The Cloisterites consider Our Lady of the Cloister to be their true foundress and abbess.
Gemma was born and raised in Bardstown, Kentucky. Her parents were downtown merchants, so she grew up in retail
sales. As a small child, she met Thomas Merton, who came into the family business to have keys made for the Abbey of
Gethsemani. Merton also taught her the first part of the Hail Mary, much to her Baptist parents' chagrin. For
all the talk of Merton's fame and writings, Gemma admits to being disappointed when she "didn't see him surrounded by light."
Her elementary school years were punctuated by interactions with her Catholic friends, trying to learn more about their
faith; the call to serve God in some capacity; and abuse at the hands of a family friend. At age 6, she nearly
died of food poisoning, and credits her cure to praying the first part of the Hail Mary. It was at this time that she
received the Cloisterite charism.
From her schoolhouse window, she could see the back of the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, and the rounded
apse of the church was constantly intriguing her.
In high school, she spent time on horseback, with the goal of becoming a Thoroughbred racehorse jockey. However,
she couldn't reconcile the growing desire to be a nun with that of riding racehorses for a living. Her best friend quit
high school; the funds for her riding lessons became simultaneously exhausted; and other outlets of recreation ceased
to exist, so she withdrew and started praying more. The call to become a Catholic nun would not go away, nor the desire
to convert. After great misunderstanding and persecution due to her desire to become Catholic, her parents
relented and permitted her to enter the Catholic Church on February 17, 1980, at the age of 16.
After high school, she attended Spencerian College in Louisville, Kentucky, where she majored in practical nursing.
Due to the college increasing tuition, she had to leave and seek education elsewhere, despite being only three months
away from graduation. In the fall of 1982, she started as a nursing major at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.
When she burned out in 1985, she took a leave-of-absence, and returned as an English major.
Gemma graduated in 1987, then sought employment in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area, where she has family. She
worked as a temporary secretary for Manpower, then was hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority as a clerical pool worker.
After short stints in the Citizen Action Office; Industrial Development; and Personnel Security; she was eventually hired
by her last assignment, Community Resource Development.
During this time, Gemma was deep into discernment of her vocation. After graduating college, she experienced a
vocation retreat with the Visitation nuns of Toledo, Ohio. It was during the post-retreat discernment years that she
started the Society of Our Lady of the Cloister (now Cloister Outreach) with other contemplative discerners. The cloistered
nuns loved the idea.
Being a Lay Dominican, Gemma attended Jesu Caritas retreats at the St. Cecilia Dominican Motherhouse in Nashville,
Tennessee, discerning a possible call to their congregation. The charism for the Cloisterites was also resurfacing,
and she sought the assistance of not only the Visitation nuns, but the Passionist, Dominican, and Discalced Carmelite nuns
of her acquaintance as well. She began to commit the Rule to paper, and prayed for guidance in finding suitable
property for a convent.
Gemma began having memories of the abuse suffered as a child. She sought help, because she knew that some of the
attractions she was having were not morally right. Her health also failed around the same time, nearly costing her her
job. She knew that the only way to heal the memories was to get married. She met her husband at Holy Ghost Catholic
Church in Knoxville during Lent of 1990. They married on October 13, 1990, and he was almost immediately called up for
Gulf War I. Her father-in-law died of liver cancer at about the same time.
Upon the return of her husband from the war, they set about trying to find an engineering job for him. After the
birth of their first child in 1992, he landed a job with a fire truck manufacturer in Alabama. Their second child came
along during that time. Two years after her husband's hire date, he was hired by the now defunct Snorkel in St.
Joseph, Missouri. During their 17 months there, Gemma started the vocations committee at her parish. With
her father's health failing, she prayed for a stable job for her husband closer to Kentucky. Another engineering job
was found in North Carolina in 1996. Her father died soon after.
And now, more than ten years later, the dream of a Cloisterite community with the charism of asking God for
more cloistered vocations while making reparation for the sins of the world is coming to pass. We ask the charity of
your prayers for this venture. Thank you and God bless you.
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