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Nun mums signal changing times for religious


Bea Keller has been a Sister of Charity of Nazareth since 1991. Sometimes she forgets herself and mentions one of her seven children (one deceased) or her 10 grandchildren. It sends eyebrows flying. She gets a kick out of it.

Keller is one of a small but growing number of “sister moms” (some devotees of assonance say “nun mums”). They are just another example of how religious sisters are opening themselves to risk and experimentation, not simply to survive, but rather to change with the times.

With the average American experiencing two-and-one-half careers in a working lifetime, there is little reason for rectories, convents or monasteries to close their doors to older candidates -- even those with children. With the average nun preparing for vows now 39 years of age, the moats and grates are being filled in. While there is some evidence that nun mums can cause dyspepsia for some traditional nuns, the vast majority welcome them with open veils.

It’s not exactly new. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821), the first American-born saint, was the daughter of a prominent New York family. Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a wealthy merchant. He died in 1803 during a family trip to Italy, leaving her with five children. She became a Catholic in 1805 and founded the Sisters of Charity in 1809.

A sampling of others:

St. Hedwig (about 1174-1243) endured a tumultuous life as the wife of the Duke of Silesia and the mother of seven children. She retired to a Cistercian convent to lead a life of prayer and solitude.

St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440) founded the Collatines (Oblates of Tor de’Specchi) in 1425 while her husband was still alive. Following his death, she entered herself.

St. Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641) was a wife and mother, who, as a young widow, made friends with St. Francis de Sales and became the cofounder of the Visitation Sisters.

Then, there was St. Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), a widow and mother of one, who founded the Daughters of Charity in 1633, and Mother Margaret George, a widow with children, the first superior of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, founded in 1809.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but Heloise (about 1103), the great love of Peter Abelard, was a sister mom. They married when priests could still be married and had a son, (although not quite in that order.) They christened their son with the marvelous name of Astrolobe. He also became a priest. Later Heloise entered the convent and became a prioress.

Over the centuries, it’s likely that many lesser-known sister moms took the veil. However, as the congregations became more structured, most declined to accept candidates over 35, and even fewer accepted candidates with children. It all had something to do with the perceived difficulties in “forming” religious hearts and minds.

“Today,” according to Keller, “it’s not a case of forming but blending. At our age, we have already had a spiritual journey. We already have a prayer style.” It’s not unlike a blended marriage.

Keller is 58. In 1969, her husband left her when one child was 6 months old, and the oldest only 7 and a half. The kids’ father was generally unavailable to them and, for a time, the family lived on welfare. When the youngest finished high school in 1986, Keller went to California to pursue a graduate degree in holistic health education. During these years, she also obtained an annulment and visited the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, where her dad’s twin sister was a member and where she was offered a position even before she discussed religious life.

Keller’s decision to enter came with a rush, but it had roots that reached to girlhood, a common experience of other sister moms. She is now a parish nurse coordinator for Caritas Health Services.

Even before she entered, Keller began making a list of other nun mums. Presently, she has 104 names. During June of 1998, 44 of them met for the first time at the Moye Spirituality Center in northern Kentucky. They came from 18 states, representing 36 religious congregations. They range in age from 46 to 75 and have 149 children and 166 grandchildren among them.

Surveys of the sister moms are incomplete, but initial responses place the average age of entrance at 51, with the youngest at 44 and oldest at 62. Two-thirds have been divorced; about one-third are widowed, and one is a single mother who had adopted a child. Nearly half had first experienced “the call” while in high school. Some, indeed, had entered about that time and have re-entered. The average distance from the area where they raised their children and the motherhouse of their congregations is 430 miles, but these distances range from 5 to 2,000 miles.

One-third have already made final profession of vows. They enjoy the support of 99 percent of their families. For Keller, as with other sister moms, it was a year-long process. There was involvement with various religious communities, the Cursillo movement and charismatic renewal.

Some were associates of religious orders (see NCR, Sept. 4, 1998). It is significant that the majority had thought about religious life before marriage and children. (One loving husband used to say to his wife, “I think I’m the only one standing between you and the convent.”)

The path to the convent was taken slowly, preceded by months or years of discernment and discussion. If they don’t already have one, divorced candidates are required to get an annulment. Their children have to be at least young adults. For some, financial arrangements include the pension and Social Security distribution. Typically, one sister receives her pension, but her Social Security benefits are shared with her children. (“My late husband earned most of the Social Security benefits,” she said. “They should share them.”) Some congregations received modest dowries to offset the cost of their canonical novitiate year. Some are being re-educated for new tasks by their congregations. There’s a lot of give and take.

Giving up houses, belongings and cars could be difficult. “Just getting my stuff into one room was hard,” one sister said.

However, changes in the structures of religious life have eased the transition. “We go from independent to interdependent,” Keller said, “not to dependent.”

Years ago, from a hard-nosed point of view, accepting middle-aged and older candidates might have been a poor investment for the congregations. However, these days female longevity averages 78 years, and religious average four years longer. Today, a congregation considering a 50-year-old candidate can hope for at least 25 years of contributed services. It’s a good investment.

It doesn’t work out for every candidate. Some have been asked to leave, and others discovered that the life was not for them. But that has been the case for about 1,500 years.

Sister of Charity Louise Zaplitny of Cincinnati was part of the planning committee for the first sister mom conference. She was an accountant and the mother of two grown sons when her husband died in 1991. In an interview with The Kentucky Enquirer, she spoke of her unhappiness in her profession and the grief that accompanied the loss of her husband. She undertook several spiritual programs, including a nine-month retreat. She entered in 1993 and now serves as a hospital chaplain.

There are five sister moms in Zaplitny’s community. However, other congregations remain cautious, claiming that, when push comes to shove, the needs of the families of the sister moms will take precedence. But today few sisters live in isolation from their families. Indeed, many now live a religious lifestyle not unlike that of St. Angela Merici (1474-1540), founder of the Ursulines, once a group of independent sisters who initially lived with their families.

Historically the monastic type of life followed by the active congregations contributed to the notion of religious life as “the higher life,” an inflated self-concept that eventually drew more derision than respect. Today only those requiring immense doses of psychic income would hold such an egotistical view.

Servant of the Holy Heart of Mary Sr. Kathleen Marie Rickelman, 67, entered in 1995, nine years after the death of her husband following almost 38 years of marriage. She has four children and six grandchildren.

“The congregation regards my children as part of their extended family,” she said. “And my children were surprised and pleased that I could create a life.

“It wasn’t easy to get rid of things,” she added. “But I was just renting my apartment, so I gave my children whatever furniture they wanted. I gave my car to one daughter and brought all the rest with me.

“Adjustments had to be made quickly. But considering why, it was worth it.”

A former psychiatric nurse at Madden Mental Health Center outside Chicago, Rickelman now volunteers at a day care center for children.

The sister moms now amount to a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the 86,355 sisters in the United States. Clearly, they will not stop the downward numerical spiral that has been going on for decades. Further, there will always be a need for highly structured congregations that continue to attract devoted people who choose structure. However, these nun mums may be loosening up the soil within their accepting congregations in a way that will permit lifestyles yet unborn.

The nun mums plan to meet again in Tampa, Fla., in 1999 and in California in 2001. Sr. Bea Keller can be reached at beascn@bellsouth.net

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is purchasing a pedestal and searching for an alcove. You can ignite his vigil light at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999