Sunday, April 27, 2008

They don't make 'em like they used to

Many of my relatives on my mother's side of the family are gathering today in Lafayette, La., for something called a jubilee - a celebration marking the anniversary of when Catholic nuns take their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

My maternal family is full of women who wear habits. At one time when I was young there were as many as five of them - two aunts, two great aunts and a cousin. They were all members of the Sisters of Mount Carmel, a teaching order.

This is Sr. Margaret Mary, one of the great aunts, who spent much of her life teaching at Catholic high schools for girls in southern Louisiana. When this photo was taken in 1955, she already had been a nun for 22 years.

Here she is in 1972 with me and my twin sister. We were all dressed up for my aunt's wedding.

Notice that she's ditched the veil and is wearing a skirt short enough to show some leg. This was only a few years after Vatican II, and Margaret Mary had embraced much of the revolution that was sweeping through the American Roman Catholic church.

That made her a bit of a black sheep in both her religious order, which largely stuck to tradition, and in our family. She earned multiple undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and spent several years studying at UC Berkeley.

The 1980 rape and murder of three U.S. nuns in El Salvador by soldiers of the U.S.-backed government helped to galvanize her opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Central America and affinity for Liberation Theology. You can imagine the arguments she provoked at family gatherings in the mid-1980s in deeply pro-Reagan southern Louisiana.

(CLARIFICATION: I originally referenced the Reagan administration in the above paragraph but, as my friend John noted in his attached comment, the crimes in El Salvador occurred at the end of President Carter's watch. Thanks John.)
Here she is in 2006. We both found ourselves living in New Orleans in the mid-1990s and developed a close relationship over periodic Sunday brunches in the 11th-floor restaurant of the Canal Place hotel, overlooking the French Quarter and Mississippi River. We'd sit there for hours, sipping champagne and talking about politics, theology, history and our personal lives. She's one of the few relatives I have who made an effort to really know me.

When I came out to her early in our friendship, she was thrilled. She had always had gay and lesbian friends, and she was practically giddy to find out that one of her own relatives was out of the closet.
Here's my aunt, Sr. Robert Joseph, in a 1961 photo. My Maw Maw and Paw Paw (grandparents in Cajun) are in the middle, my
Aunt Roberta is on the right and my parents are in the back.

Here she is again holding my twin sister a few years later. (If you're wondering about her name, she chose it when she took her vows -- to honor her older brother who was killed in World War II).

She spent her career teaching mentally disabled students at St. Michael's Special School in New Orleans.

Robert Joseph always has been a more traditional nun -- I never developed much of a relationship with her beyond the obligatory family niceties. That probably has something to do with her shy and understated personality.
Despite living most of her life in one of the most amazing culinary cities of the world, she'll pick baked chicken and steamed veggies at Piccadilly Cafeteria over brunch at Brennan's any day.

Here she is in 2004.

We ate dinner together at a Shoney's (her choice of course) a few years earlier while driving from New Orleans to Cajun Country for a family gathering. It was one of the few times that we've spent more than a few minutes alone with each other.

At one point in the conversation, she asked me what I liked to do for fun. I told her about my roller blading outings, the history books I was reading and the time I spent on weekends people-watching in the French Quarter.

When I turned the question on her, she paused, then described a stoic pampering routine: taking a long, hot bath (sans bubbles, scented salts or aromatherapy candles) then clipping her toe nails. That's right . . . her idea of fun was clipping her toe nails!

As different as Sr. Margaret Mary and Sr. Robert Joseph are, they share the central defining element of their lives - devotion to a single mission of service. Today, Margaret Mary, now in her mid-90s, celebrates an amazing 75 years as a nun, and Robert Joseph, who is in her 70s, marks a 60th anniversary.

They've withstood seismic shifts in the religious and lay worlds and a host of personal challenges, including being forced to relocate permanently to other cities after Hurricane Katrina.

While I can't say that I understand their decisions to become nuns (R.J. was only 13 when she went into the convent) and remain in the order, I can't help being awestruck by the rarity of their loyalty and endurance.

Happy jubilee!


Lake said...

Excellent post. I've never really understood why would someone want to spend their lives as nuns. I don't know, it seems so anachronic to me.

John H. said...

Keith, that was a very interesting post. I congratulate both of the nuns on their hard work and longevity. I pray that I hold up as well as they have.

Regarding the politics you mentioned, Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan, was president when those horrible events happened in El Salvador. To -- in ANY way -- connect President Carter with the crimes of rogue soldiers of another country because that country's government is an ally would be, I think, grossly unfair. To connect future-President Reagan with them is simply counter to logic.