Since 1878, an order of nuns in La Crosse, Wisconsin, has prayed around the clock, without pause. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have at least two sisters on duty in rotating shifts to fulfill the hundreds of prayer requests they receive each week. Business has picked up recently.
As the chapel bell rings at 2:30 p.m, Sister Joyce Bantle wraps up her weekly prayer duty with a final prayer for peace.
Sister Joyce says the shift's too short. There are, she says, just too many people who need to be prayed for. "It seems that the half hour is gone before you know it. You're asking for the graces for these people, to be able to accept the crosses that are laid out before them each day," she says.
For 125 years, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have logged more than two million consecutive hours of prayer. It's the nation longest, uninterrupted prayer. More than 100 nuns at the St. Rose convent pray in 30-minute shifts by day, and hour-long shifts at night. They pray for themselves, for the people of La Crosse, and for the rest of the world.
Sister Joyce holds the first of four single-spaced pages of prayer requests. These came in over the past week. "Today, let's see we have 2, 4, 6, 8, 14, 16, 18 requests so far today," she says. There are close to 50 requests per page.
People in need can call, mail or e-mail a request to the sisters' website. This year, prayer requests have been up more than 200 percent from last year, largely due to media publicity about their 125th anniversary of perpetual prayer. But the sisters say there are other reasons for the spike in interest.
Along with the traditional top concern, Health, Sister Helen Koopman says they've noticed more requests reflecting current events. "'A job.' 'God help me find a job.' That is a real concern now. And it is heartbreaking to read it over and over," she says.
Sister Helen says in the past year, concerns about relatives who are part of the U.S. military presence in Iraq have also been taking up a lot of her prayer time.
The convent hasn't taken an official stance on America's role in Iraq. But according to Sister Malinda Gerke, most here were opposed to the war. Sister Malinda says recently, she's prayed long and hard for President Bush. She says his tax reform package and his foreign policy need more guidance from God. "Maybe his version of Christianity isn't the same as mine. We do not know the pressures the man is under. I think he is a sincere enough man the way he sees it. But I don't think he has the insights of Einstein. The man is doing, I suppose, the best he can with what he's got. And this is, with the providence of God, what we work with," she says.
Whether it's for the president or for people on a request list, Sister Malinda says for her prayer is an effort to understand others' needs and help communicate them to God. "When I first go in there, I will first read through this and try to connect with the needs of each person that's there, not judge it, but connect it. It's like presenting the Lord with these situations. 'Now this is yours, Lord," she says.
Sister Malinda says God's answer to a prayer may not be as direct as a cure for a deadly disease or a job for the unemployed. She says the answer may arrive in an unexpected way, or perhaps at another time. To explain this, Sister Malinda sits down and begins gently strumming the convent's harp. "Something that is very intense is to feel the harp vibrating, and you'll feel the harp vibrating long after you can't hear it. So the influence of prayer and spirituality in our life permeates us, whether we hear it or not. One of the sayings I have is that God is the harpist and humanity is the harp," she says.
And humanity, says Sister Malinda, can't help but reverberate in prayer. "Can you imagine what this world would be like if there was no one praying 24 hours a day? If there was no positive influence, either from us or from any other sincere human being? Thank God we have good people," she says.
In recent years, the sisters have invited lay people to help them fulfill their perpetual adoration. After more than 100 years of praying, they agreed it was time to get some help.