‘I Want to Be a Sister’

A Life in Religious Community
This story is included in these collections

It was the spring of 1941, in the quaint village of Hempstead, Long Island. The Great Depression had darkened the lives of many, but the shadow of war had not yet struck, and in the immaculate first-grade classroom of Sr. Mary Verita Riordan, BVM, pictures of the Guardian Angel and the boy Jesus cast a peaceful light on fifty squirming first-graders. Alphabet letters on the cork board, word families on charts, and phonics displays revealed a world of primers and pre-primers. Life in this classroom was all about printing neat letters and sounding out hard words. It was about reciting the Hail Mary, bringing your peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and finding a friend during recess. It was about being a Catholic kid from a large family at a time when the center of life was the parish, the family, the neighborhood.

On this spring morning Sr. Mary Verita, who could have been a poster nun for vocation brochures—had vocation brochures been necessary in those days—called us to attention with a question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Anxiety tightened our grips on the balls of clay we held in our grubby hands. This question was larger than phonics drills and addition sums. Around the room, up and down the aisles, as Sr. Mary Verita summoned each student, children murmured “teacher,” “doctor,” “fireman.”

When my turn came, a thought came to me, unbidden: I want to be a sister like you, Sr. Mary Verita. But I knew instinctively that it was not proper to voice that lofty thought, and so promptly I lied, “I want to be a secretary or a teacher.” It was the standard roster of options for women of that day, except that I failed to include “nurse.”

So where did that suppressed “I want to be a sister like you, Sr. Mary Verita” originate? Where do the desires that direct your life find their source? And how and when do they assert themselves through all unlikelihood and doubt?

These questions hovered in the background as I grew through the middle years of family dinners, Monday afternoon novenas of the Miraculous Medal, tumbling games in the neighborhood, and summer vacations. Grammar school melted into high school with the Dominicans at St. Agnes. Sodality, the junior prom with Joe O’Connor, a marvelous losing Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball team, friends on and off the bus, all played parts in the life of an American child. But in the background the question continued to hum. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As senior year beckoned, the answering voice inside me grew stronger. “I want to be a sister. I want to be a sister like you.”

And so, after talking to a supportive sister and receiving a recommendation from my pastor, after explaining my choice to friends, aunts, and passersby, after obtaining all the items in the clothing list, and after the wrenching farewell to my family, I boarded a train headed for Chicago. By the time I reached Mt. Carmel on the banks of the Mississippi in Dubuque, Iowa, I knew how homesickness felt. Mt. Carmel was home to about one hundred novices and fifty postulants, in ages ranging from seventeen to thirty-five. For me, as for any college freshman, new friendships, experiences, and learning soon overcame the initial strangeness. But my life was not just like that of a college freshman; it was an introduction to a vocation, an introduction to a spirit and to a way of life. Our postulant mistress instructed us in the essence and the culture of religious life. We were mostly eighteen-year-olds, eager and unsophisticated, at times wacky, always looking for whatever news from the world might seep through the big wooden doors of the Motherhouse. Yet we understood, most of us, that we were called to a different life—a life of consecrated celibacy and one of ongoing mystery, revelation, and love.

To be sure, for a young person this vocation included some weird customs and practices. As true devotees, full of mystical longings and youthful ideals, we defended such customs because they surrounded a core reality that we desired, and provided a means toward a life of prayer and service. In spite of separation from family, in spite of wearing heavy serge in summer—even in spite of retiring at 8 p.m. while music glided through our windows from the calliope on the Mississippi River—we believed.

 

IN SEPTEMBER 1955, after making vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, I landed, somewhat anxiously, at St. Ferdinand Convent on the northwest side of Chicago. My family, typical New Yorkers, thought I might just as well be in China. But this was my home now. It was here, in the large residence in a typical working-class Chicago parish, that I learned the rudiments of teaching. Mentoring me, the sisters of my grade level sat down in the community room every Sunday morning to help me hammer out lesson plans for the week, using Cathedral Basic Readers and Sadlier’s mental arithmetic problems. My class of sixty lively, inquisitive, and lovable kids provided the setting for my early formation as a religious and as a minister.

Over the years the setting changed, but the process of learning from students, parents, and sisters continued, in Antioch, Illinois; Fort Dodge, Iowa; and on Long Island. Along the way, a new force rocked the foundations of this tidy world. Rumblings of change swept the church landscape as news of a special event arrived at my fifth-grade classroom in Antioch one day in 1960. That was the day that our pastor, Fr. Alfred J. Henderson, wrote the words “Ecumenical Council” on the blackboard.

