I thought God was calling me. It was during my grade-school years, before the time of telephone area codes. And the telephone receiver was attached to the base by a cord. It was that long ago!
My elementary school days started with a new beginning in Sycamore Illinois, a small middle-class town about sixty miles west of Chicago. It also had lots of folks living near the poverty line and there was a well-defined “across the tracks” section where there was always need to be met by the social welfare-minded and Christian flocks that dotted the town map. It was a place where small business flourished, factory life was common and family values were placed high on the totem pole.
We came to Sycamore in 1949 after I had completed kindergarten in Eau Claire Wisconsin, my place of birth. Mom and dad enrolled my older brother Dave and me in St. Mary’s elementary school in the Catholic parish they had joined.
St. Mary’s was a four room red brick school building with a sprawling playground. It was situated just a fence away from the local community hospital, which in my later elementary school years, my mother worked as a nurse’s aid. Each room had two grades and one of the four nuns stationed in the parish taught a day of dual class lesson plans.
We were taught by the Sisters of Mercy, in their black, flowing robes, long hanging large beads of rosary, slipping down the curves of their torso outside their habit, concluding with a prominent, wooden crucifix. A reminder of the Savior’s supreme sacrifice for all of us.
Sister Alberta was my first and second grade teacher. A pint-size, kindly soul who shepherded her little ones as her own, a motherly presence, who would occasionally caress you to her soft body. One knew then, she was not an angel but a flesh and blood woman who cared for those she tended. She was perfect as the mentor who would guide her charges into the Catholic highlight of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at their own First Communion.
Sister Dorothea was my third and fourth grade teacher. I loved that she used early afternoon in the classroom, after lunch and playground time, to read to us. I loved the sound of her voice and the tale unfolding in the book….to be continued the next day. I believe she deepened the root of my love of books, indeed.
I don’t remember the name of my fifth and sixth grade nun. Her body build was the opposite of Sister Dorthea, who was short and softly rounded. This nun was medium tall, slender and graceful. And stern. I remember that Geography got quite serious in this classroom. And to think how the geography of the Earth has changed since then due to wars, power struggles and just plain meanness to our fellow Earth citizens.
Sister Joan was my seventh and eighth grade teacher, and principal of the school. She was a no-nonsense kind of person and a hearty presence both to child and adult alike. She was a large-boned and full-statured woman, tall, stately and commanding. She was well-placed to be at the coming-into-adolescence population of her young ones.
At my age, I wasn’t even close to having her sense of confidence and self-image but I think she was the influence that got me to thinking about perhaps becoming a nun.
There was a special emphasis, I think, in their teaching mission on calling attention to the possibility of a vocation to either the priesthood for the boys or to religious life as a nun for the girls. This emphasis may have been strewn throughout all grades, but it really stuck out at the seventh and eighth grade levels.
We were to “listen” and hear if God was calling us. In the fifties, it was not unusual for youth who thought they were called into this vocation and would dedicate their life in faithfulness to it, to enter into a religious high school training that led them further down this path.
Our purpose in life, as it was stated in our little blue Baltimore Catechism was “to know, love and serve God in this life and be happy with him in the next.”
I was ok with that then and I still think the “know, love and serve God” is basic to my life as I have lived it in my lay vocation of daughter, granddaughter, wife, mother, and grandmother.
But there were two main impediments for me to go forth into the religious life (although I very nearly did after high school). So I began to pray “not to have a religious vocation.” And later in life I came to know that listening within for that phone call is really not a bad way to go. It is a useful guide, with the Holy Spirit’s help, in your daily path of life.
But back to the impediments. #1. There was something about the Sister of Mercy’s habit that I knew I just could not live with, which I did not describe above. Their whole “head-gear” thing to me was visually painful and most certainly uncomfortable looking. I could not fathom how they could adjust to that.
Their white starchy bib that lay from their neck onto their bosom (which we, as kids, actually had discussions of whether they had bosoms or not) and a white fabric that lined their face, hiding most traces of hair (which we also guessed the color of) that led to another white starchy “cap” that cut across their forehead and seated a long, thin black flowing veil, that somehow seemed romantic as it danced with the air flow currents.
I was a girl who favored cotton tee shirts and soft jeans. I was out of my Sunday starchy and nylon picky dresses as soon as possible and actually “dress up Sunday or go visiting days” were my dread. If I were able to say religious vows — and that was a big if — I was pretty certain I could not live with that crunchy part of the habit.
There were rumors, that when the nuns were secluded in their convent, they may have taken off the veil. I surely would have.
So now the second obstacle to overcome if I were to be a religious was that I was always a hopelessly romantic type. I was early on, I still am in the later years of my life. By high school age, I was reading lots and lots of materials and books available on the variety of choices in religious life. And I read fiction stories on it also.
The trend was that I would always root for the romantic liaison in the story, rather than the religious path. In Sound of Music, my heart sang as Maria, with her exquisitely long veil, walked down the aisle to meet her husband to be, with the support of wisdom figure Mother General.
In Bells of St. Mary’s, I sensed the electricity between the Sister and Father “Bing.” Oh, what could be, had they not chosen their true path. Mutual respect and admiration for each other won out. And I remember the beautiful Deborah Kerr playing the heroine nun who wrestled with the reality of romance on the screen. I had loved my paperback book of “The Nun’s Story.”
All the questions, feelings, and soul-searching I did regarding this way of life turned out to be fruitful in knowing I was very fortunate in finding and choosing the way that was right for me…..and was my true destiny: married, in love romantically and faithfully, with my husband, over-zealously grateful for the two daughters we gave birth and life to and enjoy the abundant blessings of their children, our grandchildren.
It is grace, beyond measure, to watch life continue to march on through them, their lives and their talents. We have given to the world…..the best….and I pray that in all of our lives, God sees that we are…..
knowing…….loving……and serving him in our life and our world. This purpose is my privilege to live.