Friday, October 11, 2013

Get Thee to a Nunnery

By the time I graduated from Catholic grade school, I’d had enough of nuns, and they of me. Most of my Ursuline order teachers—and my lay teachers, for that matter—would be stunned to discover I turned out responsible and nearly respectable. I’ve often wondered if I might view them differently, too, if I had the chance to know them outside the classroom and the church, on a more level playing field, now that I am an adult.

Would spending a couple days in a convent, as part of The 52/52 Project, be a hoot or a horror? Or would it simply provide me with a whole new insight?

I’d never met Sister Lourdes. While she’s my first cousin once-removed, she is twenty years older and left Toledo for the convent in Joliet, outside Chicago, before I was born. Even though she didn’t know me aside from recent correspondence on a family website and a few subsequent emails, she seemed enthused about my visit.

In just over twenty-four hours, I gained more insight about nuns than I did in my entire eight years at St. Patrick of Heatherdowns.

Insight Number One: Nuns have lives outside the church.

Somehow, in my thirteen-year-old Catholic schoolgirl mind, I once assumed that when they weren’t putting me in a corner of the classroom for my nonstop talking, the nuns spent the rest of their waking hours in the church, praying—and quite likely for my depraved soul.

When I accompanied Sister Lourdes for her weekly bowling league, I watched as she interacted with the rest of the women. “Sis,” as they called her, was just another of their bowling buddies. Although I proved to be a bowling jinx that evening, I learned she’s a skillful bowler who placed second in the state for the over-seventy division last year and competed nationally. When she wasn’t throwing spares that night, we both enjoyed a beer, a piece of rhubarb cake, and shared a plate of decadent “Bloated French Fries."

Afterward, Sister Lourdes and her convent neighbor, Sister Odelia, taught me how to play dominoes. We laughed and made small talk, like old girlfriends, while they totally kicked my ass at the game. Although neither of them used that particular language, somehow I know they won’t judge me for it.

Insight Number Two: Not all nuns judge or condemn others’ actions or lifestyles.

Those choosing religious vocations surely believe in and are bound to a higher set of morals than many of us. Yet all of the Sisters I met, the working ones and the elderly ones residing in the affiliated nursing home (my day volunteering there will follow as a separate story), were simply warm and welcoming. I may be a sinner, but they never made me feel like one.

As I hesitatingly discussed my divorce, Sister Lourdes listened thoughtfully and nodded as I spoke. Even though we agreed divorce is never an ideal situation, she reassured me it appeared my former husband and I had done the best job possible raising our children.

During my visit, Sister Lourdes and I also touched—just barely—on politics and social issues. I wasn’t eager to go there, since some of my left-leaning beliefs often don’t coincide with those of the Catholic Church. Based on her comments about the negative and “very conservative” thoughts that people express on the Internet, I concluded she was more open-minded than I expected. I wondered how many other nuns and priests vary in their personal outlooks on politics and social issues.

We didn’t dwell on controversial topics for long though. Sister Lourdes segued into a humorous anecdote, and she got me laughing—not for the last time that day. 

Insight Number Three: Nuns can be pretty damn funny.

A few quips from Sister Lourdes:

As she turned a quick left into a parking lot, veering across a line of oncoming traffic, I sat up straight and clutched the sides of my seat. She grinned over at me, shrugged, and said, “It’s your side.”

While we studied photographs of the Sisters’ ways of dressing through the years, she pointed at a photo of nun habits from the sixties, featuring the tight over-the-forehead coverings, and mentioned that was the dress when she first entered the convent.

“I’ll bet you don’t miss that,” I said.

She laughed. “Oh, God, don’t you know it.”

Sister Lourdes’s sense of humor wasn’t an anomaly in her religious order. When I met the president of the congregation, Sister Dolores, she asked if I was interested in becoming a Sister. I stammered for a few minutes until Sister Lourdes cut in and briefly explained The 52/52 Project.

“Oh,” Sister Dolores deadpanned. “Guess I need to throw away that application I had waiting for you.”

Insight Number Four: We’re not so different.

The main thing that seemed to set the Sisters apart from me and most of the people I know was their lifelong commitment to serving God. As a fairly lapsed Catholic, I wanted to better understand that. I asked Sister Lourdes why she became a nun.

She shrugged and simply said, “I never had a desire to do anything else. I knew this was what I wanted to do since I was in the eighth grade. When you love the Lord, you love the Lord.”

I can’t say I came away from my experience with any element of these women’s commitment to their faith. I’m still a faltering Catholic. That may or may not ever change.

However, the experience did change the stereotype I’d held for so many years. The Sisters of St. Francis were real, normal people. They banter and disagree and laugh. They experience frustration with their daily work and with the things in life that plague us all. They find enjoyment in ordinary things. They find joy in life itself. That was made clear on my last evening in Joliet, when I attended the funeral prayer service for a ninety-three-year-old Sister, their friend and colleague. They mourn death, but more important, as Sister Lourdes pointed out, they “celebrate life.”

Who’d have guessed we’re not so different? As a thirteen-year-old girl at St. Patrick’s grade school, I would never have dreamed it possible.

But, twenty-one weeks into my year of new life experiences, I’ve learned almost anything is possible. And God knows I’m not that girl anymore.

Religious, spiritual, or not so much? Do you think this brings me one step closer to securing my spot in heaven? What have you learned lately?


  1. You should have asked her if she regrets that they can't beat the crap out of their students any more...

    1. Bluz: Did you have one who did? I encountered a couple pretty mean nuns in grade school, but can't say I ever had any who hit us. The only corporal punishment I observed was in high school--with "whacks" by the paddle--and that was a public school.

      I actually asked for one in lieu of suspension once, but was denied. Guess the administration was brought up to believe they could never hit a girl. ;-)

  2. What a great experience, Sherry! Wish I could've tagged along on this one---my favorite since the Brazilian. :D

    1. Thanks, Sarah! I was a bit surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this one. If you're really curious, you could always apply to join them, although your husband and two daughters might not look kindly on the idea.

  3. Very interesting to this ex Catholic schoolgirl, Sherry.

    1. Hoping it saved both our souls, Downith. ;-)