Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon

It’s two minutes until Morning Prayer, and I can just imagine Sister Mary Michael Francine giving me a curt look of annoyance at my tangled shower-fresh hair and 60-second arrival. An elderly couple ascends the stairs to the Motherhouse for the Sister of St. Mary of Oregon. If you’ve ever driven on Hwy 26 for long enough on either direction, you’ve probably passed this Green-domed sand-colored 20’s-style estate of a building which stands at the front of the Sister’s property. I park as close as I can to the front doors and ascend the steps and who’s to open to door but Sister Michael Francine. I watch her soft face framed with her shoulder-length black veil, and I look for a trace of annoyance, a furrowed brow beneath the tufts of white-gray hair. But instead she smiles, giving me a hug while she quietly says hello. We glide easily into the chapel, just a minute to spare.

Sister Michael Francine graciously let me attend the sister's Morning Prayer and Easter Mass, which is invitation only since the sisters aren't attached to a lay-person parish. I wanted to learn more about the religious life and why people choose to commit themselves to such a unique and challenging lifestyle. My own grandmother had once wanted to join a convent, but was sent home because they knew she wanted a family--I wanted to see what drew her to the convent lifestyle. But first, I needed to get into the chapel and pray, something I hadn't done in years.

There’s a smattering of sisters, women dressed in different combinations of black and white modest clothing—some even wear light blues. Some of them wear the familiar black veil with the white fold at the top, but some have chosen to let their spunky short hair fly. They stand on different ends of the pews, spread far. Their numbers seem so small in this way.

Sister Michael Francine and I sit on the end of a pew in the middle of the chapel. The early morning light glimmers through the stained-glass windows, a relic from the first rendition of the chapel before the Motherhouse was built. They're my favorite part of the chapel, with their detail, their depth of their color, their intricate art. I wish I could have taken my grandmother to see it. I imagine her gasping and marveling at them. They stand out in the otherwise very modest and sparse chapel. Rather than the extravagant explosion of flowers and foliage one might expect to see on the Easter holiday, there are only a few flower plants up near the altar, a large flat table where the priest performs the sacrament of the Eucharist. The only other decoration is a tall wooden crucifix with a slender and fluid depiction of the crucified Christ hanging limply from it, head down, knees together. It reminded me of the church from my younger years—despite any occasion, the reminder of death and sacrifice always stands there at the front of the church.

Front of the chapel in the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon's Motherhouse

Four sisters stand at the front dressed in modest black and white clothing. They smile at sisters as they walk in, and look comfortable, if not casual in their posture and expression. Sister Michael Francine sits with me and I keep my jacket on as she hands me a book of hourly prayer and a couple of other small handouts that we fumble through. The book has five different colored bookmarks, none of them on the correct date or passage. As the sisters at the front start the prayer, Sr. Michael Francine leans over, turning my pages for me, trying to help me follow along. She mumbles words already memorized, skipping some as she points to one passage and then jumps to a different page in a book or a laminated handout held in her other hand with another call and response printed on it. It’s a complex dance, and she helps me keep up.

Most of the prayer is divided between the two sides of the chapel. The sisters say one stanza on one side, and the other half of the chapel switches off. At points where all speak together, the task of staying at the same tempo or cadence proves complicated. There’s an occasional awkward lingering of a word said outside of the bubble of speech made in unison, or different cadences and inflections placed on words. But this is part of the process--sinking into the sound of the words.

Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord. / Praise and exalt him above all forever. / Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord. / You heavens, bless the Lord. / All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord. / All you hosts of the Lord, bless the Lord. / Sun and moon, bless the Lord. / Stars of heaven, bless the Lord.

Their voices, without the bass of men's voices and the soprano of young children, make a sweet tone. There's something calming in their recitation, a oneness and attention to presence that likens to a musical performance, the in-it-togetherness. The sisters pray as one, matching the voices of each other, and join the voices of others praying the same words around the country, of still more others praying on the hour around the world. Sr. Michael Francine adores this image of surrounding the world in prayer, blanketing it like atmosphere or even gravity. Without prayer, she jokes, the world might just fall out of orbit.

