly experiencing our monastic day while in the buildings across the street, families were hanging clothes, fighting, eating, which helped us to embody prayer. Alex, Ivan, Mohamed and other names are mentioned time and again. These are the situations that the nuns have entrusted to prayer, such as two young suicides, alcoholics, boys with drug problems. Or the immigrants they helped to return home, on the other side of the Mediterranean. “Many knocked on our door and we opened, while trying not to distort our daily life. Living as the poor with the poor, without direct social service. The roots of our rootedness there went back to our experience in the city centre”. A delicate situation that went on for six years. During that time, the nuns searched in vain for another type of accommodation, which was better suited to the monastic form of life. “But indeed it was very difficult to find another place in the city that suited us”.
Until, unexpectedly, a series of events overlapped, with no rational connection between them, but a lot of fascinating sense of serendipity. “One evening, two people knocked on our door. They introduced themselves as a couple, a Polish woman and an Italian man, both of whom had a disability. He told us he belonged to a noble family. Their suitcases with all their belongings had been stolen, so they were asking for hospitality”. The nuns accepted the story without further question, while cultivating the relationship, they spoke of their dream of a monastery in contact with nature elsewhere. When the couple left after a week without saying a word, they left behind a print of some wooden houses, as a sign of good luck, together with a large cheque, a gift from his supposed mother. The nuns were under no illusions, so they checked, and the cheque turned out to be overdrawn. No trace of the couple. Two days later a friend, a retired banker, “told us that two wealthy sisters from Lecce wanted to make a donation. Some land and some money”. The first cheque from the benefactors, Dolores and Teresa Magliola, much to our surprise, corresponded more or less to the amount of the bogus one left by the two poor people. The land was on the outskirts of the city, in an area of countryside, along the Adriatic state road leading to Torre Chianca. The nuns had been thinking “of a project in tune with what the Lord was asking of us, thinking back to the essentiality of the wooden houses in Albania, we felt the need to have a dwelling that would take care of the common house”.
They turned to a Verona firm recommended by a Franciscan missionary friar in Albania, where the Poor Clares had initially lived in some prefabricated wooden houses, in the peace village of Shkodra, set up in the structures built for the Kosovo emergency. “It was the most Franciscan place we had ever lived in”. From that experience came the idea for the present monastery. “We wanted to translate our form of life - prayer, work, fraternity, hospitality - into a structure that could say something to people today. In tune with what Pope Francis tells us in Laudato si'”. Wood, photovoltaics, solar thermal, no gas system, very little heating or air conditioning.
In a short time, the facility became a landmark for the diocese. The once barren grounds now host carob trees, oaks, cypresses, poplars, pines, locust trees, albizias, linden trees and shrubs of the Mediterranean maquis, some dedicated to deceased persons or new borns, thanks also to the 'Donate a tree' campaign.
There is also an orchard of pomegranates, quinces and other fruits, deliberately small, because, the sisters say, “we want to remove ourselves from the mentality that necessarily exploits trees, that focuses on their productive and profitable aspect, rather than on the gratuitousness of the beauty and healthiness they give”. And while they wait for their trees to grow, fruit donated by local people arrives to make jam. The large outdoor spaces lend themselves to vigils on August evenings dedicated to St Clare, to prayer for peace, to group meetings; or simply to get some fresh air and then participate in prayer. Those who wish can buy the nuns’ jams or liqueurs, handicrafts, especially papier-mâché, specialties of the area. “It is a place that gives the oxygen of the Word and creation”, says Celeste. Yes, because today’s cloister has replaced the bars at the windows with trees and lavender bushes. A green space under the banner of coexistence between people and the environment, in an attempt to restore the harmony of creation in the strip of land they received as a gift. A watercolor of a smiling Clare with her light and youthful features hangs in the parlour. She is radiant blue and sunny, like the girls with the veil who focused on the alliance with mother earth.
by Vittoria Prisciandaro
A journalist with San Paolo’s “Credere” and “Jesus” periodals