I recall at the time finding the news of a council interesting—a nice diversion from multiplying fractions, a good segue into lunchtime—but not too exciting. How wrong I was! Little did I know how profoundly this event would transform the lives of women religious. The life of sisters of that time expressed and followed a deep meaning, but it also presented clear contradictions. We followed a monastic rule while serving an apostolic enterprise. This dualism expressed itself in many practices that separated us from the world: educating young people while not having access to TV news; abstaining from going out at night; visiting with family once a year, and then only with a companion; wearing habits to distinguish ourselves from ordinary women. We were cut off from the world, but for the most part contentedly immersed in typical routines—getting up at 5 a.m., meditating, going to Mass, meeting the school bus.

In the midst of this serenity, the thunderclap of two documents exploded from the halls of the Vatican: Perfectae Caritatis (On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life) and Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the Modern World). These council documents challenged religious to renew their lives in the light of the Gospel, the signs of the times, and the unique charism of their congregations. The pages of these documents offered an inspiring call. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

To many a sister involved in teaching or nursing, this mission might have seemed like a break in tradition, a discontinuity with her practice of religious life. But this “new thing” had roots in the heart of religious life as I had come to know it. It echoed the 1809 rule of the Daughters of Charity, whose spirit requires “no monastery but the houses of the sick...no cloister but the streets of the city.” It resonated with the advice of Mary Frances Clarke, founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who counseled,  “When you see a very poor and neglected one, look upon her with love, and be kind to her, and the poor little one will be grateful and will love you, and when she learns to love God, she will love him for your sake.”

This “new thing” embodied the founding spirit of many religious congregations over the centuries. Originally, the founders of apostolic religious congregations focused on those people on the margins of society, and over the years, women religious continued to minister with devotion to the poor. But as canon law restricted the activities of religious, as the United States Catholic population moved into the middle class, and as religious habits—once the ordinary dress of poor women—became fossilized, structures calcified. Vatican II’s call for a renewal of religious life was indeed a return to the origins of Gospel freedom and mission, updated to embrace a globalized world and a systemic approach to justice.

The twentieth-century process of renewal began as early as 1943 with Pius XII’s encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, encouraging the study of Scripture. Later, in the 1950s, the creation of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW)—later the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—prepared the way for the aggiornamento culminating in the council. Mandating a chapter of renewal for each congregation, the council documents found eager responses from most women religious. Formerly an event characterized by confidentiality and compliance to rules, the chapter of renewal became an assembly of women engaged in a search for meaning. Truth, open debate, and exploration of issues of the moment shattered age-old customs.

Such explorations, I learned, could be disorienting and even painful. Conflicting values sparked controversy. I remember well a debate about ministry choices. Some participants felt that empowering a sister to make decisions about her ministry recognized her maturity and respected her person. Others believed that such a practice would destroy the corporate witness of the congregation. Heated exchanges inflamed and confused the issue. As in most major decisions, there was truth on both sides, but at the time, we were too close to the question to understand that.

In such moments naïveté and hurt walked together with exhilaration, joy, and commitment. The process both thrilled and scared women religious, rocking the foundations of religious life. The effort to rediscover the true spirit of that life triggered profound changes in the governance of congregations. Through many difficult stages, governance became more open to dialogue; gradually, a Robert’s Rules of Order method yielded to a process of discernment and consensus. On the local level, leadership by the superior shifted to group decisions made at house meetings. At first those decisions related to ordinary household matters such as schedules and events; later, the agenda came to include matters of social justice, such as participation in protest marches for peace or civil rights.

Everyone made mistakes and learned painful lessons. (After one house meeting I remember a sister, who preferred a decision by a superior to the tediousness of group deliberations, declaring, “We have gotten rid of superiors, and they have come back in new and more terrifying forms!”) On the local level there was the excitement of reading and discussing church issues. I can remember leaving school at dismissal time to travel to Union Theological Seminary to hear Hans Küng speak, and another time Yves Congar. We were also struggling with the far more practical issue of the change of dress. Many a sister-in-law or parish friend spent hours in the convent helping us redesign habits into black suits—perhaps the most unfashionable outfits ever to see the light of day.

This change in apparel mirrored far more profound changes for women religious in the late 1960s and early ’70s. For those who needed the discipline of order and security of certitude, the new environment seemed chaotic. Yet many others embraced the challenge of a renewed life. Possibly each sister experienced those opposite emotions at different times. At any rate, the changes opened some sisters to a decision to leave religious life. It was truly not the same congregation we had entered years ago, and you had to make a choice.

For my part, during this post–Vatican II period I lived in a local house full of dynamic people who welcomed renewal. We read; we attended workshops; we participated in summer-school programs; we invited speakers to the house. I was a junior-high teacher who, in January 1969, became principal of a Catholic school. The school was torn by political conflicts; sisters had engaged students in interracial programs that ignited fears among some parishioners and caused profound tension. While the principles of social justice underlying these programs remain fixed in my heart, in retrospect I see we clearly failed to understand that in an organization, it is not enough to embrace a just cause. There must be respect for all points of view, a faithful dialogue, and a willingness to negotiate. We sisters lacked much of this, and when our congregation withdrew from a parish that both we and the parishioners loved, nobody won.

