When Fidel Castro came into power in 1959, thousands of Cubans fled the new Communist State for freedom in the United States. Among the refugees were 30 nuns of the order of the Franciscan Poor Clares. Members of this order, founded in 1212, devote themselves to a contemplative life of prayer. Their vow of poverty prescribes that they be completely self-supporting, a tall order for displaced women in a new country. None of the sisters spoke English, and none had ever traveled outside of Cuba.
|Sister Angela with one of the Poor Clares' "little miracles." © Sharon Cavileer|
The sisters took refuge in another Poor Clare monastery in Corpus Christi, Texas. In cramped quarters, they made their living by making communion wafers as well as raising birds and Persian cats. Their reputation as animal-lovers brought a "small" donation. The sisters were given two miniature horses -- a donation that became a major miracle for the nuns.
Today, The Poor Clares of Brenham maintain a herd of 80-100 prized miniature horses on a 98-acre ranch in Washington County, Texas, about an hour's drive west of Houston. This unlikely haven for Cuban refugees is a little bit of heaven for spirits of a different kind.
The Monastery is one of the major tourist attractions in Brenham, Texas, welcoming guests from all walks of life every day (except Christmas and Holy Week) from 2 to 4 p.m. The abbreviated visiting hours allow for the sisters' rigid schedule of prayers seven times daily.
Sister Angela and her brother Bill Chandler and niece Alicia Chandler are charged with caring for the horses. This job is not much different than caring for larger breeds. Their diet of oats and hay is simply smaller portions. The miniatures receive annual shots for encephalitis, tetanus, flu and quarterly wormers. They are never shod, but have their hooves trimmed quarterly.
|Sister Angela leads her "flock" of miniature horses." © Sharon Cavileer|
Each animal is blessed with exceptional attention. The appearance of Sister Angela in her brown habit brings the herd to the fence for another dose of affection. Visiting children and adults are welcomed inside the pasture gates for nuzzling, hugging, petting, patting and photo ops. The tiniest tots bond instantly with these pint-sized equines. And many a family photo has been shot during bluebell season every spring.
Thanks to a successful breeding program, springtime brings between nine and 24 little blessings into the order. 2001 brought nine new foals ? among them a Monastery Shadows Class Act, a long name for a little horse measuring only 28 1/4 inches high. The gray and white pinto filly is the attention hog of the bunch, wanting lots of petting and scratching. Now for sale, "Classy" is priced at $3,500. Monastery Minnie Mouse is the smallest of the foals, measuring 25 1/4 inches at the withers. Pure black, she's got attitude as well as pedigree.
Although miniature horses have had a place in history since the Middle Ages, they've only been considered a breed in the US since l978. Lords and ladies of royal courts once had them as "fancies," but when they grew bored with them, the tiny horses went to work in circuses and coal mines. Pit ponies also worked the coal mines of Appalachia -- in places their full-sized brethren couldn't go.
|The monastery's minis are a major tourist attraction in Washington County, Texas. © Sharon Cavileer|
In l978 the American Miniature Horse Association was formed, thus recognizing the miniature horse as a breed. The association set breed standards and height limits, and shows began. Many of the monastery horses have placed well in these shows. Monastery Colonial Charm came home with three first place trophies from a recent show. And the barn has hundreds of other trophies and ribbons on display. Bill and Alicia Chandler show the horses for the Poor Clares at Miniature events throughout the Southwest.
Since l985, Sister Angela has spent a good part of her day caring for the horses. "They have tried to teach me patience," she says. "Through the years I've developed an even greater respect for all of God's creatures. He has blessed these horses with intelligence, a sense of humor and a trust that they will be taken care of. We could all learn from them."
|A working 1850s cotton farm exists in the Washington on the Brazos State Park. © Sharon Cavileer|
Sister Angela quoted the Gospel of Saint Matthew: "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them?. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
Caring for the miniature horses has, in turn, provided care for the Poor Clares of Brenham. And these glorious little creatures continue to teach their human neighbors small lessons of faith and trust every day.
Beyond the confines of the Monastery, Washington County is a good vacation choice for those who love their freedom. After all, this was the place that Texas was born. Sam Houston's colony declared its independence from Mexico in 1836 as the Alamo fell. Washington on the Brazos State Park provides a complete panorama of Texas history from Declaration of Independence site, to a working 1850s cotton farm, and the Star of the Republic Museum.
The George Bush Presidential Library in neighboring College Station is East Texas' top tourism attraction. The 69,000-square-foot library offers a snapshot of American history as lived by our 41st president. In a unique series of exhibits, visitors relive the Twentieth Century through a TBM Avenger, a 1947 Studebaker, ordnance from Operation Desert Storm, and a piece of the Berlin Wall. During the Bush administration, the world changed dramatically with the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Gulf War. In 2002, a special exhibit, "Fathers and Sons, Two Families, Four Presidents" highlights the dynasties of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams and George Bush and George W. Bush.
The county's ranches offer unique guesthouse accommodations with stable facilities for guests? horses. Try the elegant accommodations of Texas Ranch Life, which has with a 22-stall horse barn where historic homes are available for rent from $140 a night. Or spread out at the 100-acre Miraposa Ranch, with its houses, cabins and cottages.
|The George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. © Sharon Cavileer|
Throughout Washington County there are ample places to ride. Many stables offer trail riding and lessons including Washington County's Shiloh Ranch where there is plenty of room for riding, roping and rodeo.
Washington County is a dream destination for horse-lovers of all sizes.
For more information, contact:
Monastery Miniature Horses
9300 Highway 105
Brenham, Texas 77833
Washington County Texas
314 South Austin Street
Brenham, Texas 77833
Texas Ranch Life