Until she met the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, photographer Leslie Everheart thought nuns who wore traditional black habits were "an endangered species," if not extinct.
Members of the Catonsville-based order of Episcopal sisters might look as if they stepped out of the past. But Everheart found in them a thriving community of women who helped her own spirituality come to life.
In the spring of 1988, she was invited by the convent's superior, Mother Catherine Grace, to train her 35mm camera on the nuns as they prayed, played, farmed, read, chanted, cooked and went about other daily tasks.
Everheart, a staff photographer with the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, previously spent several weekends at the nuns' retreat house. She says she was impressed by their old-fashioned attire, but more so by "the balance they strike between their life of silent, contemplative prayer" and the hands-on, nitty-gritty work of managing the convent.
She accepted the mother superior's invitation. The fruit of her three years of documentation can be seen in an exhibit that will travel around the area, and in a "journal for personal reflection" published by the order.
The exhibit of 53 photos opened at the Catonsville Public Library last month and continues there through Wednesday. It will move to the Charlestown Retirement Community in Arbutus next Sunday and stay through late January.
All proceeds from the sale of the "New Every Morning" journal, priced at $13, will benefit the Joseph Richey House, the downtown hospice operated by the sisters and Mount Calvary Episcopal Church. Since arriving from England 119 years ago, the All Saints order has made a mission of caring for the local poor and sick. Except for a group of three sisters in Philadelphia, the order's only members in the United States are the 21 #F Catonsville nuns.
During the first year of the project, Everheart did as much observing as she did picture-taking. She wanted to build a gradual feel for her subject, she explains.
"The nuns' lifestyle was very foreign to me," says Everheart, 44, a Baltimore native who lives in Kensington. "I never knew anyone who'd lived that kind of monastic life. And yet, tucked away in Catonsville was this group of very educated and dedicated women who were living in a way that was radical compared to most people's lives."
But soon the photographer discovered that the images captured by her camera began to capture "my heart and soul and mind." The example of the sisters' lives, she says, "changed my life considerably."
"I've become more aware of the need for quiet in my life," she says. "I think I've done it but with a great deal of effort because of that constant battle with fast-lane life. Being with the sisters and trying to live as they do enables you to step back and reassess what's really important in life."
And what's important is "taking the time to appreciate the beauties that surround us. Perhaps you even try to minister to others, by looking around and seeing where there's a need and trying to address it," adds Everheart, who grew up Methodist but began attending Episcopal services in the early 1980s. She was confirmed as an Episcopalian about a year ago.
Sister Christina Christie, the assistant superior of the convent, says the change in Everheart did not go unnoticed by the nuns.
"We were able to kind of watch Leslie develop in her own spirituality," Christie says. "We could observe it through conversation with her, her questions, her sensitivity when she was taking pictures of our quieter times. She picked up what we were about spiritually. She wasn't just taking pretty pictures. You sensed she was learning what we were about."
On first look, the pictures seem as simple and straightforward as an amateur's snapshots. On closer inspection, they reveal a variety of scenes, angles and moods. They range from the image of a ghostly mist over a pond to the shot of a nun in full habit guiding a John Deere tractor over a garden plot.
Christie says the sisters are "delighted" with the photos. The exhibit already has brought calls from people who want to learn more about the nuns, their way of life, their weekend retreats and the greeting cards they make in their "scriptorium."
Though she did the project without pay, Everheart has benefited from the experience. She has a new, better feeling for spirituality as something that isn't confined to physical places of worship. It has more to do, she says, with "how you treat your neighbor, what kind of steward you are for the earth, how you lead your life."