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.