MOUNT ANGEL — Born into a community of religious sisters, she now intends to spend her life as a Benedictine nun in Oregon.
Sister MaryAnne Harp, 41, was raised by the Sisters of Charity at an orphanage near Baltimore. An aging photo shows a 3-year-old Mary in the sisters' chapel, happily carrying flowers to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Adopted at age 3 by a Catholic family, Mary would eventually become a preschool teacher. After years of discernment, she professed vows at Queen of Angels Monastery here last July, taking her new name and the new life that comes with it. At her vow ceremony in the window-lit chapel here, she promised stability, obedience, and fidelity to the monastic way of life.
"The most important thing is to be open to God's will," she says. "God will give you gifts you don't even know you have."
Adopted by Len and Pat Harp, she lived in a row home on the outskirts of Baltimore. The family eventually moved to semi-rural Carroll County, named after the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. With cornfields not far from home, young Mary attended Catholic elementary school and St. Bartholomew Parish in Manchester, Md.
As a girl, Mary would play Mass, presiding with potato chips. She yearned to join in when her brother was an altar server, but the rules then forbade it. Her father is a cradle Catholic. Her mother, who had been attending Mass for years, joined the church when her children were preparing for confirmation.
While in college at Frostburg State University, Mary eschewed parties, studying instead. She served as a catechist. For balance, she found a group of like-minded friends who took a break now and then and headed to the movies.
In 1997, she graduated with an education degree, then worked as a substitute teacher before securing a full-time post in a preschool. She remained active in church life and still taught faith to children. Friends, even one who's not religious, began telling her she'd make a good nun. She pondered the amusing notion for years.
One day after dinner with her mother, she went to the computer and searched the internet for "nuns." First to pop up was a Benedictine monastery in Missouri. She visited — her first trip away from the East Coast — and felt a powerful pull to the ancient life.
"I kept getting a sense of peace," she says.
She continued reading about monastic life. That's how she discovered the intriguing Benedictines at Queen of Angels Monastery in Mount Angel. She sent her name across the country and received back a card announcing a week for possible vocations. At the bottom, a simple hand-written note asked, "Are you coming??"
She did come, in 2009. The life felt stunningly noble and right. The women of Queen of Angels were welcoming and inspiring. She returned in 2010 as a postulant.
Sister MaryAnne thought she might like to work with her hands as a nun. Then a written personality review affirmed that she has a true proclivity to teach. This summer and fall, she tutored children at the sisters' St. Joseph Shelter. Last month, she began teaching at the preschool linked to Providence Benedictine Nursing Center, next door to the monastery.
"If you are open to whatever God is calling you to, it might be different than what you expect," she says. "But God's not going to steer you wrong. He has every hair counted on your head before you are even produced." She quotes St. Benedict, who in his 6th-century Rule advises using "the ear of your heart" to listen for God's will.
Sister MaryAnne senses that people are spiritually hungry, but try a lot of different things before resting in God. In contrast, during her two years among the older, wiser sisters, she has learned the value of patience and faithfulness to prayer.
Her favorite way to pray is the Liturgy of the Hours, the psalm-based official prayer of the Catholic Church. The Benedictines gather four times per day to pray the hours, in addition to daily Mass. Sister MaryAnne appreciates the psalms for their broad range of feelings and experiences. "They are down to earth, so you can pray the way you are feeling," she explains.
A typical day begins with 6:30 a.m. prayer. Then come Mass, breakfast, private meditation, work, noon prayer and lunch, more work, evening prayer, supper, card playing or knitting in the community room, night prayer and then silence before bed. It's a daily rhythm that so far fits like a glove.
"This is right," Sister MaryAnne says. "This is home for me."