Diocesan schools, health care, social services benefit from the Catholic order’s ministries
By Sherrie Shuler
On a bitterly cold evening in January, I pull into the driveway of the Convent of St. Richard in a West Knoxville neighborhood and approach a rather unpretentious entry. The moment I reach for the doorbell, I’m convinced I’m at the wrong address: the persistent barking of a dog…does this convent really have a dog?
The door quickly opens – they have been waiting – and yes, the convent does have a dog: Shiloh, I am told, and even he jumps with enthusiasm in a greeting all his own. I am welcomed into the foyer by six Sisters with the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., who immediately dispel the cold with their personal warmth, as palpable as a group hug. They reach for my coat and scarf, bag and gloves, and embrace this stranger among them like a dearest relative. I am immediately smitten.
The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma have been in the Diocese of Knoxville since 2009 at the invitation of Bishop Richard F. Stika. As they’ve spread their medical, education and social services charism throughout the diocese, they’ve forged strong ties in East Tennessee and with fellow men and women religious, including their sister order, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, which has been in the diocese for many years.
Tonight I have requested, and been invited into, a rare opportunity to experience firsthand the life of the sisters inside the convent as they go about their evening routine, unaltered, and as they surround me with the mercy of God that is their charism.
Daily, their call is to live their “fourth vow” of service to the poor, the sick, and the ignorant, in their professions, in their apostolate, and in their personal lives. In this case, I am neither poor nor sick, but I am certainly ignorant of this life and eager to get at their essence. I am ushered graciously into a sitting room where Sister Mary Timothea explains what to expect in the hour of prayer just ahead, which I am about to experience with them. I look around and see what one would expect in a convent: order, elements of necessity but not extravagance, and a lack of clutter. The interior of the convent is simply furnished, sufficient, and utterly lacking in pretension, as are the sisters.
Holy Hour is announced by the chime of a clock, and Sister Mary Timothea ushers me to my place in the chapel beside Sister Mary Christine, who graciously leads me step-by-step through the ceremony, pointing out the page and paragraph of each reading, each hymn. She whispers, “You can either sit or stand, as you wish.” The service begins. Having never experienced chant outside of the occasional hippie wedding in a field during the 1960s, I’m surprised that its effect seems to suspend us in a space without time. It is mesmerizing – and memorable.
After Holy Hour, we adjourn to the dining room for a simple meal together, and I conspicuously place a tape recorder in the center of the table, encouraging them to not be intimidated. “Oh, we’re not easily intimidated,” one sister warns, and we all laugh and speak at once. Once we’re quiet, I begin with what I hope is not the oh-so-obvious question – “Tell me about your vow of obedience.” With a knowing round of laughter, we launch into a discussion of the discernment process, their educations, their professions, and the leading of the Holy Spirit through the guidance of the superior general and the order’s council. Sister Mary Christine advised that “it’s not like we have to automatically say ‘yes’ (to where we are sent), and we all march off into the sunset. Rather, it’s an informed obedience, one in which we have been encouraged to speak our thoughts.”
Each sister is articulate and intelligent, qualities that display themselves with humility. Sister Mary Timothea explains that part of the charism of the order is the absolute expectation of “excellence in everything,” including the rigors of higher education, so that each is well-equipped to fulfill the order’s charism, which was the original vision of the Religious Sisters of Mercy’s foundress, the Venerable Catherine McAuley.
Another vital aspect of this particular order is the vision of service from within the warmth and hospitality of a home, which has led succeeding generations of the order to work from non-institutionalized locations, as do these Sisters in Knoxville.
Relaxed and informal, Sister Mary Marta, the current superior of the local community, invites our group to move into the living room where we chat like any other group of women. It is here that I ask the sisters if they would be comfortable sharing their personal stories with me; it is here that I have a glimpse into each woman’s nature.
Sister Mary Charles Mayer, RSM
“I am a convert. My brother was converted first, and my conversion took place around my mother’s death. It was a very soul-searching time for me because we were very close.
“I began to meet religious people through my brother. We were in L.A. I asked myself, ‘Why did these people leave the world and want to live in a monastery?’ I had dropped out of school at 19 to work in entertainment and rock ’n’ roll in San Francisco. It was a very shallow way of life, and I saw a lot in that industry that was disillusioning.
“I visited the Sisters of Mercy in Connecticut. I was 37 at the time, and I was drawn to the pristine life I saw there. I said to myself, ‘You can’t be afraid to live; God is calling you.’ So I took a leap of faith. God protected me and pursued me, and here I am (serving as the diocesan associate chancellor for pastoral services and delegate to religious)!”
Sister Stella Maris Linder, RSM
“I was raised Catholic, but I never considered religious life until college. My faith was not built on a strong foundation, and it was shaken in college.
“I started searching. I did some short-term missionary work and spent two weeks in Bosnia. The day I got home, my mom got seriously sick and I was her full-time caretaker for a year and a half. When she was well, I took another missionary trip to Russia, and the very weekend of my return, I got a call from Portland, Ore., from a woman whom I don’t even remember meeting who called and offered me a job in a Catholic theater production company. I said, ‘You do know that I have no experience as a stage manager?’ but they were determined that I was ‘the one.’