ONE NIGHT DURING this turbulent time, as I was leaving a Lenten service in the parish church, I met a parishioner who told me about a program for educators at Columbia University’s Teachers College. That simple encounter proved life-changing. I applied, and eventually was awarded a scholarship to the Program for Educational Leadership. I remember with special gratitude Larry Cremin, author of American Education, who taught me deep respect for the public-school system and the dedicated teachers who commit their lives to it. In addition to our studies on educational leadership, our group took a stance on the major issue of the era, demonstrating in Washington, D.C., for the end of the Vietnam War.

As I completed my degree at Columbia, I prepared to return to my great love: elementary education. In 1972, I became principal of a school where I spent some of the happiest days of my life. We were a young faculty who loved the kids and one another, and enjoyed the everyday work of running a multiracial school with a large population of children from poor families. There were challenges aplenty: finances were always a concern, and the violence of the surrounding area could intimidate. Meanwhile I also participated in the governance of my congregation, serving on boards and committees. In December 1975, I was elected to the council of my congregation, and later to the presidency.

Leadership is often described as a burden, but on most days I found it a joy. I loved working with our sisters, my companions in leadership, as well as the leaders of other congregations. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was and is a source of encouragement, strength, and solidarity in the mission of renewal. Whether it was a process for assigning cars, a way to address patrimony (funds owned by sisters), or a sensitive personnel issue, we helped one another.

That solidarity helped us navigate an event I still recall with a shudder of discomfort. One cold gray afternoon in December 1984, I returned to my office after a week of retreat at a Trappistine monastery. I was rested and eager for the pile of mail that had accumulated during my absence. As I flipped through the Christmas cards, I noticed an envelope with a return address from the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious (formally, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Apostolic Life).

The letter was no Christmas card! It was the Vatican’s response to a full-page advertisement published in the New York Times two months earlier under the title “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion.” Paid for by a group called Catholics for a Free Choice, and signed by sixty-seven prominent lay Catholics, two priests, two brothers, and twenty-six nuns, the advertisement asserted in bold letters that a “diversity of opinion regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics.”

The letter from the Congregation for Religious—also sent to many other leaders of congregations—began by reminding me of the church’s position on abortion. It then requested that I direct a member of our congregation who had signed the advertisement in the Times to make a public retraction—or face dismissal from the congregation. Reading this directive, I was so upset that a reliable witness tells me that I flung my briefcase across the living room. Whatever one thought about the wisdom of signing the ad, for Rome to demand such subservience from women religious epitomized authoritarianism and censorship.

Within a week, leaders who had received the same message gathered in the LCWR offices in Silver Spring, Maryland. The dilemma before us was not how to think about what the law should do about abortion or the tense political debate, especially among Catholics, surrounding that issue. I, for one, was not involved at all in the politics of the situation, which were focused on statements made by New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor about Geraldine Ferarro, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, who was Catholic and prochoice. Rather, our first concern was with the appropriate exercise of the office to which we had been elected, and with ensuring a fair hearing for members who had signed the ad in question. With dialogue we understood that the prevalent intention of the sisters who signed the ad was not the promotion of abortion, but the desire for pastoral help for those women who saw abortion as their only solution to a desperate situation.

The challenge was in respecting the rights of the members to express their conscience while also defending our congregations against reprisals for not dismissing those sisters.

Before this matter was settled there would be thirty lengthy conference calls, seven meetings with the apostolic delegate, two meetings with the prefect for the Congregation for Religious, and innumerable meetings between individual congregational leaders and signers. The issue dragged on for many, many months. Ultimately, all but two of the women religious who had signed the letter did declare that they had not intended to promote abortion. The other two voluntarily left vowed religious life. None of the signers made a public retraction and none was dismissed from her congregation. The episode signaled a solidarity among women religious that would only deepen over the years.

In the wake of this drama, I was elected president of LCWR in 1986. Throughout my three years as LCWR president I encountered further tensions between women religious in the United States and Vatican representatives. At issue were aspects of the renewal of religious life that were apparently considered “radical feminism” by Roman officials—though “radical feminism” was never defined. In the years and decades since, this tension has only intensified, culminating in the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of LCWR (2008) and the apostolic visitation of women religious in the United States (2009). Both inquiries challenged the renewal of religious life and the leadership of women religious congregations—and ignited a storm of protests from Catholic laity who respect the numerous movements for justice and peace originated by U.S. sisters. Others may have questioned, “When did the ‘good sisters’ become the ‘damn nuns’?”

