The Residents of Prayer Town
Barely 40 miles northwest of Amarillo, past the Canadian River and Boys Ranch on Highway 385, a quiet retreat sits tucked into the grasslands and river breaks. Around 30 women live and work here, pursuing lives of contemplation and prayer. It’s a place of contrasts.
The setting is deliberately isolated from the outside world, but its residents exude joy and hospitality. The late December wind tears through the skeletal cottonwoods, but the environment is as warm and welcoming as any in the Panhandle. The simple buildings reflect vows of poverty, but they sit on 600-plus acres of prime Texas ranchland. The sisters follow an ancient religious tradition but worship with modern instruments and vibrant singing.
Also, there are a lot of chickens.
This is Prayer Town. Located across 385 from Boys Ranch, this religious property is home to the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, a Franciscan Charismatic religious community founded in 1972. Technically, it’s a convent: a local community of women who have made monastic vows.
But if you have preconceived ideas of a convent, or sisters, or even Catholicism, set those aside. Prayer Town challenges expectations.
The women living on this property come, literally, from all over the world. Sisters hail from Vietnam, South Korea, Tanzania and Mexico. Others were drawn to Prayer Town from across the United States. They occasionally host guests and retreats, but mostly follow the ebb-and-flow rhythms of contemplation and action, interrupting their daily prayer with ministry across the Panhandle—and especially in Amarillo.
“There’s no ‘normal’ here,” says Mother Lucy Lukasiewicz, a native of Nebraska and the community’s Superior General. She joined the community in the mid-1980s. “We rise at 5:30 a.m. and come together to pray the Psalms at 6 a.m. We’re always weaving our day in and out with prayer.” This ongoing ritual is known as “The Liturgy of the Hours” or the “Divine Office” in the Catholic tradition, and these customary prayers and Scripture readings mark the hours of the day. Over the course of a week, Mother Lucy and her companions pray all 150 psalms.
After starting their day with the scriptures, the sisters engage in a personal prayer time, followed by breakfast. They dine together around several folding tables in a shared dining room and living area.
After the meal, the nuns separate into work stations. “The women who are novices and postulates have classes,” Mother Lucy says of the women who are still preparing to be admitted into the community (postulates) or are in a training period prior to taking their full vows (novices). Full-fledged sisters go to work. Some take care of the retreat house on the property. Others work in administration, like accounting or creating an email newsletter. Several work on practical tasks, like property maintenance, laundry, and cooking.
Two sisters are hermits, living in relative isolation within single-room hermitage houses. Each structure has a steep roof in the shape of an equilateral triangle. The three sides represent the members of the Christian Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Another five sisters reside communally in a home in the city, near Tascosa High School, spending their days in local ministry. “We’re not doing 9-to-5 jobs in the hospital or in education,” explains Sister Elizabeth Ann Dockery, who lives in the Amarillo house and works in mission advancement. “We’re not providing clothing or shelter or medical care. There are orders that do that, but our entire ministry is sitting and listening, helping people know there’s hope, that God loves them. We have a ministry of availability. People will stop by for prayer ministry, to drop off donations, to try to find God in a situation. They don’t have to drive all the way out to Prayer Town.”
Back amid Prayer Town’s quiet, natural setting, the community gathers again for another hour of prayer at noon. The work day ends at 4:30. As the winter light casts long shadows across the property, the women convene for an evening prayer service (“vespers”). Along with liturgy, the service includes guitars, keyboards and exuberant singing, occasionally with hands raised.
“When you fall in love, you want to sing,” says Sister Elizabeth Ann. The sisters are in love with God, so they often sing the Divine Office. “There’s always music. We add lots of praise and worship to that as well. It’s such a beautiful part of what we do.”
Many of the songs are traditional hymns. Others are more modern worship songs. Occasionally, with musical accompaniment, the sisters speak or sing in tongues—which is more often seen in Pentecostal or charismatic Protestant traditions.
