As a Catholic girl growing up in Peoria, Ill., Margaret Mary “Marmee” McGrath (shown in red at left) never dreamed of becoming a nun. Nicknamed for the mother in Little Women (“My mother loved that book!”), Marmee attended Catholic school, prayed the rosary before morning Mass, and helped her teacher Sisters keep the sanctuary clean. She also had 2 cousins enter religious life.
During her junior year in high school, Marmee’s choir director even asked her point blank, “Have you ever thought of religious life?” Marmee said simply, No.
“And the question didn’t get me started thinking about it, either,” she laughs today.
The Right (Benedictine) Sisters
As it turns out, Marmee hadn’t met the right Sisters. Despite having Dominicans for grade school, St. Joseph Sisters for high school and a Franciscan for piano lessons, she hadn’t been attracted to any of their communities.
An experience she had later on sums up what Marmee felt: “I was walking in downtown Chicago with one of my Dominican cousins. We passed another Dominican on the street. They nodded to each other because they recognized the habit, but they didn’t know each other. I come from a tight-knit family. I would never have wanted to be in such a big community.”
Marmee went on to college at Bradley University, joined Pi Beta Phi, attended football games, basketball games, fraternity dances and classes. She loved it. At year’s end, she looked forward to returning for her sophomore year.
“I Need to Be Here”
Then she traveled to Nauvoo – the Catholic Benedictine Sisters lived there at the time – to attend the novitiate entrance of 2 of her high school classmates. It was a fateful trip. In just a few hours on one quiet summer afternoon, Marmee went from not thinking at all of religious life to not being able to get it out of her mind.
“I thought, ‘I need to be here,'” she says. “I felt so at home. The Sisters were so welcoming and gracious. They had a real family spirit. I decided to come back for a women’s retreat that summer. I really fell in love with the Sisters and the community. I asked to join, but not till after my sorority’s rush in the fall. I was in charge of it and had to be there.”
A Few Shocks and a Wonderful Life
After rush, Marmee became a postulant of the Catholic Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery. As she entered the novitiate, she took the name “Sheila” (a mostly-retired custom of many religious communities that symbolizes the adoption of a new life as a religious), had her head shaved and donned the habit.
“There were a few more shocks along the way,” Sr. Sheila says today. “We observed total silence, except for the hours from 4 to 5 and 7 to 8 in the evening. I had to learn to darn my hose. No more throwing them away when I got a run. We had to ask permission for everything from a new bar of soap to new deodorant. And if we were late or broke something, we had to kneel and ask for penance in front of the whole community.
“These things were a shock, but not hard. Everyone had to do them. Of course we haven’t done any of that for a long time.
“We still put community first. We pray together every day. We live together. It’s a wonderful life. The bond I have formed with my Sisters is very special. I’m energized by the Rule and by Benedictine life.”
Try out life as a Benedictine and find out for yourself whether the life is for you! Reply to this email to make arrangements to visit during an upcoming Benedictine Experience Weekend April 26-28 or May 31-June 2!!