Respectfully countering the allegations of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, LCWR drew attention to the flawed process and the false information contained in the charges. Individual congregations responded to the survey of the Congregation for Religious with courtesy and resolve—hosting Vatican representatives but deliberately not responding to inappropriate requests for information. Though neither conflict has been decided as of this writing, Pat Farrell, OSF, speaking as president of LCWR in 2012, echoed the thoughts of women religious around the world when she said of the Vatican’s actions, “They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the springtime” [.pdf].

 

WHEN I LEFT THE leadership of my congregation in 1992, I ministered in a diocesan office serving parish councils and the diocesan pastoral council. I discovered a place where women were respected as equal partners. Whenever there was an issue relating to my department, the bishop asked for my advice. Whenever there was an issue related to the entire diocese, he consulted the staff, the presbyteral council, and the diocesan pastoral council—and heeded their direction. These were challenging but rewarding years as the ecclesiological consequences of the Second Vatican Council continued to elicit both hope and resistance in the American Church.

In 2004 LCWR asked me to coordinate an exhibit about women religious, later named Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America. I had no experience with exhibitions, but I accepted nonetheless, and soon our newly formed LCWR History Committee began an exciting and surprising journey, working to illuminate how Catholic sisters have helped shape the history and culture of the United States.

With the support of a design team, generous donors, and archivists around the country, we mounted an exhibition telling the story of the leadership of Catholic sisters in education, health care, social services, and justice advocacy. We undertook this journey in order to share the untold story of Catholic sisters in America, women often shrouded in mystery and obscured by stereotype. We told the story of people like Mother Cabrini, who helped immigrants and started a prison ministry; Marianne Cope, OSF, who spent her life tending the victims of Hansen’s Disease in Hawaii; and Mother Mary John Hughes, PBVM, who in 1880 in Aberdeen, South Dakota, sent this advertisement to potential members of her community:

We offer you no salary; no recompense; no holidays; no pensions, but much hard work; a poor dwelling; few consolations; many disappointments; frequent sickness; a violent or lonely death.

These women and thousands of others exemplify the mission of Catholic sisters. Thanks to the fruitful collaboration between the LCWR History Committee and the project’s design team the exhibition had its grand opening in Cincinnati in May 2009. The process of realizing this dream summoned inspiring examples from down the ages: the commitment of the sisters in Galveston who died while protecting orphans in the great hurricane of 1900; the leadership of Sr. Marie Thérèse Farjon, OSU, who wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to protect the property rights of her congregation following the Louisiana Purchase; the peacemaking of the nurses in the Civil War. As we Catholic sisters, script writers, film producers, and others put the exhibit together, we sat at the feet of our ancestors, inspired and guided by their own acts of community.

For me, the making of Women & Spirit and all that it entailed was an unmerited treasure, an adventure in community. Such community is needed now more than ever. In recent years, Catholic sisters have suffered the loss of cherished institutions, a decline in our numbers, and a steady rise in conflicts with the church. The Carmelite sister and theologian Constance Fitzgerald has likened the current situation of women religious to the “dark night of the soul.” All of us, she writes, are “encumbered by old assumptions, burdened by memories that limit our horizons, and, therefore, unfree to see God coming to us from the future.

 

PEOPLE OFTEN ASK US about that future. Do you have any novices? Will your congregation survive? There is no simple answer to these questions. History tells us that the 1940–60 era was an anomaly in terms of vocations to religious life. No other time in history witnessed comparable growth in the number of women religious. Another factor is that Catholic families are having fewer children, and therefore may not be eager to encourage a vocation to religious life that might preclude grandchildren. And, of course, the culture does not support a life of celibacy. But the deeper truth may be less easily uncovered. Perhaps God is doing something new with this way of life. Perhaps religious life, as we know it, has to die in order for a new form of commitment to arise. Is the Spirit breathing something transformative, something prophetic into the fabric of religious life, something our imaginations cannot yet fathom? An essential charism in the life of the church, religious life continues to unfold, to renew, to surprise.

For me, this future evokes the memory of that old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How did that simple question, stored in the jumble of long-gone memories, illuminate a life? And where does the answer—“I want to be a sister like you”—originate? Where do this childhood desire and this mature desire find their source? I remember, years ago during the controversy over the abortion ad in the New York Times, driving back alone to Dubuque in twenty-five-below-zero cold after a tense meeting with signers and congregational leaders at the Chicago Cenacle. I was afraid to stop lest the car fail to restart and strand me. “How did I get here?” I wondered.

“And for all this, nature is never spent,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins; “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” I understand now that the source of my childhood desire and my mature desire are one—the Holy Spirit. “I want to be a sister, just like you.” This “you” is no longer an idolized young sister, but rather the person of Jesus Christ, whose Spirit moving in our church calls me and every woman religious to heed a basic summons: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the December 5, 2014 issue: 

Helen Maher Garvey, BVM, is an organizational consultant for religious congregations. She currently serves on the board of the National Catholic Reporter. Garvey was president of her congregation, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Dubuque, Iowa. 

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections