Sunday, November 6, 2011

Celebrating Nuns

Sister Ramona Bascom
They're a dying breed, the New York Times noted recently.  Describing their declining numbers as "near extinction", the story said that the number of nuns in the U.S. has been declining since Vatican II reforms that gave more church leadership opportunities to lay people and since the sexual revolution and women's movement of the Sixties and Seventies. The estimated number of nuns has dropped from 180,000 in 1965 to 56,000 today according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.  When these statistics were last published in 2009, 91 percent of all nuns were at least 60 years old.

They're not only dwindling, but they are, at times, not treated well by the Church they serve. For example, a community of nuns doing charitable work with the poor and disabled in Santa Barbara lost their convent not long ago when it was sold by Church officials to pay for settlements to the victims of priests' sexual abuse.

And I found myself fuming at the last Mass I attended -- during a reunion at my elementary school -- where the Church's tendency to take good care of priests, but not of nuns was glaringly apparent. A special collection was taken for the priests' retirement fund. At the same Mass, the officiating priest praised the elderly nuns who had gathered for the reunion, noting that they were all still working and highlighting one 95-year-old who was still teaching high school English. It underscored the inequality between priests -- who get comfortable retirements -- and nuns, who don't get to retire until they are too ill and/or disabled to continue working. Now, with shrinking memberships, there is even more pressure on aging nuns to keep working because the religious community simply can't afford to have the majority of its members retired.  And yet most nuns carry on with devotion and with joy.

They may be a dying breed, but the elderly nuns I've seen lately are amazing women: bright, active, involved in their communities and working in a greater variety of settings than ever. One nun from my childhood is a dedicated peace activist. Another recently joined the counseling staff at Stanford University. Their numbers may be dwindling, but they're still making a wonderful difference.

And they leave a wealth of memories, especially for those of us who attended Catholic schools in the Fifties and Sixties.

I parted ways with the Catholic Church long ago. But I don't regret, for a minute, my education in Catholic schools. Most of my memories are loving and joyous.

Looking back at nuns of my youth, not all was sweetness and joy, of course.  Some nuns were scary, had bad tempers and were too quick with the ruler. A few -- like the nun who made fun of my partial paralysis when I was still recovering from polio or the mother superior who announced to my class that my parents were not really married because they hadn't had a Catholic wedding -- were startlingly unkind. But most of the nuns I encountered were absolutely wonderful.

When I was in elementary school, they were young Sisters of St. Louis nuns fresh from Ireland who managed classrooms of 60 kids with energy and imagination. Their instruction had a certain hands on quality: nuns would swat you, hug you, stop you short with sarcasm (an Irish specialty) and make your day with well-earned praise.

In the Irish tradition, older siblings were held responsible for younger ones at all times.  If, for example, a younger sibling threw up or became incontinent in class, the older sibling was called in to clean up.  The day he started first grade at St. Bede's, I put my brother Mike on notice that if he puked or peed in class, his ass was grass. I was never called for bodily fluid detail, bless him, but I did get summoned to his classroom to retrieve a note for our mother when my brother was clowning around again and, another time, to explain the possible causes of his erratic behavior after one particularly horrific night of abuse from our father.

As soon as she was aware of what we were dealing with at home,  Mike's teacher Sister Rita gave us an extra measure of love and affection, checked Mike daily for signs of physical violence and attempted to protect us by threatening to call the police if she saw any further signs of abuse.

                                        Sister Rita aka Virginia in full habit - 1959            

Sister Rita McCormack, who before Vatican II was known by her religious name of Sister Mary Virginia, didn't stop at protection. She took an active role in helping me to regain clear speech as my facial paralysis gradually diminished. In sessions after school, she would coach me, having me read and recite poems and we would act out plays together. This sparked my interest in acting, a passion that brought me much pleasure in high school, college and, in young adulthood, professionally.

She encouraged me to write -- and praised my efforts generously, advocating for me with other teachers, making them aware that this quiet, awkward kid had something special going for her.

And sometimes she taught me lessons I was reluctant, at least initially, to learn.

 Substituting part-time for our cancer-stricken eighth grade teacher, Sister Rita pushed me relentlessly in algebra, urging me not to give up so easily, not to assume I couldn't do math, and taught me not only to enjoy algebra but also a great deal about persistence.

