So I’m standing in line waiting to place my order at the Old Country Bakery in Brooksville and this voice says, “Why didn’t you say in your column that you ate here?”
Last week’s column, “A case for maps,” began with a trip to Noxubee County, but I made no mention of having a turkey sandwich at Brooksville’s most popular lunch spot that day. Who would have thought to put that together and then lobbed it to a stranger she had never met?
Meet 80-year-old Clare Van Lent, a woman no one has ever accused of lacking audacity. Dining with Van Lent was Mary Horrell and Sheila Avery; the three of them run The Dwelling Place, a Christian prayer retreat near the Noxubee/Lowndes county line.
We talked a moment, and I asked the women if I might come out, see the place and hear how it came to be. They said, yes, anytime.
In the mid-1980s, Clare Van Lent was happily working as a Franciscan sister in Dubuque, Iowa, when a bothersome idea entered her head: Mississippi.
“You’d think I’d come to Mississippi?’ she says, still a bit incredulous 30 years later.
She traveled to the state and met with the bishop. They talked about the two Trappist monks in Noxubee County, who were ready to call it quits on their efforts to create a self-sustaining monastery on a 600-acre farm. The bishop offered little encouragement, but Van Lent thought she ought to have a look.
“I told him (God) I don’t know anything about Mississippi. He said, ‘Call it The Dwelling Place.'”
Van Lent was bewildered. “I’m just a Joe Blow,” she thought. “This can’t be happening to me.”
A Franciscan sister — a Poor Clare, as the order deems it — is a layperson who works in the community as a teacher, nurse or does missionary work with the poor. Van Lent was director of a retreat center in Dubuque.
Sister Clare’s first encounter with the Noxubee operation was less than promising. “It was the pit,” she says of the monk’s habitat, a battered trailer, a small chapel and a lean-to as a dining room.
“This can’t be it,” Van Lent said to herself. Again, she turned to prayer: “Lord, you’ve got to be kidding.
“I asked Him what was missing. God said, ‘Your yes.'”
Van Lent returned to Iowa. Someone gave her a car. With a $5,000 grant from the Franciscans and donations from friends, she and Maggie Kosse, another Franciscan sister, set sail for the New World. This was 1987.
As it happens, Sister Maggie was disabled (“But she was a wonderful cook,” Van Lent says in hushed tones.) In the beginning, Clare did what physical work there was to be done.
Not long after they arrived, at a Catholic Church function in Columbus the sisters met Forester Frank Troskey, who asked them if they would like a “few trees.” Troskey had 1,500 pine trees planted on grounds, 500 of which are still there. Willie Menotti donated a hermitage, or small cottage. Architect Robert Ivy drew up a site plan.
Donors materialized. Checks came in.
“I’d need to put in a pond; didn’t have a cent for the pond,” says Van Lent. “I’d go to the mailbox and there would be a check for the pond.
“We should have closed down the first six months,” she says. “It gets more beautiful all along.”
And beautiful it is. The center’s 17 acres — the church sold the rest of the land — and eight buildings are immaculate. The carefully tended grounds — with Troskey’s pines and other trees the women have planted — offer a cathedral-like ambience, a serene environment for spiritual retreats by area churches and Christian groups.
Maggie died in 2000. A year earlier Mary Horrell joined the community.
“We’re a business that runs on donations,” said Van Lent. “We pray for guidance.”
Survival has required the women to become environmental activists, too. Four years ago an across-the-road-neighbor had thoughts of putting in chicken houses. Convinced the chicken house would mean the demise of their undertaking, the women waged a defense on multiple fronts.
The farmer relented. So did two companies with plans to site a hazardous waste dump between Brooksville and Macon in the early 90s. The women got little sympathy from county supervisors until the story got media attention. The women started a monthly prayer session, and people from the neighborhood came to pray the area be spared. Shortly after that, “things started to move our way,” said Van Lent. The dump was never built.
After we talked, Clare, Mary and I walked outside. The afternoon was cold and damp, though the women seemed not to notice. Clare talked about the plants, the trees that were once Arbor Day seedlings, the row of sycamores on the west side of the property that Mary doesn’t like because of the big, messy leaves — Mary loves spirea and wisteria. All of it beautiful in the muted light and spring’s infinite shades of green.
Through unstinting effort, constant prayer and focusing on “one little thing at a time,” these women have created a spiritual refuge in the most unlikely of settings.
“That was my vision, to make this a place of prayer,” said Van Lent.
By all appearances she has succeeded.