| By Karl Kuykendall

How the Diocese Once Became Home to a Miniature Horse Farm

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The Order of St. Clare, or  the Poor Clare Sisters, is a worldwide order of contemplative Franciscan nuns that number some 20,000 spread over 70 countries. From 1985 until 2010 a group of Poor Clares called Washington County home and built the Monastery of St. Clare on a 98-acre tract a few miles northeast of Brenham. 

This group of Poor Clares had their beginnings in Cuba in 1644, and because of political unrest, relocated to Corpus Christi in the early 1960s. At the invitation of Bishop Vincent Harris, they relocated to the Austin Diocese. The nuns had been raising birds and purebred cats to supplement their income; however, the proceeds from that enterprise were  not what they had hoped for, and prior to their departure from Corpus Christi the abbess, Sister Bernadette Muller, conceived the bold and novel idea of breeding and raising miniature horses. 

After considerable research Sister Bernadette contacted a miniature horse breeder in Ohio and convinced the breeder to donate a mare to the effort. Knowing that a male would be necessary if the nuns were going to be serious about the endeavor, the sisters’ financial advisor donated a stud from the breeder, and the nuns were all set. 

Before the move to Washington County, the Poor Clares kept the miniature horses in their backyard in Corpus. When they were able to occupy their larger place near Brenham, the nuns obtained a loan to increase their foundation herd to 18 miniatures. Until her death in 1992, Sister Bernadette, who became known as the “Cowboy Nun” managed a well-planned and well-executed genetics and breeding program. 

The Poor Clares’ horses, which were trained to pull a cart carrying two adults, prospered and gained national attention and were often competitively exhibited. The brood, which grew to as many as 50, manifested a wide variety of colors. The horses were calm and friendly and thrived on the attention they received. The nuns’ breeding program was quite successful, and 12 to 15 of the horses were sold annually at prices ranging from $500 to $5,000 per head. 

The Poor Clares also trained miniatures for others, and at its peak, their training enterprise gentled and taught over 70 horses per year. The beautiful grounds and unique operation became quite an attraction with as many as 20,000 people per year visiting the Monastery of St. Clare. Besides enjoying the gently rolling hills of Washington County and the miniature horses, visitors could shop for beautiful ceramics made by the sisters and marketed in their “Art Barn” on the grounds of the monastery.

After the death of Sister Bernadette, Sister Angela Chandler stepped into her boots and managed the operation. In later years she was assisted by her relatives, Becky and Bill Chandler. By 2010 the number of nuns at the Monastery of St. Clare had dwindled to three, and the decision was made to liquidate the herd. 

The Pax Christi Sisters, also formerly from Corpus Christi, bought the property from the Poor Clares. They now operate a retreat center on the former horse farm.

Karl Kuykendall is a retired commercial bank executive and is a member of St. Mary Parish in Temple. He has lived in the Diocese of Austin for more than 50 years. He is the author of Faith & Perseverance: The History of the Catholic Church in Central Texas, which was recently published by Amazon.