The photo above, my dear Sr. Iphielya, is not an image I poached off the internet. She is my aunt, Mary Cecile, or to me and my siblings, Sr. Michael. Today, Sr. Iphielya is going to take a break, as Sr. Michael is the star of this particular show. Humor me as I honor a most mythic woman and a most mythic way of life.
Growing up, I went to Catholic school. A nun, or more properly, a sister (I learned just recently that a nun is cloistered and sisters live amongst us), is who taught me about periods and other things that Judy Blume wrote about. RIP, Sr. Morrison — you were quite the dame. As a girl, I always felt special, in that several of my aunts were nuns — two of my Dad’s four sisters and one of my Mom’s aunts. I grew up with an awareness of and proximity to a very endangered way of life. We ran around convents and used to role play by placing the cover of the living room arm chairs on our heads, making instant habits.
Sr. Michael, my Dad’s oldest sister, died two weeks ago today. I traveled to a small town in Michigan to deliver a eulogy and watch her be buried. She was the first of her five siblings to die, but only the most recent in a string of aging nuns who reside at the Motherhouse. Dying is something nuns do a lot of these days.
When my aunt made her vocation in 1946, she was one of many, many young Catholic women drawn to the Church. I’ve had the privilege of visitng the Motherhouse three times now and it is the most amazing of places. There is an historical room there, just off the main chapel, that tells the story of the order both of my aunts professed. In this room there is a parchment book with pages and pages and pages of calligraphed names under years. You will find Sr. Michael’s name under 1946 and my other aunt’s name under 1948, but you have to look hard, as they are written amongst hundreds of others.
Each of those names is a woman with her own story of what brought her to the sisterhood. For Sr. Michael, it was about vocation and adventure. She felt a calling to become a sister and that calling turned into a most remarkable life full of travel and education and ministry and beer and achievement and chocolate. Sr. Michael was a formidable aunt to me. She always corrected my speech, placed a firm hand on my shoulder when I rocked unconsciously, listened with interest about what I was learning in school, and would buy me ice cream for lunch if we were having a day out together.
She dressed to the nines. I’m not kidding. Sr. Michael had a knack for finding Chanel and Dior in high end thrift stores. She taught me about spectator pumps and handbags, “Never call it a purse,” she would tell me, and the importance of them “corresponding” with one another. I used to worry that I disappointed her and sometimes got nervous in her presence. As I got older, and more confident, I was challenged by her and loved to discuss the things I was learning in college. She had three master degrees herself and used to encourage me to read Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote poems and books about social justice.
She did amazing things in her life, Sr. Michael, and saw amazing things. I think, for most of her first 77 years, she was happy. For the last of her 87 years, less so. That final decade was spent waiting. Waiting to die, waiting to be released, waiting for peace. For a woman who embodied joie de vivre — not a phrase often associated with nuns — her joy became scarce in her later years. Tis a shame.
At her funeral services, my family and I traveled in the snow to see Sr. Michael put to rest. My other nun-aunt did me the honor of asking me to give the family eulogy. I thought that would be on Friday, and planned to write it Thursday night. Turns out, I was to deliver the eulogy at the wake service. Oops. I like to plan the words I deliver, but I think it was better that this one was extemporaneous. I followed a most moving tribute by a nun who was in Sr. Michael’s crowd — the group of women who professed in the same year. She was a good friend to my aunt for 64 years and recounted a story I have heard my Dad share. Early on, after joining the sisterhood, the family traveled from their home in Chicago — a nice southside Irish family — to visit their oldest sibling at the Motherhouse. Rules were very clear and limited about how much exposure nuns had to the outside world at that time. There was concern about how Sr. Michael would be doing or what interaction they would have with her. All concerns were erased when as her family waited below, Sr. Michael ran down the grand staircase at the Motherhouse, in full habit, to greet the family she loved and missed. My Dad says it was then that her parents stopped worrying over her. Sr. Michael had found her path.
May we all be so lucky to find our path. This latest trip to the Motherhouse was my first as a mommy blogger. The significance of going to a place called the “Motherhouse” was not lost on me. But my associations were trivial and one dimensional. Once there, standing in the reception line at the wake when nun after nun, filed past their sister to pay their respects, all of them in various states of visible aging — gray hair, walkers, scooters, stooped posture — I was struck by just how lucky I had been to be exposed to such a unique way of life. Women who willingly opted out of marriage, out of children to serve a God they worshiped.
Their choices were vastly different from my own. And now, their choice of a vocational life is all but extinct. With Vatican II in the 1960s, those women choosing the sisterhood dramatically dropped. That parchment book that listed all their names under the year they professed documents that visually. In the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, each year is followed by pages of names. In the 1960s that dropped dramatically to the point of one to three names following each year. You will see a decade on each page now, a striking reminder of a way of life that is ** poof ** gone before our eyes. It is a loss.
When my daughter was given her terminal status, I searched for a book that would help us help her understand what that meant. What we found was a book called Lifetimes, which very gently but realistically stated that for each life there is a beginning, an ending, with life in between. Such it is with people, and such it is with the sisterhood. And as with Donna, you can understand it and accept the loss, but it does not make its passing any easier.
Rest in peace, Sr. Michael. You will be missed. And whenever I don a pair of spectator pumps, it is you I will think of . . .