And on my eighth grade graduation day, she caught me acting like an ungrateful brat -- avoiding Aunt Molly, who had flown in from Ohio for the event, because I was mortified by the hat she was wearing: a large black broad-brimmed hat festooned with an array of red roses. Sister Rita wanted to know why I hadn't yet introduced her to the person she knew meant so much to me. "It's that hat, so embarrassing," I muttered, cringing.  Sister Rita's eyes narrowed: "You're embarrassed by her hat?" she asked sharply. "After she flew all this way to see you graduate?? Just think about that while I go and introduce myself."
She rushed over to Aunt Molly with a lilting "Hello, Aunt Molly! It's so wonderful to meet you!" When I saw my two most beloved adults embracing, my ungrateful bratty little heart melted and I rushed over, smiling, to join them.

She was like Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music": she sang beautifully and lead our school choir, ran and jumped and wrestled playfully with kids on the school grounds. She was tall, nearly six feet and the pockets of her habit were so long that sometimes one or two of her first grade students would try to crawl into them for the ultimate E ticket ride on the playground. She ran a tight ship in the classroom -- one does with 60 rambunctious kids -- but all she had to do was give you a look, say your full name with a certain lilt and you instantly fell into line.

Sometimes, outside of class, she would look at me and smile. "Ah, Kathleen," she would say in her soft Irish brogue. "Aren't you just wonderful?" And suddenly I would feel transformed from awkward adolescent to a young woman on top of the world. I loved her so much.

And I knew I would always love her, that we would be friends for life. And I was right.  Sister Rita is still incredibly dear to me.

                                Sister Rita (l) and me during a visit in 2008                         

She is now 81 and retired only because she has been battling an often fatal cancer for the last few years. You would never know it to see her: she is youthful, vital, full of energy and purpose. She has picketed for peace and protested the war in Iraq. She has fought her cancer with quiet courage and persistence. She delights in each day. Her blue eyes still sparkle when she talks of my brother -- as a child and as the accomplished adult he has become. 

We don't see each other often, but when we do, our visits become marathons -- talking, laughing, hugging and swapping stories.

I love hearing her stories about her family in Northern Ireland and the culture shock she experiences when she visits there after over half a century in the U.S. And I thoroughly enjoy her efforts to play matchmaker for a younger, still single friend -- never losing hope that somewhere out there is the perfect man for Barbara.

Sister Rita's gentle humor, her emotional honesty, strength of spirit and caring nature remain unchanged, undiminished by time and infirmity. She still radiates joy and love. Just thinking of her makes me smile and feel incredibly blessed.

I also smile and feel blessed when I think of Sister Ramona, whom I encountered in my senior year of high school. Like my other high school teachers, Ramona was an American-born Dominican sister.  She was 27 at the time and new to high school teaching. One of the classes she taught was journalism -- and she joked that I taught her everything she knew. Not true at all, of course, but I was her most enthusiastic student.

                             Sister Ramona in full habit - 1962                          

I remember feeling, early in that wonderful school year, that Sister Ramona was very special, that she was someone I could trust, that she could hear and keep the painful secrets of my life. And I was right. I remember her staying away from her afternoon prayers one day to listen to me as I revealed some details of abuse that I was almost ashamed to speak aloud. I watched her face for shock and disgust. There was none. Only loving concern as she took my hand. "What you're describing is painful, but not all that unusual really," she said. "A lot of families have these issues. You are not alone. Not at all." I felt my shoulders sag with relief as the burden of sadness and shame lifted almost instantly. And I knew I would love Sister Ramona forever, too.

She has had an unerring instinct for making me feel special and for being there when I need her most.

Near the end of my senior year of high school, I arrived at school one morning feeling crushed because it was my 18th birthday and my parents had completely forgotten. I couldn't believe it. They forgot my 18th birthday!!! But Sister Ramona didn't. I opened my locker and found a bunch of cards and funny, hand-drawn cartoons had been squeezed inside. One of the notes directed me to the beginning of a treasure hunt throughout the school for little items and more cards celebrating my special birthday. She absolutely transformed the day for me.

She also made my graduation day extra special with a lovely letter -- which I still have -- telling me all she valued about me and her support for my dreams for the future. And seeing my disappointment when my parents told me that they were too busy to attend the graduation ceremony, Sister Ramona rallied some of the other nuns and they told me that they were going to be my "aunts for a day" and form a cheering squad for me. And they kept their word -- even after Aunt Molly appeared, dragging my penitent parents with her.

