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