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Mom joins the convent; grown sons cope


Two summers ago, Barbara Quinn, a 49-year-old Catholic schoolteacher, told her 19-year-old son, Matthew, she had decided to quit teaching to become a nun. Matthew hardly missed a beat. “You can’t do that,” he said. “You’re a mother.” He was wrong. Quinn had already been accepted by the Sisters of Mercy in Rensselaer, N.Y., despite the fact that she had two college-age children and had split up with their father years earlier.

Quinn is part of a small but growing trend that may have a big impact on Catholic ministries. As the number of single women with grown children expands, and the number of young women who opt for convent life shrinks, more mothers are becoming nuns. There is even a national organization called Sister Moms that helps these women deal with issues like no longer having a home to host Thanksgiving dinner and struggling to buy birthday gifts on a limited budget.

“You just establish new traditions,” said Bea Keller of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the 61-year-old founder of Sister Moms, who has six children and 12 grandchildren.

Though the Catholic church doesn’t keep statistics on the number of mothers among the roughly 600 American novices accepted each year, their number seems to be growing. When Keller joined the convent 1991, she knew of only one other sister mom. Today, the group boasts 165 members. These women may be part of the needed boost to replenish the diminishing ranks of American nuns, whose numbers fell to 78,000 from a 1965 high of 180,000.

Quinn, always active in her parish, Christ the King in Guilderland, N.Y., began to attend religious retreats when her high school-age sons decided to live with their father. In 1998, before Quinn left for an eight-day retreat, she recalls her mother saying, “Why don’t you go on a cruise and meet someone? Only people who want to be nuns go on retreats.” That playful admonishment, said Quinn, had the unintended effect of causing her, for the first time, to consider religious life.

Within a year, she decided to join the women -- the Sisters of Mercy -- who had taught her from kindergarten through college. She is the Rensselaer Mercy’s first new member in 12 years.

“They just felt so familiar to me,” Quinn said. As a Mercy candidate, Quinn taught second grade at Christ the King school -- her job of 20 years -- but quit this summer to enter a Laredo, Texas, novitiate.

Quinn admits convent life has its challenges, like squeezing her clothes into a 12-inch-wide closet. When interviewed, she was dressed in khaki pants and Timberland shoes, and though the Mercys don’t wear habits, Quinn looked more like a friendly visitor than a resident. “I think I represent some hope to the community because they haven’t had a new member in so long,” she said. Nonetheless, she had to ease into a group of 13 women, most of whom have lived together for 25 years.

“Then I remember,” she said, “it’s not living here that’s religious life, it’s how you can serve other people outside.”

Quinn’s son Christopher, a hospital human resources associate who lives near the sprawling Rensselaer convent, visited often while she was living there. Younger son, Matthew, in the U.S. Air Force in Florida, is less at ease. “I think he’s afraid he’s going to lose me,” Quinn said.

Some religious communities are reluctant to accept mothers. They don’t believe a woman with children -- even grown children -- can commit to religious life. Bernadette Counihan of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the Divine Teacher is vocation director in Davenport, Iowa. Five sister moms joined the Franciscan community, but then left. Counihan said, “Motherhood is a life-long vocation and even when it seems to have been fulfilled, when the children are grown and out of the house, the call to grandmotherhood can be even stronger.”

Like most nuns, Quinn’s preparation for her final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience will take seven years. “It’s almost like a long engagement period,” she says. “To make sure it fits.”

While living in a religious community entails a myriad of life changes, the one change many onlookers focus on is giving up sex and romantic relationships. In this regard, Quinn thinks mothers have things a bit easier than their childless counterparts. “We really do have the best of both worlds,” Quinn says. “We have our family, and we have this life.”

Though religious life requires sacrifice, living with people with whom one is emotionally, financially and spiritually connected has payoffs. Louise Zaplinty of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, widowed at age 44 and now a 54-year-old mother of two grown sons, said, “I wanted to stay married for the rest of my life, but when my husband died, I was left a young widow. The convent allows me to have connections with a whole bunch of people -- and have support and love.”

On a chilly January morning, Quinn’s second-graders lined up outside her classroom in front of a brightly painted mural of Noah’s ark. She led the way to the school’s church, where the children filed into pews for Wednesday Mass. Minutes later, a teary-eyed girl climbed into Quinn’s lap. Next, Quinn shuttled the girl, who was throwing up, out of the church. While in the nurse’s office, Quinn missed the priest’s sermon. He talked about how God calls people to do his work, and no matter whether they feel equipped for the job, they should always answer the call.

“I can’t think of it as an end, I have to think of it as a beginning,” said Quinn about the changes she has made since joining the Mercys: the move out of her apartment, quitting her teaching job and reshaping her relationships with her sons.

Though she is not yet a full-fledged sister, life as a religious novice has shown Quinn the impact a sister can have. “I think the fact there’s a vocation here and the kids can ask questions is good,” she said. “A little fourth- grader said, ‘My mother wanted me to be a sister, but I wanted to get married, and, ooh, you’ve been married, and now you’re going to be a sister! Maybe I could still do that.’ ”

Quinn said that though she was happy she was a role model to the 9-year-old, she couldn’t help but reply with a giggle, “I don’t think you’re supposed to do it in that order.”

Barbara Quinn entered the Sisters of Mercy as a postulant in 2000, will take her first vows in two years and will make final profession in 2007.

Jean Gordon is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A sampling of women’s religious communities that accept women who have grown children:

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Sisters of Mercy, Albany, N.Y.
Sr. Helen Dillon
(518) 437-3000

Sisters of Mercy, Detroit, Mich.
Sr. Mary Ellen Matts
(248) 476-8000

Racine Dominicans, Racine, Wis.
Sr. Kathy Slesarop
(262) 639-4100

School Sisters of Notre Dame, Milwaukee, Wis.
Sr. Marcie Solms
(414) 220-9828

Sisters of Charity, Cincinnati, Ohio
Sr. Mary Kay Bush
(513) 347-5471

Sisters of St. Benedict, Ferdinand, Ind.
Sr. Anita Louise Lowe
(812) 367-1411

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002