And she came for a fun dinner shortly after Bob and I started living together -- a year before we were married -- and calmed his nervousness (he had never met a nun before) with a couple of mildly ribald comments. And she was an especially welcome guest at our wedding, talking my depressed mother - my father boycotted the ceremony altogether -- into a celebratory mood.  And, as if by magic, she appeared at my mother's funeral, her arm around me at the graveside, understanding in a way few others could the complicated love and loss I was feeling.

                         Sister Ramona visiting when Bob and I were first living together

                                       Sister Ramona with my mother at my wedding                

Having known my parents and our family situation well, Sister Ramona has a unique perspective on my life. Over dinner not long ago, she was talking about a mutual friend of ours who also came from a seriously dysfunctional family and who has suffered greatly all her life -- unable, for the past two decades to leave her home because of agoraphobia, having a host of mental and physical illnesses, and feeling estranged from those she loves and from life itself. We both noted sadly our unsuccessful moves to help.

"I've often wondered about the difference I see between the two of you," she said. "You're the same age, went to the same schools, grew up in the same community. And your family -- in terms of abuse and outrageous dysfunction -- was far worse as far as I could see. But then I realized a critical difference: you grew up feeling you were loved. As crazy as they were, your parents genuinely loved you. I could see it every time we spoke of you, every time they came to see you in a school play, even at graduation. They thought the world of you. And what a difference that makes."

I realized that it was true: my parents, for all their eccentricities, really did love me. And I truly felt their love. And that, indeed, has made a huge difference.

I have felt Sister Ramona's love not only for me, but also for countless others. She has spent years listening, reassuring, encouraging, pushing and, when necessary, challenging several generations of young girls through radically changing times. She has dried tears, mediated disputes, been there in countless crises. She has made hundreds, maybe thousands, of young women feel special.

Sister Ramona has more friends than anyone I know. So many people, including me, love her immensely and forever. When she was leaving her last stint as principal of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy a few years back to move to Northern California and new adventures in curriculum development and, later, working  as a counselor for students at Stanford, the community decided to hold a roast in her honor.  It was a memorable combination of a celebratory Mass and a Sister Ramona Roast, held in the school's gymnasium. Ramona had a front row seat beside her mother, who was dying of brain cancer, but who was aglow with love and laughter that special day. The young priest -- a graduate of St. Francis High School, the boy's school just down the hill -- recounted in the middle of celebrating the Mass how he first met Sister Ramona. "It was at a school dance, when I was 16" he said smiling. "And I was out in back of the school auditorium kissing a girl. Suddenly, I felt a firm grip on my jacket and was yanked up to face a nun whose expression was stern, but her eyes were laughing. I think that's when I got my religious vocation to become a priest!" The crowd roared with laughter, no one laughing more heartily than Sister Ramona and her lovely mother.

I have tried to be there for her when she has felt challenged over the years. Sister Ramona had a talent for pulling troubled schools out of the red, including Flintridge Sacred Heart about 40 years ago. She revamped curriculum, inspired creative fund-raising (the picture at the top of this post was from a fund-raising event invitation), got parents more involved and made the school more solid academically and financially. And when she would accomplish that with one school, she'd be handed another. Once, she was assigned to an impoverished, inner-city girls high school with a primarily Spanish speaking population. After a short period of feeling overwhelmed, she threw herself into the challenge, spending the summer in Mexico for a total immersion in Spanish and then turning around that school's fortunes as well, falling in love with students and parents -- and they with her -- in the process.

I have listened when, at times, she has talked about her frustration at a stubbornly paternalistic hierarchy, one pope in particular. But she has never used that as an excuse -- as I did -- to leave her Church or her calling, but as a rallying point for greater commitment to change what she can and to live each day with faith and joy.

Once, when Bob and I were discussing the meaning of success and challenged each other to come up with the name of the most successful person we knew, Bob beat me to the punch. "That's easy," he said. "Sister Ramona is the most successful person, the most successful human being, I have ever met." And I was quick to second his choice, though maybe going for a tie between Sister Ramona and Sister Rita.

