Sister Marva Coakley
Prioress of Saint Martin Monastery
By Hadassah Deleveaux (née Hall)
It was the first time I entered the Saint Martin Monastery – a place over the hill I’ve passed multiple times. I have never had reason to enter the property but recently decided to find out what’s happening behind the blue wall.
Entrance of the convent, Nassau Street
I was escorted down the hall to the conference room by Sister Mary Benedict whom I later learned was once Superintendent of Catholic schools. Before closing the door, with a smile she said, “Feel comfortable. You’re home now. People think we’re different, but we’re all the same.”
One of the convents hallways.
I sat alone in the conference room, awaiting the arrival of Prioress, Sister Marva Coakley. Immediately, I recognized that the nuns live a minimalist lifestyle and was surprised to even see a television (later learning there is even Wi-Fi!). I expected Sister Marva to enter in the traditional habit and to perhaps be a bit stiff, despite our initial phone conversation. However, from the onset of our face-to-face interaction – which began with a warm hug – she seemed like an aunt or next door neighbor.
Eleven nuns live at the convent on Nassau Street, sprawled across acres of land. It’s a very peaceful environment, and was evident from I drove through the gates to the monastery which sits atop a hill with a guest house and retreat centre.
Convent sits atop a hill
Beautifully manicured landscape
Contented with Life
“We are 11 happy women. Some people think you can’t do without a man and be happy,” said Sister Marva matter-of-factly, “…this is not a natural thing. This is counter-cultural.”
“No one should come here and tell me I’m wasting my life and how much money I could be making…I love where I am. I love what I do. This is the life for me,” added the nun of 42 years.
Sister Marva describes the 82-year monastery as a place of serenity…the house of God. And it is in that place, over the hill, surrounded by some of the more needy people of our city, where they help the community through outreach ministries. Sister Janice Coakley leads a soup kitchen in conjunction with St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (next door), providing hot breakfast and care packages, while Sister Clare Rolle heads the Samaritan Ministry which caters to the sick – mainly visiting AIDS patients at the public hospital.
Catering to Hurricane Dorian Survivors
Currently, the convent is housing seven people from Abaco – including a little boy – who have been displaced by hurricane Dorian, which recently wreaked havoc on Abaco and Grand Bahama, leaving much devastation in its wake. Meanwhile, others who have been affected come, eat and wash their clothes.
“They’re deeply traumatized. We give them a place to feel safe. When they don’t feel like talking, they don’t have to,” said Sister Marva.
“We are there for them. Whatever their needs, we are trying to give them a feeling of normalcy. They reminisce about what was. It is healing time…we have to rise to the occasion, to be there for others,” she stated.
Pouring into others is the norm for the sisters. They have also been instrumental in the Catholic school system, as all 11 are retired educators with a few of them rising to administrative posts before retirement.
Sister Marva revealed that currently, they are caring for Father Richard Cartwright, who is at the monastery for medical reasons; ultimately, they give of themselves through pastoral care.
“People come daily, ring the doorbell, we give them hot food, a care package. They live in Bain Town and right around here. When we shop, we get cases, wholesale, and we repackage to give to the people,” she stated.
“Our greatest need is to the know the Lord and to work for the Lord. We work for the Lord by our encounter with his people,” said the nun.
During my visit, I was privileged to receive a brief tour. On the tour, I stopped by the chapel. It’s this small, quaint space. I even questioned whether I was permitted to go up on the altar area to take a photo, which Sister Marva obliged.
Stained glass chapel door
Many prayers are offered in the chapel by the nuns – as many as four times on Sundays.
The sacred space is where the nuns congregate at 7 each morning for communal, structured prayer, chanting, singing etc. It’s then breakfast time in the dining room, followed by washing dishes. Even as prioress, Sister Marva is not exempt and is on the team of dish washers. In fact, this is her week on the team.
“We work in groups. We collaborate a lot,” she stated.
The nuns return to the chapel for personal, silent prayer and contemplation. They then disperse for various duties, knowing they must reconvene for noon prayers, followed by lunch. On Sundays, prayer time is four times as opposed to three: morning, noon, evening and night (8 pm).
“Everything is centred on our prayer life,” she said, adding that after night prayers, there are no more public conversations.
“You need to commune with the Lord and not to be bombarded with the outside world. It calls for respecting the other person who might want to just be. When we pass in the hall, we acknowledge each other with the bow of the head,” she noted.
While touring, we come across Sister Agatha Hunt relaxing in a sitting area. She is the longest serving nun at the convent, who made her vows of obedience and conversion of morals some 67 years ago. Meanwhile, Sister Marva is not only the youngest nun, but the last nun to enter and remain at the convent. She is in her second year of a four-year term as prioress.
Sister Agatha Hunt is the longest serving nun at the convent, having served 67 years ago.
Questioned as to whether she regrets giving her life to the Lord in such a unique way, Sister Marva hastily replied, “Nothing is comparable.”
As I was about to leave the convent, I noticed a prayer grotto just to the southern side of the property amidst the flora. Sister Marva said it is frequented by Haitians and Filipinos. And just as the nuns pray communally and individually in the convent as one way of connecting to God, there are those who visit the prayer grotto seeking to do the same.
With raisin cookies in hand – so generously provided by Sister Marva – I left the Nassau Street property enlightened and with a new-found respect for the 11 nuns. Theirs is a noble calling – and counter-cultural indeed – with the single desire to serve God and serve humanity.