The prayer only lasts half an hour, and when it's finished, Sr. Michael turns to me with a windswept look, a laugh hiding behind her smile, both of us laughing a bit at the complicated task just behind us. “Welcome!” she says.

Welcome sign at the front of the sister's 43-acre campus, featuring the Motherhouse and the decades-old sequoias (SSMO.org)

Four days prior, Sr. Michael Francine and I walked the grounds of the Sister’s property. They own 43-acres of land, which houses a senior living center, a preschool, elementary school, middle and high school, living spaces for retired priests as well as the priests that serve their weekly Mass, the stately Motherhouse facing Hwy 26 and a good sprawl of open field, some of it a graveyard for past sisters.

“In many ways, we can honestly say ‘cradle to grave,’” Sr. Michael Francine said, laughing with the slightest lilt of a Scottish accent she picked up while living there before her returning to America and finding religious life. She has a clear, deliberate way of speaking, a precise shape to each of her words despite her Jersey background and years of working for British Gas. She's also very direct, which when I first spoke with her on the phone slightly confirmed my preconceived-stereotype of the strict Catholic nun or sister. That directness and seriousness of speaking also probably comes from her years in business before she became a sister.

"A career in the oil industry is very competitive and one can easily become a workaholic," she told me. "Which is where I was heading. Work for me was everything. I worked with the same people I recreated with we worked hard and played hard. But that included Golf so there were benefits."

Despite her sometimes no-nonsense or business-like demeanor, however, Sister Michael Francine guided me through the campus, answering my questions and often pausing to admire the spots we stopped at. She had a softness to her that balanced with her constant-drive. I wonder if she and my grandmother would have gotten along had they been sisters together.

We walked delicately through the graveyard, which despite being surrounded by busy street and highway in the distance, had that solemn quite feel that graveyards do. A statue of the Virgin Mary, a figure all in white, stood in the center, her arms open, palms turned out, watching over the grounds. Sister Michael Francine takes me over to a plaque in the ground of Wilhelmina Bliley the foundress of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.

“This one gets me,” she said, pointing to another. “Mary Clara, born 1819,” she smiles. Not far in the distance, the sequoia trees, gigantic mammoths of trees, rustle in the April wind, planted by the founding sisters’ hands. I picture their hands, peeking out from their black wool habits, folding the seeds of the trees into the soil. In my mind, their hands are gardener's hands, rough and bumpy like my grandmother's.

The Sequioa Trees, planted by the founding members of SSMO. (SSMO.org)

A great majority of the memorial plaques start with the names Sister Mary and then have one or two additional names tacked on. It’s the tradition of those in religious life, be it a sister, nun, or priest, to take on a religious name, honoring a particular saint or religious figure, adopting their name into one’s identity so that they might be reminded to live in their legacy. It’s a tradition that many have followed in the Sisters of St. Mary to take the first religious name Mary and add on whatever else they wish.

“I was born Francine," Sister says, "but I took on the religious name of Mary Michael, so I’m Sr. Mary Michael Francine. No one has to take Mary, but the original ones all did, because we’re sisters of St. Mary, in honor of our Blessed Mother. I’m very much into if the tradition works, I’m gonna go with it.”

Choosing another name to live by, changing one’s identity essentially, is one that sometimes is take lightly, but often comes with inspiration, as that’s what the tradition is really meant to instill.

“I really felt inspired to take St. Michael the Archangel as my patron. When I was first deciding on a religious name people said: ‘Well, because you’re Francine, you should take Francis.’ So I picked St. Francis de Salles.

“But then I saw this painting of St. Michael," she says, referring to a painting situated on by a stairwell that connects the chapel to the kitchen below. She passed it every day living in the Motherhouse during her trial period. "And it was like,” she pauses and smiles, “ahh…I was truly inspired. His motto is ‘All Unto God,’ and I was just…that’s what I gotta do. When I started working in counseling, to me it made sense because I started working with parole officers, and St. Michael is the patron saint of parole officers. I needed the spiritual guidance to work with those people. I feel quite an inspiration and I’m always asking for help from St. Michael in good times and bad.”

