A Simple Alter

A Simple Altar and Invitation to Participate in Breaking Open the Word

Speak, Lord, I love to listen to your voice. See, Lord, here I am.

It’s Friday, February 19th, 11am,  and Sr. Mary Frances is intoning the opening song at this Lenten season service. We are gathered in the chapel of the the Visitation Monastery on Fremont Avenue in North Minneapolis, where Fr. Jim Radde, S.J. has come to preside.  Mass has begun with a simple sounding of the sisters’ gong. Sr. Karen has provided some welcoming remarks to the community gathered, tuning us into today’s scripture and the themes we are sinking ourselves into at the start of this season. I sit next to my husband, Francois Kiemde, in this cozy, prayerful space, and we sing as a community in a psalm-like response to Sister’s opening a cappella melody.

Speak, Lord, I love to listen to your voice. See, Lord, here I am.

I sing and I smile.  Sr. Katherine is to my right, and I’m aware that I am sandwiched between the man that I adore and have committed my life to, and a nun who warms my heart and models a deep contemplative way of being in the world for me. Next to her is yet another lay member of this community, a woman out of work, who has come to pray. I feel so lucky to be sitting precisely here, in this spot, on this first Friday in Lent.


What is it to attend mass at the monastery?
What does it mean to participate in any service with the Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis?
Why come to church here?
What calls me, or any person for that matter, to be present at 16th and Fremont Avenue North?
What might possibly inspire a single woman to come and commit her life to this place, this monastic order, this manner of prayerful living?

These are some of the questions I hold, meditating, reflecting on Friday’s experience.


Participating in Mass: Melissa Reading from Isaiah

Participating in Mass: Melissa Reading from Isaiah

Fr. Jim improvises an opening prayer, and we turn to the day’s scripture readings. Sr. Karen has asked me, prior to mass, to read from Isaiah. I do so with joy, hope, a pride for proclaiming and participating in this worship experience.

Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast…

We move from Isaiah to the psalm to Matthew’s gospel. And right around the time that we are about to hear Fr. Radde’s homily, two people from the neighborhood ring the doorbell; Sr. Mary Margaret excuses herself to tend to them. Fr. Jim pauses with such intention, then. He is filling in at the last moment for the bishop, who was slated to say mass this day. Jim discloses his recent wrestling with the day’s scripture, his attempt at composing something meaningful to share with us, and his own process of easing into Lent. It’s his transparency, his honesty, his open inquiry about the scripture and this season, that pull me further into this reflective moment. The homiletic experience at the Vis Monastery is already one of my favorite aspects of attending mass here. To have today’s rounded out with this man’s intro warms all parts of my own human heart and modest attempts at unpacking scripture for myself. I appreciate deeply all who takes stabs at reflective meaning-making — anyone who works to apply gospel narratives to our own immediate circumstances.


When my husband asked me, just two weeks ago — before our first joint experience at mass at the monastery, where it would all take place, and what church would be like, it gave me pause.

“Where are we going to mass, honey? Who will be there? What should I expect?”

Since Francois’ questions were posed, I’ve been marveling and mulling over what mass at the Visitation monastery really means, what it entails, why I love it. I tried to answer him:

“Well, service is usually held in their living room. The sisters are there and then the presiding priest. Depending on the time of day, there may or may not be anywhere from 1 to 15 additional people in attendance: neighbors, lay members, friends, folks who come from all over to be part of the mass. Afterward, the sisters always offer a light meal of some kind.” I paused, then added: “It’s very intimate. At the time of the homily, you are always invited to speak your own thoughts, questions or connections to what has been said by the priest. It’s like the best kind of faith group. It’s sort of what I imagine the early church to have been like: Christians, apostles congregating in their homes, to tell stories, break bread. I hope you love it.”


Mass in the Living Room of the Monastery: Congregants pray "Our Father"

Mass in the Living Room of the Monastery: Congregants pray "Our Father"

Here we are two weeks later with Fr. Radde, about to break open the text with our Jesuit presider, and I’m mindful of how all these ideas are swirling in this present moment. My Catholic, West African husband, the nuns of North Minneapolis, a beloved Jesuit priest hailing from North Dakota, my fellow sister-seeker, and my Vis Companion self, all in the larger context of this urban center with neighbors at the door.

Sr. Mary Margaret returns, having handed out a couple bus tokens, and Fr. Jim is speaking.

In his homiletic musings, Father draws on a text written by a fellow Jesuit. He is evoking the narrative of a young girl named Pamela from Northern Uganda, as it is relayed in a book he’s been reading. The title of this work is “They Come Back Singing: Finding God with the Refugees.” It’s Fr. Gary Smith, S.J.’s journal composed while living in East Africa for the last several years. Jim reads from it, and connects it with his own Lenten questions and today’s scripture. He is bringing Pamela to mass; bearing witness to her own kind of incredible, mind-blowing journey, as we embark on our own in this season. Fr. Radde then extends space and opportunity for all of us to add our own thoughts.

We listen. We connect. We question. We speak aloud our own prayerful contemplations.

The doorbell rings again, and now joining our worship space is a familiar face; a dear, dreadlocked man with a sweet smile and sincere desire to pray with the sisters. He sits down next to Fr. Radde in our small little prayer room that is the chapel.

I tell you, my head spins, my heart breaks open and falls further in love with this kind of Eucharistic service. My husband takes my hand and squeezes. There’s just so much room at this place for people –for voices, for stories, for our utter humanity to be present and convened in one deeper intention: to pray and meditate together for a moment. We are participating in a gospel narrative of our own: loving radically as we witness simply to one another.

Speak, Lord, I love to listen to your voice. See, Lord, here I am.

I return to that opening song intoned by Mary Frances. To the questions I’m attempting to answer. Why come here? Who is here? What is here? I invite you all to come and see for yourself.

In prayer and Lenten Journey contemplation,
Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde,
Vis Companion, Blogger

To find out more about mass times and presiders, please click here to see the schedule. You can also be added to the emailed mass schedule through the Monastery’s list-serve, by emailing: VMonastery@aol.com.
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Jennifer Larson · February 22, 2010 at 8:32 am

Lovely post. Thank you!

Cara Schomisch · February 25, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Thank you Melissa for your beautiful post on your Lenten mass. You are so blessed as a writer! You words are inspirational! God Bless!

Joanne · July 15, 2010 at 5:12 am

You mention the song ‘Speak Lord, I love to listen to your voice – See Lord here I am’. Do you have all the words to that song? If you do I’d like to get them if that is possible. I have been looking for these words for a long time – can you help?


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