“Saint Paul talks about the body of Christ and how it has different members,” says Sister Juana Teresa Chung, who describes herself as “the Korean sister with the Spanish name.” She was born in Seoul, South Korea, and lived in Paraguay and Canada before coming to Prayer Town in 1992. “Religious communities have different ministries and missions. One of the things that attracted me so much [to Prayer Town] was the intense prayer life but also that our community is dedicated to the proclamation of the Word of God. Our community is Spirit-filled.”
“We’re charismatic,” Sister Elizabeth Ann adds.
“Thirty years ago, when I was searching for a women’s charismatic community, this was the only one,” says Sister Juana Teresa.
This explains why half of the sisters at Prayer Town came to the Texas Panhandle from other countries. Prayer Town is unique.
“Mother John Marie, our foundress, was a convert from a staunch Methodist family,” says Mother Lucy. “She had a love for the Scriptures but fell in love with the Catholic church and was very influenced by Saint Benedict.”
Venerated by the Catholic Church, the sixth century monk and theologian Benedict of Nursia is known for his Rule of Saint Benedict, a highly influential written set of precepts for monastic living. In the 1960s, Mother John Marie Stewart was pursuing a doctorate in medieval literature at Columbia University when she went through a crisis of faith, which the Catholic tradition might describe as a “dark night of the soul.” She emerged on the other side following a number of profound religious experiences. These drew her to the traditions and sacraments of Catholicism, but with a twist: Mother John Marie also became immersed in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement.
This worldwide movement began in the ’60s, and combines a Pentecostal influence—emotional worship, speaking in tongues and other “gifts” of the Holy Spirit—with the sacraments and liturgy of the Catholic faith.
By 1972, Mother John Marie had attracted a group of young women around her, and they established a religious community in Arkansas, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and calling themselves the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Eventually, the group was welcomed into the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, and started lives of study and prayer. Five years later, a network of personal connections resulted in a priceless gift.
The Amarillo Catholic Diocese oversaw 664 acres of former LIT ranchland near Channing, Texas. The acreage had been donated by Oliver Bivins, grandson of Amarillo pioneer Lee Bivins, once the world’s largest single ranch owner. At the suggestion of Bill and Jackie Brashears, Bishop Lawrence DeFalco offered that land to Mother John Marie and her community.
That was 1977. Mother John Marie and the sisters arrived in the Panhandle and went to work. By hand, they built several residences, a chapel, the four hermitage homes and other structures.
Today, Benedict isn’t the only saint with influence in Prayer Town. According to Mother John Marie, the Lord had told her from the beginning that “the light at the end of the tunnel will be your coming under the Franciscan banner.” In the early ’80s, her community was established as Third Order Regular Franciscans. Following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi—a 13th century Catholic friar who renounced his possessions to live a deeper life of faith—they embraced corporate poverty, depending on God to meet their needs.
“We live by faith and the Lord provides,” Sister Elizabeth Ann says. That’s not just a saying at Prayer Town. The sisters are quick to tell stories about God’s miraculous provision. One sister had been praying for carrots when the doorbell rang at the Amarillo house. It was a man with a semi-truck filled with carrots. He wanted to donate them to the sisters.
“God answered our prayers in abundance that day,” adds Mother Lucy.
“We like to tell that story because that’s how God is. He’s no stingy god,” says Sister Juana Teresa.
Mother John Marie and her sisters taught themselves basic construction in order to build their two-story residence in the early ’80s. The brick exterior had proven a challenge, however, so they asked God to provide bricklayers.
That’s when a family from Wichita Falls in an RV, returning from a hunting trip in Colorado, took a wrong turn on Route 385. They ended up at Prayer Town asking for directions. The sisters welcomed them, gave them a tour and happened to point out their bricklaying struggles.
“We’re bricklayers,” the family said. “And we don’t have work.”
The tradesmen helped finish the house. “They took a wrong turn, but in God’s economy it wasn’t the wrong turn, it was the right turn,” says Sister Juana Teresa.