Sister Michael Francine emphasized the importance of a balanced life. "The lifestyle is to be in balance: prayer, work and good health," she said. "Our routine and restrictions offer us the freedom to live in balance. That is the blessing and the struggle. We focus on keeping in balance more so than others in that all the sisters try to do this. Which is different when you live outside the convent one is left to their own devices to try to live a healthy life or not."

The religious life can take many different shapes and balances. The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon (SSMO) live in the middle of a spectrum that ranges from hermit life and spending 23 hours a day in prayerful silence and a missionary life that requires international travel. The Sisters live in community and pray twice a day together, and except for about eight sisters living and working in different cities, all work in the immediate Beaverton-Portland area, and live together in the Motherhouse. Much of their ministry occurs on their 43-acre campus, including running the Maryville senior’s home and the four schools on their property, but others work in the community in other ways such as serving at schools and parishes around the Pacific Northwest. They primarily deal with education, retreats, prayer, and elder care.

Sister Michael Francine, in addition to being the Vocational Director for SSMO, also works as a mental health counselor, which she finds often goes hand in hand.

“I try to help people find out whether religious life is right for them,” she said, standing on the sidewalk next to the centennial sequoias. Cars crowd the narrow streets as parents line up to pick up their children from school. Sister Michael smiled and waved to someone who waved back, and we kept walking back towards the Motherhouse. “When they come to me inquiring about religious life,” she said, “then something’s going on in their life, and I try to help them sift through it. Is it a real calling or is it something else that’s going on in their life? And if it’s not a calling or if it’s caused by something else, that’s when I can act as counselor and help them find their next steps in getting help. I hope that more people could do that.”

As she told me this, I could see my grandmother walking into an office like the one Sister Michael Francine has in the Motherhouse, bags still packed from her flight from Michigan to Denver, where the convent she wanted to join was. I could see her talking to someone like Sister Michael Francine, and I wondered how sure she was that she wanted to be a sister, and if she was disappointed, what she might have said for them to turn her away all those years ago.

Pamela Mettert 1949-2013

She’d grown up in Catholic School all her life and was taught by sisters who wore the long habits and prayed on rosary belts during recess. She didn’t like them--she thought they were too strict. When she was sixteen, she accidentally set herself on fire working a furnace stove at a house she was babysitting. She contracted severe third-degree burns and when she first got to the closest major hospital, St. Joseph’s Mercy in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, the priest performed Last Rites, a blessing for those near death. She made it, however, and adored the sisters who cared for her as nurses, a field she was heavily interested in. When she turned eighteen, she flew from Michigan to Denver, Colorado to interview with a group of sisters there to discern the religious life, but they sent her home, telling her they sensed she wanted a family. Not a year later and she’d met and married my grandfather.

November 9th, 1968

Growing up, my own mother told me she wanted me to become a nun, that she thought I had the quiet and caring spirit for it, but I was young then and grew out of the Catholic life. Even my mother had been raised more casually in the Catholic Church, my grandmother giving up on taking her and my uncle to church since they hated it and my grandfather wouldn’t go. Even my grandmother's funeral wasn’t spoken in a Catholic setting, and it seemed that even though she’d often talk about praying for someone or something spiritual, the part of her that wanted to dedicate her whole self to the church had been lost long ago. I always wondered about what made her want to choose the religious life, but never got to ask her. I wondered what made anyone contemplate such a hefty, life-long commitment.

After Morning Prayer on Easter Sunday, Sr. Michael Francine takes me up to the choir balcony for a view of the chapel during Easter Mass. There's more of the same fumbling with papers and trying to figure out what songs come next. A few elderly sisters staying in the infirmary/hospice care are wheeled out in front so they might say Mass. As we begin, there's some confusion about if there's going to be a solo performance, if not, how many verses of which song we're going to sing, and there's also a student from the elementary school in a sparkly tulle dress there to sing Amazing Grace and when does that happen?

