La Crosse, Wis. — As the chapel bell rings at 2:30 p.m, Sister Joyce Bantle finishes up her weekly prayer duty with a final prayer for peace. Sister Joyce says the shift's too short. There are, she says, just too many people who need to be prayed for.
"It seems that the half hour is gone before you know it," says Sister Joyce. "You're asking for the graces for these people, to be able to accept the crosses that are laid out before them each day."
For 125 years, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have logged more than two million consecutive hours of prayer. It's the nation longest, uninterrupted prayer. More than 100 nuns at the St. Rose convent pray in 30-minute shifts by day, and hour-long shifts at night. They pray for themselves, for the people of La Crosse, and for the rest of the world.
Sister Joyce holds the first of four single-spaced pages of prayer requests. These came in over the past week. The requests range from help for addressing substance abuse problems to requests for family members who have fallen ill.
There are close to 50 requests per page. People in need can call, mail or e-mail a request to the sisters' Web site.
Can you imagine what this world would be like if there was no one praying 24 hours a day? If there was no positive influence, either from us or from any sincere human being? Thank God we have good people.
This year, prayer requests have been up more than 200 percent from last year, largely due to media publicity from their 125th anniversary of perpetual prayer. But the sisters say there are other reasons for the spike in interest.
Health concerns have always been the top prayer request. But this year, according to Sister Helen Koopman, the sisters have noticed more requests reflecting current events.
"A job. 'God help me find a job.' 'Pray for me that I keep my job or we will be able to move where there is a job.' That is a real concern now. And it is heartbreaking to read it over and over," says Sister Helen with a sigh.
Sister Helen says in the past year, concerns about jobs and relatives who are part of the U.S. military presence in Iraq have been taking up a lot of her prayer time.
The convent hasn't taken an official stance on America's role in Iraq. But according to Sister Malinda Gerke, most here were opposed to the war. Sister Malinda says recently, she's prayed long and hard for President Bush. She says his tax reform package and his foreign policy need more guidance from God.
"Maybe his version of Christianity isn't the same as mine. We do not know the pressures the man is under. I think he is a sincere enough man the way he sees it. But I don't think he has the insights of Einstein," says Sister Malinda. "The man is doing, I suppose, the best he can with what he's got. And this is, with the providence of God, what we work with."
Whether it's for the president or for people on a request list, Sister Malinda says prayer for her is an effort to understand others' needs and help communicate them to God.
"When I first go in there, I will first read through this and try to connect with the needs that are there -- not judge it, but connect it. It's like presenting the Lord with these situations. 'Now this is yours, Lord,'" says Sister Malinda.
Sister Malinda says God's answer to a prayer may not be as direct as a cure for a deadly disease or a job for the unemployed. She says the answer may arrive in an unexpected way, or perhaps at another time. To explain this, Sister Malinda sits down and begins gently strumming the convent's harp.
"Something that is very intense is to feel the harp vibrating, and you'll feel the harp vibrating long after you can't hear it," she says. "So the influence of prayer and spirituality in our life permeates us, even if we hear it or not. One of the sayings I have is that God is the harpist and humanity is the harp."
And humanity, says Sister Malinda, can't help but sound out in prayer.
"Can you imagine what this world would be like if there was no one praying 24 hours a day? If there was no positive influence, either from us or from any sincere human being? Thank God we have good people," says Sister Malinda.
In recent years, the sisters have invited lay people to help them fulfill their perpetual adoration. After more than 100 years of praying, they agreed it was time to get some help.