LA CROSSE, Wis. — Flooding, snowstorms, a flu outbreak, even a fire — any of those might have slowed a group of Wisconsin nuns, but none of it has kept their order from praying nonstop for hundreds of thousands of people the past 137 years.
The La Crosse-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration claim to have been praying night and day for the ill and the suffering longer than anyone in the United States — since 11 a.m. Aug. 1, 1878.
“When I walk into the chapel, I can feel this tangible presence kind of hit (me),” said Sister Sarah Hennessey, who helps coordinate the prayers.
The tradition of perpetual Eucharistic adoration — uninterrupted praying before what is believed to be the body of Christ — dates to 1226 in France, according to Sister Marlene Weisenbeck.
Catholic orders around the world have done it since then.
It grew in popularity in 19th century and again under Pope John Paul II, said Father Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University.
In La Crosse, the nuns estimate they’ve prayed for hundreds of thousands of people, including 150,000 in the last decade.
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming with the pain that people have, and the illnesses that they are suffering,” said Donna Benden, who is among 180 lay people known as “prayer partners” who help the 100 sisters. Benden prays from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. every Wednesday before going to work.
The order started asking for community help in 1997, when the number of nuns began dwindling. Nowadays, the sisters usually take night shifts and lay people cover the day, according to Sister Maria Friedman, who schedules two people for every hour. “Even the sisters go away frequently or take on other tasks, it’s the complexity of modern life,” she said.
She said she’s constantly trying to find ways to make it easier, like getting a bed on campus where lay people can sleep. If necessary, the sisters will find more creative solutions.
“We will make it work,” she said.
Other U.S. orders also pray 24 hours, seven days a week, like the 16 nuns who take two-hour shifts at Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland. Their order has done so in the U.S. since 1921, a carryover from an effort that began in 1856 in France.