For special occasions—like an annual midnight mass on Christmas Eve—the sisters gather in a spacious chapel, donated to the community long ago by Boys Ranch. (Boys Ranch founder Cal Farley is said to have actually passed away inside the building, and the surreptitious carvings of a few boys’ names and initials mar the woodwork.)
In fact, almost everything the sisters have, from their couches to their kitchen equipment, has been donated. They have few possessions, but nevertheless space has grown tight, especially in the small chapel where the sisters gather for prayer. “We are running out of space. It’s a very good problem, but we want to grow,” says Sister Juana Teresa.
It’s not just a matter of comfort. Mother John Marie and her peers built most of Prayer Town before minimum accessibility standards were in place. As a result, most of the buildings’ doorways, hallways and restrooms are too narrow for wheelchairs. “When we built those, we never thought we’d get old, right?” Sister Juana Teresa says with a laugh. The average age of the sisters is 50 years old. One sister has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
So the women of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ are raising money for improvements to their facilities at Prayer Town, centered around a new wing. It will include a larger chapel and an aging-in-place residence, which allows elderly sisters to remain at Prayer Town during the final decades of their lives. It’s a $3 million construction project, and the sisters have already raised $1.7 million. They call it Project Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
After pointing out the land dedicated for the planned addition, Mother Lucy and Sister Elizabeth Ann guide a few visitors to a rustic workshop. It’s a mess, cluttered with wood scraps, rusty tools, bandsaws and even the 1967 Willis H. Wagner classic, Modern Woodworking.
This was one of the first structures Mother John Marie and her compatriots built.
“St. Francis and his brothers always had a little chapel where people could go and pray,” says Sister Elizabeth Ann. “This is where the sisters would come. It was them learning how to build. All this acreage and they put this building up first. It’s poor, simple and everything was donated.”
She feels it serves as a symbol for her community: a plain building surrounded by miles of open, arid land. A light in the darkness. An oasis in the desert. A place of love and hospitality in a stark landscape.
Behind her, two fellow sisters laugh together at a private joke. The winter wind picks up, billowing their habits. Chickens squawk a few yards away between pecks at the dirt. The sky above them is an impossible December blue.
Sister Elizabeth Ann smiles. “People always ask us, ‘How can you be so joyful?’ But when you go back to this kind of simplicity, how can you not?”
Photos by Shannon Richardson
Definitions: Nun or Sister?
While most people, Catholics included, might use the words nun or sister interchangeably, there’s a difference. Both fall into the category of “women religious,” live in community and have made personal vows to God. However, a nun will typically spend most of her life praying and working within her convent. A sister, like those of Prayer Town, will be more active in the outside world. If you encounter one in public, she’s most likely a sister.
A Sister’s Habit
Nuns and sisters alike, including the sisters of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, are easily identified by their distinct manner of dress. Overall, their simple clothing is known as a religious “habit.” The sisters make their own habits. Each element represents tenets of their faith.
Tunic: This plain, loose, wide-sleeved dress worn by Sister Juana Teresa is always black, symbolizing poverty and penance. It is cinched by the belt.
Cross: Hand-made by the sisters themselves, this wooden cross is a literal way for them to live out Matthew 16:24, in which Jesus tells his disciples to “take up their cross” and follow Him. The sisters keep these with them at all times, tucked into their belts.
Veil: Sisters with gray veils and a blue band have taken their full, lifetime vows. The blue is unique to the Prayer Town community.
Belt: Franciscans typically wear belts with three knots representing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The sisters of Prayer Town wear, “three braids of three braids” or a three-fold cord. They weave these as a meditation at a certain stage in taking their vows.
Crucifix: A constant reminder of Christ’s loving sacrifice, worn around the neck and over the scapular.
Ring: Each sister wears a simple ring on the wedding finger of her left hand, symbolizing her “marriage” to Jesus and the Church. Their rings are engraved with the words, “Jesus is Lord.”
Scapular: Suspended from the shoulders, this apron-like, dark cloth is worn over the tunic. It represents being “yoked” to Christ, a reference to Matthew 11:29.