LA CROSSE, Wis. — Flooding, snowstorms, a flu outbreak, even a fire — any of those might have slowed a group of Wisconsin nuns who say none of it has kept their order from praying nonstop for hundreds of thousands of people over the last 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. on 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, Ohio. Their order has done so in the U.S. since 1921, a carryover from an effort that began in 1856 in France, according to that order's Sister Mary Thomas. One or two nuns are there at all times, with no help from lay people. Some orders, though, have scaled back to part-time because of aging nuns or other reasons.
Since the La Crosse nuns began, they've prayed through a fire in an adjacent building in 1923, a flood in La Crosse in 1965, the flu and many storms. Sister Hennessey compiles the requests for each day from paper slips people leave in person, phone calls, emails and online forms.
On the list recently was Laura Huber, 52, a principal of two La Crosse-area schools, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 months ago. A school board member requested the prayers for her, she said.
"The prayer sustained me in ways I haven't been able to articulate," she said, adding, "I felt warm and loved and cared about by strangers and that's an incredible feeling."
Sister Friedman says she never has problems finding people to help. She has a list of substitutes, but the prayer partners and nuns often take extra hours.
"If it's 11 o'clock at night and it's my hour and another sister doesn't show up, I can't just go to bed," said Sister Hennessey. "You're like, 'It's 137 years — I have to stay awake.'"