Nuns may, indeed, be a dying breed, but they're not gone yet. They're still very much with us, still contributing, still living with joy and with love.

Early this year,  I was asked to come back to Flintridge Sacred Heart to address the Parents Guild on adolescent depression. None of the nuns of my youth were still at the school. In fact, I had never met the nuns who hurried up to Bob and me when we arrived. That didn't matter.  Sisters Carolyn McCormack (no relation to sister Rita) and Sister Celeste Botello, the president and principal of the school respectively, enveloped us both in cozy, warm embraces.

  "Welcome home," said Sister Carolyn softly and she embraced me again. And, even though we had just met, I felt very much at home in the warmth of her embrace.

                                         Sisters Carolyn, Celeste and Me - 2011                 


  1. Ah, this brings back so many memories. I too taught and attended Catholic schools, was surrounded and supported by fantastic human beings, and I too parted ways with the Church mid-way in my marriage.
    This is a lovely tribute to unselfish women who are still doing more than any other religious group.

  2. Dear Kathy, Thank you so much for posting this tribute to the nuns whose love and compassion and understanding have enriched your life.

    My blog postings on the convent are mostly about the things that I remember from the '60s. Mostly foolish things. I tried in four early postings about the novitiate to share with readers the reverence and wholeness I found in the convent. I don't think I've really succeeded in doing that.

    Your posting inspires me to tell more stories in the weeks and months ahead about the nuns who lived and continue to live such full and rich and enriching lives in the convent I entered.

    Thank you for reminding me of them and of their great goodness.


  3. They actually take a collection for the sexual abuse fund? Wow. I haven't kept up with what goes on in the Catholic church (since I stopped going to church in 10th grade), but I guess nothing should surprise me.

    Nevertheless, it's great that you have so many good memories and have kept up with your mentors/teachers. I still have a handwritten report, complete with photos, from Sister Doarley who taught me in my Catholic nursery school. I don't remember her, honestly, but reading the report many years later, after my own kids had finished (public) school, I realized that she knew me well, she cared a lot about me, and she obviously did a fantastic job. Sister Doarley, I'm sure you're long gone by now. I'm sorry to say I didn't turn out quite as well as you'd hoped -- but then again, I did turn out better than you feared.

  4. A lovely, affectionate tribute to two remarkable women, Kathy. As an Anglican I haven't had much contact with Catholic nuns, but the Anglican nuns I have known have been, by and large, intelligent, well-educated, hard-working and profoundly loving people.

  5. Thanks so much for your kind and enlightening comments, Carol, Rosaria, Dee, Tom and Perpetua!

    Carol, my grumblings about the Church's treatment of nuns is my own opinion (of course, I see it as fact!). I think they do the bulk of the work and get so little credit or support. I truly believe that the nuns are the Church's greatest asset.

    Dee, I love your posts about your convent days and have found all of them just wonderful. I'm delighted that this post is inspiring you to write more about the events and the people from that pivotal part of your life.

    Rosaria, how similar our experiences with Catholic school and then departure from the Church in adulthood -- as well as seeing the wonderful qualities of the nuns. You're right that so many of them are just fantastic human beings.

    Tom, I loved your story about and message to Sister Doarley!! I think it's true that the Catholic school experience can be a much more personal one that going through public schools, though there are some excellent and dedicated teachers there as well. It may be the nuns' total dedication to their life's mission that enables them to know their students so well. I'm amazed that Sister Rita remembers little details about my brother as a first grader -- how he hated to print and wanted to get to cursive writing right away -- so many years ago.

    Perpetua, I'm sure the Anglican nuns and Catholic nuns are similar in many wonderful ways!

  6. You don't know how much you've inspired me with this post. I want to do better, be better, hope for better, for all of my students, not just as a teacher, but as a human being. Thank you for sharing of these remarkable women!

  7. Thanks, Shelly! I'm sure you're there already from what I see in your posts. You may have no idea at the moment just how much even the little things you do mean to students. Maybe you'll find out years from now or maybe you'll never know for sure. But the little things can add up to such a difference: taking time to listen, to encourage, to make a student's day something special.

  8. My eyes are still damp. What a wonderful tribute to some lovely ladies that seldom get the recognition they deserve unless you look at all the lives they have entered and gently yet firmly directed.
    I am so delighted that your two angels are still in your life. You were blessed.
    Arkansas Patti

  9. This is a very tender story. Since I am not Catholic, I can't relate to these relationships, but I find them very interesting and am grateful you had these ladies in your life.

