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Religious Life

Uncommon fulfillment and stability

Special Report Writer

Colleen Quinlivan knew from age 7 that she wanted to be just like Sr. Luann, the Benedictine nun who walked into her second grade classroom in St. Cloud, Minn., and cinched Quinlivan’s future. For 16 years Quinlivan studied with the Benedictine Sisters. She received her bachelor’s degree from St. Benedict’s College, which the sisters operate next door to their motherhouse in St. Joseph, Minn.

“I desired very early in my life to deepen my relation with Jesus Christ,” Quinlivan told NCR. She discovered God’s love in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the communal prayers of the Benedictines to which those wishing to learn more about their community were invited. She also had Catholic parents who sent all their children to parochial school, attended Sunday Mass, tithed and helped their parish as volunteers.

“The nuns and priests I grew up with were real people for me.” After graduating from St. Benedict’s she assumed she could meet with the Benedictine vocations director, give her a date and then move into the convent. Quinlivan was crushed when she discovered that “they wanted me to get a job first.”

The vocations director suggested that she go away for a couple of years, experience life, date, keep in touch and visit. During college she had visited the Benedictines of Ridley, Md., and was invited back and offered a job with the order. Soon Quinlivan found herself straddling two congregations. She knew she wanted to become a nun and a Benedictine, but having to pick was painful. Tension came and went. She worried over what kind of work she would do, but with the advice of friends in the order, she turned to prayer and deeper study of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Following two years of discernment, she chose the Maryland congregation -- 39 Benedictines compared to 450 in the St. Joseph, Minn., province. Quinlivan entered in 1990 and took final vows in 1998. “Somehow the smaller community challenged me more. In a larger one I thought I would just blend and not live up to my potential.”

Besides doing vocations work for the Benedictines and the Wilmington, Del., diocese, she spends two days a week as campus minister at St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington. She has created a vocations day for junior girls at the school. She works with other religious congregations, stays involved with youth groups and counsels students one on one.

“My role is to be present -- to be out witnessing what religious life is like.” Students see her engaged in monthly school liturgies, morning prayer and in efforts to enhance spiritual awareness among youth. If the good fairy would descend and grant her any wish, Quinlivan would ask for a coffee shop -- perhaps an Internet café -- where there would be a spiritual atmosphere in which to explore faith issues. It might also be a network center for service projects, which are of great interest to youth, she said.

“We joke about it, but we need to pray about it,” she said, noting that her dream requires “some type of vision plus a location, funding and youth involvement.” Ideally, she’d like to open a coffee shop close to a college, agreeing with Generation X theologian Tom Beaudoin that “you gotta hang where they hang.”

Until her dream arrives, Quinlivan plans to continue her efforts to attract youth to religious life through weekend retreats and invitations to overnight in her community among young women who seek to know more about the Benedictines. “We can draw them in by the example of how we live. We can show them that religious life offers deep fulfillment and stability in a world where these features are uncommon.”

Quinlivan shares a house in Wilmington with three other sisters, all of whom work in different places. They pray mornings and evenings together and spend time talking about their goals. “We need to work at community, to make it a priority.”

The sisters own their house. Each of them gives her salary to the monastery and each receives a $75 monthly stipend for personal expenses. Food and transportation costs are provided by the congregation as is health insurance.

At 34, Quinlivan is the second youngest in her congregation. The 39 Ridley Benedictines range in age from 31 to 98 with the median age being 72. Seven of the sisters are in full retirement. The majority of those in their 70s are still working in health ministries. She attributes their good health and longevity to community ties and good communication. “They know they are never alone. The younger ones bond with the older ones.”

Quinlivan credits the faith and prayer life of the sisters as contributing not only to the life and health of the older nuns, but to motivating the younger ones. “I’m inspired when I see a 90-year-old sister getting up and getting to prayer when she doesn’t feel like it or doesn’t have to. Our wisdom figures didn’t run. They’ve remained faithful,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001