This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
Traditionally, the term "cloistered nun" refers to Catholic women who have taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and live inside convents, having little contact with the outside world. However, these rules have been slightly relaxed nowadays, and a good example of the Catholic Church's efforts to modernise are the five Clarisse nuns living in the convent of Santa Clara, in Tolosa, Spain.
"Before his death, Pope John Paul II arranged that each cloistered convent could regulate the way they function. So these days we enjoy more contact with the world outside the convent than we used to. But we don't leave the building on a whim; we do it only when we think it's necessary – to buy medicine, to shop for groceries, to visit our families, that kind of thing. We take turns to do that, but we generally don't feel the need to get away from the convent. Living here is our way of serving God. We feel happy and calm here," explains Mother Superior Micaela Urroz.
Naturally, people from Tolosa are curious about the life of the nuns of Santa Clara: "Some ask us if we get bored. Bored? We don't know what that word means," Sister Micaela laughs. The nuns actually have a very strict and busy schedule: They wake up at 7:30AM and at 8AM, they are at church celebrating a mass that is open to the public. At 9AM, they pray in private, before starting breakfast.
Mother Abbess Micaela has lived in the convent of Tolosa for 17 years. "I was born in a little village and lived there until I was 18, and then went to work as a maid in France. I've always liked nuns; When I was a little girl, I used to dress up as a nun and play in front of the mirror. I wanted to be a nun. Jesus Christ died for us, and I can't think of a better way to thank him than devoting my life to serving him. Love is repaid with love," Sister Micaela smiles, although she also remembers that the beginning was difficult. "I spent a day and a half crying, when I joined the cloistered convent but now I know I made the right decision and I am very happy."
After the mass and the prayers, the nuns gather in the dining room for breakfast. "We have breakfast every morning at 9:30 AM – a very simple meal: just milk and bread. After tidying up and doing the dishes, we have some free time until 11AM to do whatever we consider appropriate. We usually spend that time tidying up our rooms, reading or just going for a walk. At 11AM, it's time to get to work. Each of us is in charge of different tasks but if there is an unusual errand to be run, we'll do that together. Like baking desserts on special occasions. As Mother Abbess, I represent the convent and I can make small calls without consulting the other nuns, but that hardly ever happens because we work as a group. We make the most important decisions together," Sister Micaela tells us.
Sister María Rosario is in charge of cleaning a part of the convent: "I'm 81 years old and I have lived in this convent for 61 years. I didn't dream of being a nun as a child. Until I was 20 years old, my life was like any other teenager's. I worked as a maid in several places of Tolosa until I got the feeling that I wanted to be a cloistered nun. I had no problems settling in, when I joined the convent. I liked my new life immediately."
At that time, the convent was jam-packed. "Back then, we were 40 nuns. Today there are only five of us. I don't know what will happen when we're not here anymore, there aren't any much younger Sisters to take our places. Many convents are closing their doors nowadays," Sister María Rosario adds.
Sister María Lourdes Jáuregi is mainly responsible for the ironing and folding of clothes. "When I was 10 years old, I left school to work as a nanny and as a maid in a hotel for several years. When I was 23, I decided to become a nun. Today I'm 85 years old. However, I wasn't a cloistered nun until about eight years ago, when I fell and since then, I have been unable to walk. I used to go out in the town to run errands but now I just do the ironing. There's not much more I can do."
But cleaning and cooking is not all these nuns do. "We also have a vegetable garden and 10 sheep we cannot neglect," Mother Abbess explains. Sheep graze on the land belonging to the convent, but there are people who help the nuns when it comes to shearing or milking the animals.
"The vegetable garden requires a lot of work too. So much so, that every now and then we have to ask someone from the town to come help us manage it. Whatever we grow, we cook – we never sell it. It's the time of the year when we collect the pods, and despite it being a difficult task, I find it very enjoyable. I always wear a cap to protect my eyes from the sun, and the other sisters find it very funny and they tease me," Sister María Rosario says. "It's so funny how people see us. We are not aliens, we are normal women and we work like everyone else. It's just that we have decided to devote our lives to God."
Sister Micaela cuts in: "A lot of people ask how we make our living. We have our pensions and sometimes local organisations will bring their clothes for us to clean and iron – in which case, we charge them a little. It's impossible to sell the desserts we make because there are so many licenses required by law. We still make them, but just for ourselves on special occasions or for our guests."
Lunchtime is at 1PM, and the day's menu consists of seasonal vegetables and legumes. After cleaning the table and doing the dishes, the sisters have some free time to enjoy their hobbies until 4PM. "I like reading and playing the piano so I usually spend my free time doing that," Sister Micaela says. Sister María Cruz on the other hand, likes working out: "I have a exercise bike and a treadmill that I use whenever we have free time."
She goes on to tell me her life story while pedalling on the exercise bike. "I was born in Bilbao, 49 years ago. As a teenager, I studied dressmaking with some nuns. One day, my mother decided she wanted to do some spiritual exercises in a convent in La Rioja, and invited me to go with her. Once I entered that convent, I knew I wanted to be a cloistered nun. I spent eleven years there until those nuns passed away and we had to close. The few of us who were still alive had to relocate. That was 18 years ago. I have been in Tolosa ever since, and I am very happy. I like to help in every way I can but right now my main job is being nurse, since one of the sisters is sick and needs care. We take care of each other here."
Sister Genoveva (who is also Sister María Rosario's real-life sister) is 76 years old and has lived in the convent of Tolosa for the past 49 years. "I worked in the family farmhouse until I was 27, and then as a maid. I am convinced that I felt the calling when I was a little girl. I remember dressing my dolls as nuns. The truth is that I had a happy life before joining the convent – I even dated a guy – but I felt a void inside of me that I could not explain. I finally decided to join the convent. I made the right decision, now I am fulfilled," she says.
At 4PM the Sisters have to pray again. Fifteen minutes later they get back to work. "It is our responsibility to prepare the rooms of our guests. We get a lot of visitors – people looking for a quiet space to reflect, when going through a hard time in their personal lives. We have hosted several students before exams time too – they needed a place to study for a few days. So we have several furnished rooms, a small kitchen and a small living room that our visitors can enjoy without anyone bothering them," says Sister Micaela.
"Our own rooms consist of a bed, a wardrobe and a small sink. What's in our wardrobes? Underwear, a pair of habits, workwear and some shoes," adds Mother Abbess. "And before you ask, yes, we have internet. We communicate with our families by email, and we also use it to send and receive photos. I use it a lot. It's a very useful tool, since we aren't really supposed to go out a lot."
Mother Abbes is in charge of giving the rest of the Sisters permission to leave the convent. "Normally, there are no objections to go outside, even for several days, as long as there is a good reason. But if a nun needs to be away for a longer period of time, we have to ask the Bishop for permission first."
Visiting hours are over at 6:30 PM. Now, the sisters have to pray in the church until 8PM, which is dinner time. Sister Micaela says they love to host: "When we have visitors, we'll offer them doughnuts and some sweet wine if it's age appropriate. We do love talking to people – hear about their lives and answer any questions they might have about ours."
After dinner, they watch the news on TV. "We don't live in a bubble, we know about all the suffering out there, and every day we pray that things get better. After watching the news and a brief prayer at 10PM, we go to bed. We get up very early so, at the end of the day, we are exhausted."