Sr. Michael Francine helps me again with finding my footing in the order of the songs, and we fall into the familiar cadence of a Catholic Mass said by a visiting priest from Nigeria. Unlike other organizations, SSMO isn't a part of the Archdiocese of Portland, and only have a liason in Rome to connect them with the Vatican rather than bishops or archbishops or priests acting as supervisors. In exchange for the living space on campus, the priest says Mass for the sisters every day.

In a couple of spots during the service, the sister playing the organ makes a mistake and apologizes, telling us where in the music to jump in. It all felt very fix-on-the-go. Even our guest student-singer has issues with her microphone, but everyone is happy to help fix and just continue on as best they can.

Original paintings done by a sister, just outside the kitchen.

After Mass, Sr. Michael Francine takes me down into the kitchen, fits me into a snap-back apron and ties a lemon-patterned one on herself. I help with mixing the salad, sliming my hands with feta cheese and raspberry vinaigrette as I listen to the chatters and almost-gossiping chirps of the sisters there to help.

"Oh, Michael Francine!" Sr. Juanita says in a chiding tone in the corner of the kitchen, laughing and whapping Sr. Michael on the back.

There's a playfulness in the air as the sisters chatter and make fun of one another. Sister Juanita teaches Sister Adele a few new Spanish words. I can see my grandmother giggling with them in her woody laugh, dressed the orange apron she sewed herself. I can see her washing dishes or telling a joke to one of them. They share the same familial energy, this in-it-togetherness that comes from community life or their similiar, often rural and Catholic-school backgrounds. Either way, I imagine her smiling at me, seasoning the mashed potatoes with Sr. Juanita.

When the salad's made and most of the buffet is set up, a group of sisters cluster around a table with cups of coffee, including Sr. Juanita, a short and smiley sister who lives out in Oregon City working for a parish, and Sr. Krista, a tall woman with strong arms and even more muscular presence who also did javelin as a college student at Oregon State. She's the executive director of the northwest's Catholic Youth Organization for sports and its summer program Camp Howard.

As more sisters move in and out of the group, and just throughout the day, I'm always asked "Where are you from?" and with some question of family. Origins and family lines are typical topics of conversation for the sisters, and they talk about their parents or who's gotten married, if they were born in Oregon or when they came to the state. There's something about someone's beginning and their formation, the importance of family and geography that always comes up. And perhaps that's because for religious life, one kind of has two origins. The place that they're born and the family they grow up with, and then the place the end up and the family they vow-into.

"It's not that much different from marriage," Sr. Juanita says. She has a warm presence, and speaks with the lilt of a Mexican accent. “It’s a commitment that we live out every day,” she says, smiling. "I mean, how many times do you hear married people talk about how they just 'know?' It's the same in that you just 'know' when you spend time with the sisters or if you receive a calling, and then you spend some time making sure it's the right thing. It's very much the same as marriage in that you make your vows to God and it's something you choose every day."

Sister Juanita seasoning the mashed potatoes, which were devoured.

Sister Michael Francine interrupts and asks Sister Krista for help in carving the roast. Glancing at her watch, Sr. Krista folds her hands and says the roast would be done in fifteen minutes. Sr. Michael Francine purses her lips a bit in an odd smile. It's the first time she's stopped moving all morning. She leaves the table, mumbling something about needing to do something and Sister Krista shakes her head. "She's like a boarded up racehorse," she jokes. It takes a couple more reminders from Sister Michael Francine before Sister Krista is satisfied, and they go and take out and carve the beef, which is cooked to perfection.

Left to Right: Sister Michael Francine and Sister Krista carving the Easter roast beef (finally easing Sister Michael's impatience)

A common theme I'd heard from the sisters at the table was that they were raised in the church, having gone to Catholic Schools (some of them at the Valley Catholic school, and a couple from Visitation, a school right by my university) or Catechism classes. Some of them even had family members who were priests or other members of religious community. One got the sense that the idea of a religious life wasn't ever far from their scope of possibilities growing up. For many of them growing up, it was an alternative option to married- or single-life. Like my grandmother: schooled by Catholic sisters and nursed by them in the hospital, they were present for much of her life, and so leaving home to discern might not have been as huge of a leap as I thought.

