ST. LOUIS -- During the day, the blocks surrounding St. Louis's Mount Grace Convent seem to reflect the tranquillity inside the cloister walls. With the exception of the hum of traffic on nearby Interstate 70 and the church bells that ring hourly, it's a quiet neighbourhood.
But as night falls, that all changes.
Gunfire fills the air. Police cruisers roam the College Hill neighbourhood, officers frequently stopping to talk to those on the streets. City leaders often refer to this northeast neighbourhood as one of the city's most dangerous.
Inside the convent, 24 cloistered nuns pray.
The order, better known as the Pink Sisters because of the colour of their habits, prays around the clock. Since the convent and chapel opened in 1928, there has always been at least one sister kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament.
"This place is much different," said Sister Mary Catherine Smith, who came here 50 years ago. The superior of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, Smith said the neighborhood changes began in the early 1980s when a guard had to be posted outside the chapel.
"Things started to get bad. People were getting accosted."
Visitors returning from prayer in the chapel would find their cars broken into, she said. The chapel, once open 24 hours, now closes when the sun goes down. Copper thieves have stolen guttering at Mount Grace, but the sisters themselves have not had any problems.
"The Lord has really been protecting us," Smith said.
The changes made by the sisters reflect the decades-long decline of the neighbourhood. A spate of violence has made College Hill a priority for police.
Earlier this year, about 80 police officers converged on the troubled neighbourhood, where police Chief Sam Dotson pledged saturation of law enforcement until the violence stops.
Several murders have occurred in the neighbourhood this year, as well as other shootings. The violence outside the convent does not go unnoticed inside the convent.
"We hear gunshots, oh yes, and we pray nothing happens here," Smith said. She has a good relationship with the police sergeant who works the neighbourhood. Smith has his cellphone number but hopes she won't have to use it.
The sisters are known as perpetual adorers, lifting up in prayer the needs of every heart. That can be a heavy burden, but it's one to which the nuns have committed their lives. About 400 nuns share the mission at 21 other Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters convents around the world.
The sisters living here at the one-hectare compound are from the Philippines, Germany, Holland, Brazil, Puerto Rico and the U.S. They range in age from 30 to 91. They seldom leave the immaculate grounds, restricting most of their outdoor visits to a large garden surrounded by a tall stone wall. The cloister sustains itself financially through donations for daily prayers.
The sisters pray for the safety of those in wars around the world. They pray for the priests who guide congregations. And they pray for the safety of their neighbourhood. Prayer requests come in various forms, including email.
"Prayer requests received through this website cannot be acknowledged in writing, but be assured that we are remembering them before the Blessed Sacrament," states the convent site. "We are pleased to join our prayers to yours for the intentions that you submit to us."
The nuns keep watch on the outside world by subscribing to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and reading news on the Internet.
"We know our current needs," Smith said. There is never a short prayer list.
-- St. Louis Post-Dispatch