Very few people know much about the lives behind the gates of the Carmelite Monastery in Vailima, apart from the fact they live lives of devotion.
Today in an interview with the Sunday Samoan, Sister Antonina Maria, provided an insight into the day-to-day lives of the sisters.
Rising well before the sun at 4:30am, the sisters prepare for 5am chapel. This is followed by mass at 6am. The Sisters prepare breakfast together before they set about their work. Each Sister has their own job, for instance some make the host and others sew.
A chapel bell with ring at 10am signalling time for prayer and choir. This is followed by a spiritual reading. At 10:55am there is a brief examination of conscious for the morning before 11am diner and reading.
The sisters call this meal diner not lunch as it is their main meal of the day and everyone assists with the kitchen clean up.
It isn’t until recreation at 11:30am that conversations occur and the Sister’s “come together to talk” for less than an hour. They don’t chat outside of recreation.
Prayers occur at 12:20pm and then the sisters then take a much needed siesta until 1:45pm.
At 2pm there are prayers then the Sister’s will recommence their work until 4:30pm.
From then until 5pm they pray as a community.
5pm is reconciliation prayer and 6pm is supper. This is followed by a second session of recreation.
At 7:40pm the bell rings for prayers before cell, where the Sisters have time in their rooms.
Then at 9pm there are prayers, at 9:30pm the Sisters go to their rooms for the night and at 10:30pm they go to bed. The only alteration to this schedule is on Sundays when Mass is held at 9am and bedtime may be later depending on how busy the Sisters are with orders.
The monastery’s income comes from sewing orders and making the host for churches. Sister Antonina Maria explained that they work so they don’t have to be reliant on other people.
Situated on eight or nine acres of land there is plenty of area for the vegetables gardens. The Sisters grow their own food including “pawpaw, coconut, koko, bananas, yams, everything except taros because the ground is too rocky.”
While they provide for themselves the Carmelite monastery still receives kind support from the community, Sister Antonia Maria explained.
“The people are so good to us. When they come to us for prayers they always bring something. The Samoans are very generous.”
The Carmelite Monastery in Samoa was established in 1959 by seven Sisters from Christchurch.
Of great pride to the monastery, two of their sisters have been foundation Sisters in Wallace Island and Tonga.
Currently there are thirteen Sisters living at Vailima including one Tongan. The longest serving Sister has been there for fifty years and is now aged seventy-two.
To become a Carmelite Sister the process is lengthy in order to ensure that it is the right pathway for the woman – it takes six years and three months in total.
They like interested women to have a life experience after school, if not Sister Antonina Maria explained that they “need to work for two years, gain experience, mature and help their parents.”
During this two year period they must regularly visit the sisters.
The first time that an interested woman stays in the Monastery will be for a three month live in where they are involved in all areas of Monastery life.
Following this period she will go home to allow her time and space to decide for herself if this is the life for her. It also allows the monastery time to decide if they believe she is suitable.
If she continues she will have a Period of postulinity for one year before she receives the habit. There are then two novice years spent learning the profession.
Sister Antonina Maria explained that while there are many different sections of the process, anyone can pull out at any point.
“Everyone who comes here is free to leave at any time,” she said.
The first profession consists of the three vowels of poverty, obedience and chastity. These vowels last for three years. After this period the final vowels can be taken- these last for life.
While the formation period is an extended period of time this is deemed necessary to be sure that the monastery is the right place for the woman.
“We really want to know that the girl is suitable because our life is a hard life,” said Sister Antonina Marie.
One example of the difficulty is that the Sister’s do not leave for family funerals or the like. Other difficulties associated with living in a small community are outweighed by the overarching purpose of their being there.
“Living in a community is not that easy because we are all human. But we are here for one purpose, we strive to be good Sisters, we strive for holiness. We are not angels. Humanness is always there but we try to live in a sisterly way.
“We are a very loving community of sisters, we try to understand each other, we work together and we live in a place where everyone knows everyone. We came for one purpose to love Jesus.”
This purpose was discovered by Sister Antonina Marie when she was in Hawaii. She was born and spent most of her childhood in Samoa but then at the beginning of Year 9 moved to Hawaii with her aunty.
“I started to have these ideas that I wanted to become a nun.”
However these thoughts were pushed away by the other things she wanted to do with her life.
“I come from a family of 12, my Dad was the only breadwinner in my family. I wanted to work and help my Dad. I wanted to be an airhostess,” said Sister Antonina Marie.
Flying back from Hawaii for Christmas at the end of Year 11 she hit a turning point.
“I just cried on the plane, ‘Dear lord you ask of me all the time and I push you away. Lord I will follow you.’ I just cried and cried the whole five hours,” she said.
Her parents were waiting for her in Pago.
“They asked me when I was going back and I said ‘no I’m not going back.’ The first day I came back I went straight up and saw the sisters. They were shocked to see me because they knew me from before.”
The Sisters told her she was too young at the time so she spent the next two years working.
“I was helping dad and my family to educate my younger sibling.”
She entered the Carmelite Monastery in 1971, aged nineteen. At the time she said to her Dad, “‘I know God will look after you. God is calling me so I trust he will look after you.’ It’s amazing the things the Lord has done. “
“Forty-five years now and I am still happy.”