Some of the sisters confessed to knowing their vocation quite young, such as Sr. Catherine.

"I knew at ten, and for me the doubts came later," Sr. Catherine says, her eyes a wispy pale blue with lines around them that crinkle when she smiles. "At ten I just said ‘I want to give my life to God!’ But at that age how much do you know about life? It’s kind of like marriage again—some people rush into it, some of us were still in high school so we had a lot of growing up to do. Some things in your own personality make it hard. My 30s were hard, I was still growing up."

Sr. Catherine points out that more often now, women will join the religious life at a later age. "Many of the people who enter today are older, and they’ve gone through their 20s when one part of you is ready to change the world and the other part of you is terrified. These older people have gone through that and have made their decisions. Plus, there's the seven-year period before Final Vows."

The seven year period includes an Aspirancy / Pre-Candidacy period, in which someone like Sr. Michael Francine would screen the person, make sure they were truly called to a religious life. Then would follow the Postulancy / Candidacy, which involves the candidate living with the community and getting to know them. Next comes the Novitiate period which requires a great deal of prayer and discernment. If that all works out, a ceremony is held for First Vows where the veil is given and the person becomes like a probationary-full member of the community, giving vows to live in chastity, obedience, and so on. Finally, if the sister wishes to remain with the community forever, they would then take their Final Vows at another ceremony, making it their perpetual profession.

Sr. Catherine describes it as like a marriage first to God and then to the sisters in the community. "You’re committed to a whole lot of people. It’s a daily decision, because the feelings come and go, and there’s some days you don’t want to get up, but you do to honor your vows."

Sr. Michael Francine chimes in. "Every person here, thank God they’re different. There’s the good and bad in each person (not that there’s anything bad). We're all striving for the same thing. They’re all my role models. Everyone has that piece of them with that motivation. Despite who we are with our flaws, we’re all heading to be holy and to try to get to heaven, and hoping that everything we do is in God's plan. And that’s my model. Their holiest time is what I want to find, and they all have it at some point."

"When they die," Sr. Catherine says, "we often sit with them. And it's so beautiful to see them progress to that final stage, when they're ready to go on. And the patience it takes when your health starts to run away from you--it's inspiring."

In terms of what they're asked to do other than to keep to their vows, the sisters pray the Morning and Evening prayers every day from the Liturgy of the Hour, as he did that morning, and this is what, as Sr. Michael Francine puts it, keeps them "in sync."

"For me what it does is bring together with women of faith," says Sr. Catherine. "There’s a bond there from praying every day together, and it just gives you courage and strength. It’s a powerful thing to pray together. And we pray the Psalms and the Scripture, and it connects us with the whole history, with David, before Christ, to thousands of years of people. The strength of sharing it with women who have dedicated their life to the same thing, that’s pretty powerful. It’s about really belonging."

At that point, there's a scraping of chairs that resounds throughout the room and the sisters all stand and face a statue of Mary situated in the corner of the room. Sr. Michael Francine hands me a card with the prayer on it, helping me once more. Together they pray the "Regina Caeli" prayer or "Queen of Heaven." Once again, their voices fill the room, quilting into one another, joined in purpose and heart. The glue the binds them together, their eyes looking in the same direction, their voices ringing as one.

Sr. Michael Francine hugs my on my way out, "Come back anytime," she says. I thank her and walk down the Motherhouse steps and she shuts the door behind me. Before I go, I wander over to the sequoia trees. Their branches rustle quiet in the sunny April morning. Their branches are thick with age, big enough to fit two or three people inside of them. I imagine my Gramma's hands, tending their soil again, pushing down into the Earth to lay a seed, then stepping back, moving her eyes to heaven.

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