A peek into Catholic Sisters' history, lifestyles and communities

The Benedictines recently hosted a discernment experience that was amazing! Women from Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Kansas gathered to learn about some of the different communities that are available to them here in the Midwest. They also enjoyed a film that explores the role of – and stereotypes associated with – the habit. Finally, they toured a local version of the national Women and Spirit exhibit sponsored by LCWR. Here’s a recap of the experience.

A Question of Habit

After Lauds with the Sisters on Saturday morning, the whole group gathered in the dining room to screen “A Question of Habit.” Using popular images of nuns on greeting cards, cocktail napkins and dolls, the film included interviews with such well-known sisters as Joan Chittister and Helen Prejean about the commercial use of the habit in today’s culture.

We had a rousing discussion afterwards. Sister Ruth Ksycki, OSB, said she experimented with wearing versus not wearing the habit after Vatican II. She found when she wore a simple suit – like other lay women – she was treated like an adult. When she put the habit back on, she said, she was treated like a child.

Sister Margaret Murphy, OSB, said she felt it was easier to relate to others without the habit. That is, others weren’t intimidated by her when she looked like them.

Sister Catherine Cleary, OSB, said the habit came out of the middle ages, when all women wore veils regardless of their position. She said she and her sisters used to be dressed in hats and gloves to go into downtown Chicago, too, but – as with all things – times have changed.

It was a great discussion!

Sisters’ Panel Discussion

Saturday afternoon included a panel discussion with Sisters from nearby communities located in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. They shared information and insights about their lifestyles, which are surprisingly different from one another!

Here’s some of what the inquirers learned:

The apostolic communities – including Franciscan, Dominican, BVM and Presentation – do not live together at the motherhouse (although they may live in groups of two or three in apartments or houses). For them, ministry is primary. That is, what they do – teach, counsel, serve in a mission abroad – is important in the selection of community.

The monastic communities – Benedictine, Carmelite, Trappistine – are formed by women who are called to seek God together. That is, prayer is primary. Among those groups, though, there are significant differences.

* The Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery are what we call part-contemplative and part-active. They are contemplative in that the Benedictines live together in a monastery, pray together every day, enjoy meals and leisure together. As any family, they pool their resources to own cars and other property in common. Prayer is primary. They are also active in that they go out for their ministries, serving as campus ministers, teachers, pastoral associates and more.

* The Carmelite Sisters of Eldridge and the Trappistine Sisters of Dubuque are fully contemplative orders. They do not go out for ministry, but are cloistered. They live and serve within the walls of their own monasteries.

Women & Spirit

After Lauds, Mass and brunch on Sunday, we headed over to the Women and Spirit exhibit at Christ the King in Moline, Ill. Sister Stefanie MacDonald, OSB, says it provided another peek into the history as well as the contemporary life of Catholic Sisters.

“The inquirers seemed to drink in all the information they could about what our local communities have done and are doing,” Sister Stefanie said. “One woman said she had always thought a community would only do one thing, say, teach. She said she was amazed at all the areas a community could get involved in while seeking God and living out the Gospel.”

Sister Stefanie said she was able to underscore the inquirer’s discovery with her own experience.

“I’m one of those Sisters who is doing what people typically think of as a Sisters’ work,” she said. “I teach. But I am doing much more than I ever could on my own. I am not only teaching, I am helping market my Catholic school so that it thrives into the future. I am helping reach out to our immigrant population. I am praying with 40 other Sisters every day. Together, we do so much more than we can do apart.”

Inquirers’ questions and reactions

Ranging in age from 20 to 49, the women who attended the weekend said they loved being able to get so much information in one place … and loved meeting all the Sisters. Here are some of the questions that came up during the weekend. We’ll try to answer them in upcoming issues of Steps. Meantime, if you have some questions of your own, email us at rbussan@smmsisters.org!

Theresa, 49, said she’d like to know more about our ministries, as well as the ministries that are available in our Illinois and Iowa area. She also would like to know what qualities you need to have to enter a community.

Rachel, 20, said she’s curious about how much individuality you retain and/or lose when you enter a community.

Debra, 46, said she thinks the biggest challenge is to find where you fit in. She said her question isn’t so much about prayer – all Sisters pray – but about the personality of the community … and whether it’s a good fit for you.

Karen, 28, agreed with Debra, adding that she believes God wants us to be happy, and will guide you to the right community through the feelings you experience as you visit different orders.

Cathy, 40, said she’s considering a cloistered and habited community, but was less certain of her feelings following the movie and discussions. She said her bottom line was that she wants to serve.

The group nodded sympathetically as Cathy shared that most of her friends and even her parents didn’t want her to enter religious life. They feared they’d never see her again! Karen said some communities really don’t allow much outside contact. In fact, one of the first communities she’d visited was too restrictive for her, allowing only letters and occasional visits from family. Rachel said the best way to know where you are called is to visit communities. “You owe it to yourself and God to check it out!”

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