  10. What a great tribute to some amazing women. How lucky you were to have them in your life. I love that you maintained friendshps with them throughout adulthood.

    Although I'm not Catholic, my best friend growing up was, so I feel like I practically could be. I attended mass with her nearly every week, and also went to many religious training classes with her.

    In my community we have an amazing group of nuns that are active in charitable work. They inspire and push many, including myself, to give and serve as much as possible. One of them, Sister Stephanie, is in her 80's, but still very active, and is very much a community icon.

  11. What a tribute -- to be the most successful woman someone ever met! Kathy, I have so enjoyed the past few posts, getting to know your family and stories -- some of which are indeed challenging, but ultimately filled with triumph. When I read of these amazing nuns who were such a part of your life, I see how you have become the eloquent, compassionate woman you are. Thank you for sharing their lives and accomplishments with us.

  12. Dr. Kathy, It seems that even though you're early home-life was extremely difficult you had some strong, loving and dependable women in your life. Love at any time in our existence is so important to being healthy. My daughter and I were just speaking, tonight, about the perception of happiness. It seems that a major component of one's happiness is a feeling of being loved. We were chuckling about the fact that the Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, just the pursuit. I fear I am rambling but it is a blessing that you had/have these wonderful women in your life to exhibit love in it's purest form.
    Have a great weekend, Ginger

  13. Wonderful memories and a wonderful tribute. I'm glad to hear such positive stories from your Catholic school experiences; as a psychotherapist, I got to hear more of the other side and that undoubtedly warps this non-Catholic's objectivity.

  14. Thanks so much, Patti, Sally, Keicha, Jeanie, Ginger and Nance!

    Patti, Rita and Ramona really were and are angels. There were others as well, but these two are the ones who made the most difference to me personally and who have remained my friends for life.

    Sally and Keicha, thanks for seeing the sweetness of these relationships that transcended religion. In fact, both stood by me and continued to be loving friends when I left the Catholic church and started exploring other faiths.

    Jeanie, yes they both had an impact on my life, teaching me what a difference kindness and caring can make.

    Ginger, it's so interesting that you picked up on the perception of happiness in this post. It's so true. My situation in childhood was generally pretty appalling and yet, largely because of my warm connections with Aunt Molly, Sister Rita, Sister Ramona and others, I was happy most of the time. I also learned to enjoy my parents in their best moments and to keep a low profile in their worst -- and, overall, felt I had a pretty good life. i didn't know any different. When I left home, found how other people lived and looked back, I thought "My God!" But at the time, I felt loved and that meant a lot.

    Nance, I know what you mean about Catholic experiences coming up in psychotherapy. I've heard about it myself from patients and, in my own therapy, things did come up -- both positively and negatively. As I mentioned, I did have some negative experiences with a nun making fun of my partial paralysis from polio and another encouraging other kids to shun me -- which some did -- because my parents weren't properly married (i.e. in the Catholic Church). Both of these experiences led to a lot of anger and stayed with me. I remember telling Sister Rita about her former Mother Superior's actions in encouraging my pariah-status and she was very surprised and saddened. (The Mother Superior was generally nice to the kids, but she had it in for me.) I also had a 5th grade teacher who seemed to delight in humiliating me at the blackboard by giving me the hardest math problem to solve and not giving me time to do it before calling a boy -- always a boy -- up to the board with the words "Tell this stupid girl how to solve this problem!" This led to a math anxiety that was very hard to overcome. So I can readily identify with those who had negative experiences in Catholic school. I just had the good fortune to know some nuns so wonderful that the positive far outweighed the negative.

  15. I am eternally grateful to the sisters that taught me and the religious women with whom I lived and worked over the years. My greatest connection is to the Sisters of the Holy Names who taught and mentored me in elementary and college. I was also being abused and neglected and the Sisters provided a safe harbor for a trouble child. Seeing Sr. Carolyn here reminds me of when she was my principal during my two years of teaching at St. Elizabeth's in Oakland. The Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose are amazing women and incredible educators. Thanks to all the spirit-driven, kind compassionate sisters who have touched our lives and continue to carry Christ's light into our world.