The Jesus Cage

The Stories

Abbie Reese began working with a community of cloistered nuns in 2005. She was granted rare and continued access to conduct oral history interviews with the nuns, who seek anonymity and observe monastic silence, and she was allowed to make photographs within the enclosure. Her book, Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns, was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. Also in 2005, Abbie began to interview a young woman considering a religious vocation as a cloistered nun. The result of this collaboration is Chosen (Custody of the Eyes), a feature-length documentary completed in 2017.

Sharing these projects revealed other stories not yet told — from those on the other side of the metal grille.

Asked to speak to a class at the University of Notre Dame, Abbie read an assignment given to the students — a chapter of the book Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America by Margaret M. McGuinness (New York University Press, 2015). Most of this 277-page book focuses on active religious sisters; just 17 pages are devoted to cloistered contemplative nuns. The chapter Praying for the World closes: "Congregations of contemplative nuns may capture the imagination of some Americans, but it is difficult to document the ways in which they have either contributed to the growth of the Catholic Church or contributed to the larger society."

Stunned by this dismissive sentence, Abbie realized the stories she had been hearing needed to be documented.

Here are some of those stories...


Patti Koval

In 1972, Patricia Koval received a phone call from a friend — a religious sister — with whom she had taught. Sister Eucharista told Patti she was going to join a cloistered monastery. But she wouldn't say where or which order. Patti began an almost five-decade search for her friend.

Patti reached out to me in October of 2017. She wrote, "Dear Ms. Reese: I am thanking you for writing DEDICATED TO GOD, for a very specific reason." Patti shared a bit of her friendship and her search, then closed: "Amazing that it took this many years to locate her, and more amazing that you chose her as one of the storytellers.  I thought you'd be interested to see how your research has helped me in my search for my dear friend."

We emailed several times before deciding to meet so that she could share the story of her friendship, the decades of separation, and the conclusion of her search.

In the past 13 years, I've learned about the lives of cloistered nuns and women considering entering a cloister; I've heard about the unique demands of cloistered life and the predicament for loved ones when a daughter or sister or friend joins a cloister. I have not heard a story quite like Patti's. I'm sharing her story here, along with my interviews and photographs.