For the past 38 years, Transfiguration Monastery in Windsor has opened its doors to visitors looking for a break from hectic everyday life to reflect, meditate and renew their spiritual life.
And for many of those years Sister Jeanne-Marie Pearse was a welcoming presence who greeted visitors with a feeling of warmth and “a gracious sense of hospitality,” said Sister Mary Donald Corcoran, co-founder of the monastery and former prioress.
The 91-year-old Roman Catholic sister, who died Oct. 8, co-founded the monastery in 1979 on 131 acres of former farmland. She watched it grow, over the years, from a trailer on the property to three buildings: an office and chapel, a retreat residence with six bedrooms, and a small gift shop.
Many hundreds of persons come each year for contemplation and retreats in the rustic surroundings.
Sister Jeanne-Marie was a visionary force behind the growth. “She had a great trust in God and confidence, if God wanted us to go on, help would come,” Sister Mary Donald said.
A call to faith
Helping to establish the Windsor Monastery was part of a spiritual journey that led Sister Jeanne-Marie from the casual Christianity of her youth to monastic life, first in Europe and then in the United States.
A native of Rochester, her father, Herman Pearse, was a noted surgeon who went to Japan after World War II to surgically help with skin grafts on victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That work, and her father’s example of compassion, had an enormous influence on Sister Jeanne-Marie, her sister, Polly Gates, said. The influence could still be seen many years later when she organized Contemplatives for Peace, a network of contemplative communities who pray for forgiveness for the dropping of the atom bombs, and for divine help so that it never happens again.
Gates said her older sister was “confident and articulate” from an early age. After attending Bryn Mawr and graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she worked as a teacher in an Episcopal boarding school for girls where she was baptized into the Episcopal Church.
Like many young people in their 20s, she was searching for meaning in life, and she found that meaning in the realization that “what makes life important is a commitment to God,” Sister Mary Donald said.
For a time, Sister Jeanne-Marie worked as a social worker in Boston. It was during this period that she began to feel an increasing call to monastic life. A main influence was the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts in whose chapel she heard an inner voice saying, “You will be Sister Jeanne-Marie.”
Friendships with monks at Mount Savior Monastery in Chemung County then helped draw her to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1965, she was received into the church, following which she went to France for training as a novice at the Benedictine monasteries of Poyanne, Jouarre and Vanves.
The Order of St. Benedict dates from the sixth century and is the oldest monastic order in the Western church. While not cloistered in the traditional sense, sisters follow the Rule of St. Benedict that is based on the principles of study, communal life, frequent prayer and a commitment to work.
Sister Jeanne-Marie embraced these principles as the foundation of her life. “That was the beginning of a total response to what God was calling her to do,” said Mary Cooney, a longtime friend.
A life’s goal
Gates remembered her older sister as someone whose deep faith colored the way she looked at both the beauty and hardships of life.
But she “wasn’t a sour saint,” Cooney said, with a laugh. “Sometimes you think if you’re holy, you have to be strait-laced. She had a great sense of humor and made you laugh.”
From the day she entered monastic life, Sister Jeanne-Marie felt her “calling” was to establish a monastery in the United States.
The goal was an ambitious one, and Sister Jeanne-Marie had her setbacks. A first attempt to organize a small monastery in Boston failed after two years because of a lack of vocations.
Following this disappointment, Sister Jeanne-Marie went to a monastery in Italy to pray for guidance. There she met Sister Mary Placid Deliard, a French Benedictine nun, who received permission from her superiors to come to the US to help start a monastery. “Sister Jeanne-Marie took it as a sign,” Sister Mary Donald said.
The two came to the Syracuse Diocese at the invitation of Bishop Frank Harrison where they were joined by Sister Mary Donald, of St. Paul’s Monastery in Minnesota.
Using donations from friends and a loan from “a kind-hearted banker” who did not require security, the sisters purchased the property in Windsor after being drawn to the location by its scenic beauty and solitude, Sister Mary Donald said.
Then, following the Benedictine motto of prayer and work, they began to support themselves. They raised money in a unique way. Sister Mary Placid was an outstanding French cook, so the three sisters began catering fancy French meals of seven or eight courses, wines and liqueurs.
“Everyone knew us as the nuns who cook,” Sister Jeanne-Marie said with a chuckle.
Not only did the dinners raise money, they raised the monastery’s profile in the community. By the time the dinners stopped in the late 1980s, the monastery was established as a spot that combines classic monastic wisdom with flexibility.
“I am in awe of what the sisters were able to accomplish,” Cooney said. “When I was there for the groundbreaking, there was nothing but brush. Now, when you go out there, you see the buildings they built, and all the people they have ministered to.”
A love of solitude
In her own life, Sister Jeanne-Marie was someone who could be outgoing, welcoming guests to the monastery with a manner that made them feel at home. She had a sense of simple beauty and could take a plain room, decorate it with a bowl of flowers, and make it look charming and welcome, her fellow sisters said.
At her core, though, she was someone who welcomed solitude. Besides chanting the Divine Office four times a day with her fellow sisters, she would rise early in the morning to read and pray over Scripture by herself. On Sundays, she would spend time at the hermitage, a small building on the property, for quiet prayer.
“You are letting your worries drop,” she said once. “It makes you look at yourself and do some deep consideration.”
Ill health meant she spent the last six years of her life at a nursing home in Scranton run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. But she was remembered. Her wake on Oct. 12 drew some 85 people who saw her obituary in the newspaper and came to pay their respects.
“She was a very sweet, loving person who had a great concern for the emotionally fragile,” said Sister Sheila Long, the current priority at Transfiguration Monastery.
Sister Mary Donald voiced similar feelings: “The Rule of St. Benedict calls on us to welcome each person as if they were Christ, she practiced that.”
Sister Jeanne-Marie (Lise) Pearse, OSB, cam., is survived by her sister, Polly Gates of Claremont, California; a niece and nephew; and her three religious Sisters of Transfiguration Monastery.
In A Life Lived, we honor the lives of those who’ve recently died in our communities. If you would like to see your loved one featured, send an email to [email protected]
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