Spokane Memories: Poor Clare Nuns

  • By Sharon DeMills-Wood
  • Posted 11/13/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22851
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Poor Clare Nuns are members of the Franciscan Order of St. Clare, a Roman Catholic order of nuns founded in Italy in 1212. In Spokane, the Poor Clare Nuns trace their history to 1914, when six women opened a monastery in a rented house. A new monastery building, still active in 2023, was dedicated in 1926. In this original essay, Spokane historian Sharon De Mills-Wood writes about her lifelong friendship with the nuns, as well as the nuns' contributions to civic life in Spokane. 

Friends in the Neighborhood

It has been such a pleasure to live near the Poor Clare Nuns in Spokane since 1962. They are a cloistered group of contemplative nuns whose main purpose is to live the Gospel life in poverty and humility according to the rule of St. Clare, who was St. Francis's most devoted follower. They support one another and work for the good of the Order, the Church and the world as God provides for them. Their focus is to pray for humanity – not just for Catholics but also for non-Catholics. There are over 20,000 Poor Clare Nuns throughout the world in over 70 countries. Each Poor Clare community finds different ways to support itself and share the talents of God. 

I have enjoyed their friendship from a very early age and have continued to do so for over 57 years. They have been a source of comfort and support to my parents, me, and the community. They looked after my parents and neighbors as they got older and had health issues. They guided my father in developing a closer relationship to God. While they are cloistered, they are also neighbors and have hosted neighborhood Block Watch gatherings to help stop crime.  

I can remember when I was growing up I would see them walking outside around their monastery and it was always nice visiting with them. My friends and I would also take small offerings of canned and boxed food to them from time to time. We would enter at the front door of their main entrance and would speak with the Sisters through a black metal grille in the foyer or in a small parlor. 

Early Spokane Years

The Poor Clare Nuns trace their roots to the year 1212 in Assisi, Italy. The Monastery of the Spokane Poor Clare Nuns was established in 1914. It originated from the founding U.S. Monastery in Omaha, Nebraska, which was established in 1878. The Catholic Diocese of Spokane was established the previous year, on November 17, 1913, and the history of the Poor Clare Nuns in the Pacific Northwest developed in conjunction with the growth of the Catholic Church in the Inland Empire.

In the beginning there were six Poor Clare nuns of various ages who came to Spokane from different areas including Nebraska, Massachusetts, and Ireland. They initially established residence in a rented house at 909 De Smet Avenue, which was barely enough for their monastic needs. In 1915, arrangements were made for the purchase of a property at 707 East Mission Avenue that was ready for occupancy in July 1916. It was new and spacious, but placed the nuns under heavy financial obligations.

In October 1924, a private house at East 1011 Boone Avenue became their third home, but it wasn't to be for long, as their spiritual brothers, the Franciscan Fathers, came upon a property located just two blocks from the St. Francis of Assisi Church at 1104 W Heroy Avenue on the Northside in Spokane. The Fathers referred to the property as "a wilderness overrun with scraggly jack-pines" and stated "it has tremendous possibilities!" That was enough to convince the Sisters to make another move – the new Poor Clare Monastery would be built at 4419 North Hawthorne, which at the time was the end of nowhere.

The land was undeveloped. Besides the St. Francis of Assisi church, the only other nearby building was a farmhouse about two blocks away that still stands today, minus the farm. The Sisters worked hard and accumulated enough money to make the final payment on the property in July 1925, and became owners of a city block. In December 1926, they moved to the Northside and their permanent home. The new building was dedicated on December 8, 1926. 

Their building and surroundings have changed over time. The original wooden fence encircling the building was replaced with an aggregate rock wall covering the entire block of the property in the early 1960s. The wall was capped in 2017 to protect it from weather erosion. There have also been changes to the original building over the years including additional living and family guest quarters. 

Spiritual Development

The nuns began a new phase of their journey when the Second Vatican Council (from October 11, 1962 to December 8, 1965) invited all religious families to undertake the work of renewal. They joined hands with their sister-monasteries in the United States and Western Canada to foster spiritual development to promote vocations, provide for better religious and intellectual information of their members, and to encourage cooperation in matters of concern to all nuns. 

The years following Vatican II saw a concentrated effort on the part of Catholics to pay attention to the real situation in the church and the world and to be sensitive to the constantly changing times for those living in it. The nuns focused attention on the spiritual renewal of their form of life. There were changes to worship, manner of dress (Habits), and the names of the nuns. (Their names went from beginning with Sister Mary "religious name' to Sister "actual baptismal or legal name.") 

A day in the lives of these nuns revolves around a prayer schedule. Many people in the U.S. and even internationally contact them throughout the day with prayer requests for all kinds of situations by phone, mail, email, on-line, and also in person. The prayer requests have become more extensive over the years, from young and old alike, and can involve complex issues.

The nuns attend daily Mass in their small chapel, as well as clean house, answer mail, do laundry, cook, work in the office and on the computer, run errands, take care of pets, tend to the yard and building-maintenance activities, and manage a 5,000-watt Catholic radio station. Their garden is a great source of joy; it supplies fruits and vegetables to last them throughout the year. They also work with several outreach ministries. Suffice it to say these nuns are busy!

They do such wonderful prayerful work in Spokane and they have sought to spread the word of the Gospel. They have their quarterly newsletter, "Called by Joy"; a website (www.calledbyjoy.com); a free Catholic e-card site called Franciscancards.com; a Facebook page (Poor Clare Nuns of Spokane); and an annual outdoor Mass commemorating the Feast of St. Clare. That Mass is usually held in August and is an opportunity for the community to come together to hear God’s word, get to know the nuns, and to enjoy their beautiful garden.

The nuns have compiled, edited & published six books, three of which have been Catholic best sellers: 101 Inspirational Stories of the Rosary, 201 Inspirational Stories of the Eucharist, and 101 Inspirational Stories of the Power of Prayer. In past years, there have also been Poor Clare benefit teas hosted by Catholic and non-Catholic women of Spokane that have included fashion shows and the selling of baked goods as well as a variety of craft items. 

The nuns have also opened their doors to women interested in learning more about their way of life through school field trips, presentations at Gonzaga Prep, weekend retreats, and vocational fairs in Spokane. The number of nuns over the years has decreased as vocational options for women have increased. However, it is through their public education in how they live and work that enable women to consider a life of prayer and service to the community even after they have finished school and been out in the working world. Women from the ages of 18 to 40 can enter this religious calling. Those that have joined have come from a variety of backgrounds. Some entered after their formal schooling, others after working in public life, or even two after military service.

The Poor Clare Nuns celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the founding of their Spokane monastery on July 22, 2014, in their garden with a Mass that included nuns and memorabilia from the founding Omaha monastery. In 2026, they will observe the 100th Anniversary of their Spokane home at 4419 N Hawthorne. 

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