“So, I spent the next two years in Portland doing shows in religious communities that had theaters. But, I was experiencing that sense of restlessness, and I decided to enroll in college for an advanced degree in clinical psychology. I was accepted into a school out East, but when I got the acceptance letter, instead of being joyful, I was so sad. So, I visited the Religious Sisters of Mercy for 36 hours, and realized, ‘Oh, no; this is it!’ Literally, I had never considered religious life before, and look where that got me. Now, I am studying to be a fertility-care practitioner, and I love it.”
Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM
“I was raised Southern Baptist in Texas, so I’m a convert. I was converted about 10 years before I met the sisters. My conversion was centered around the Eucharist. I desired that Jesus shine through me as I saw in the sisters I met. I went to Minnesota and lived with the sisters for one year.
“My time at the motherhouse had a big impact on me. At first my family was not supportive and would not give me their blessing. But, over time, as they began to see that I was indeed living a Christian life, they began to accept my calling, and now they are very supportive. When I entered, I did not even have a bachelor’s degree, so I enrolled in college, and I was encouraged to go into education.
“Along the way, I said, ‘I don’t think I can do education.’ But, I entered into the management side, and that was perfect. We are educated to serve the Church in the best way, and the Holy Spirit works. Even before I finished my degree, the superior general had a call that a superintendent was needed in Knoxville, so as soon as I graduated, I came here and I absolutely love what I do as superintendent (of Diocese of Knoxville schools). So, you see how the Holy Spirit leads perfectly!”
Sister Mary Timothea Elliott, RSM
“I started out teaching elementary school, second grade, and I thought I would be teaching second grade the rest of my life. And I loved it. When I entered the Sisters of Mercy, it was called the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, and there were 800 of us.
Then in 1965, after the (Second Vatican) Council, there were these experiments in the orders. Things became very different. Some sisters stopped wearing habits and stopped having common prayer, common life, and instead lived in apartments. It was very difficult to keep the vows. For instance, some sisters were given a monthly allowance and they could spend it any way they wanted, which of course, was against the concept of poverty. Things were very different, and there was a tremendous exodus. It just didn’t work because the vows were not interiorized.
“When I was asked to get a doctorate in Sacred Scripture, I was sent to the only university in the Catholic Church where one could get such a degree – and that was the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. I was the ‘only skirt’ in a class of 280 men and the second woman to graduate from that university with a doctorate. I was there for 17 years and it took me 14-and-a-half years to get the degree work. If I had known how long it would take or what was required, well, I might not have been able to do it. I just took one day at a time.
“We didn’t have a women’s bathroom at the college, so I had to go down the street to a coffee bar to use the ladies’ room the first two years. They were very primitive facilities, to say the least!
“I had to master 10 languages; well, I started with English, of course, and learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Ugaritic, a pre-Hebrew, cuneiform language. You never knew what language you were going to have when you went to a class. My advanced Hebrew was taught in Latin by an Italian, who switched to Italian for his jokes, and our textbook was in French – and I took notes in English. It was sort of like the Tower of Babel. It was very challenging. I just took one day at a time; that’s the only way you could do it. I taught for many years at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. Now, I am the diocesan director of the Office of Christian Formation.”
Sister Mariana Koonce, RSM, MD
“I was one of those people that ran from my vocation for a very long time. I said, ‘No way!’ I was raised Catholic and attended Notre Dame, playing in the marching band. Then I went to Tulane School of Medicine on a Navy scholarship. I had a lot of idealistic reasons to serve the poor. I was raised in Western Kentucky. I was commissioned as a Navy officer, and I said, ‘Send me to sea!’
“So, I spent two years at sea and then transferred to another program where I spent two more years. I opened a private practice and focused on what made me happy. But, I wasn’t happy. I did everything I wanted, but I wasn’t happy. Finally, I dropped the parameters. Instead of saying to God, ‘Which private practice do you want me to enter?’ I said, ‘Where do you want me to serve?’ When I joined the Sisters of Mercy, I was sent to serve the poor here in Appalachia (as executive/medical director of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic).”
Sister Mary Christine Cremin, RSM, LCSW
“My entry into the religious life was totally unplanned. I attended Catholic schools and so forth, and the religious life was always held up as something to aspire to. But, I always said, ‘No, that’s not for me.’ I was even asked directly to consider it, but I said no thanks. It would never have occurred to me to consider, even though the idea was very much pushed. I always thought, ‘not for me.’
“So, my calling was very sudden and straightforward. I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing; even what I thought and felt. I had been accepted to nursing school, and I was planning on going. I was putting something away in a dresser drawer at home when it dawned on me, ‘This is not it!’ And, I knew absolutely that I was supposed to go into religious life. I remember lying down across the bed and being completely flabbergasted.
“I am very grateful that it happened in such a dramatic way because I’ve never had a doubt that it was the right thing. I lived through the ’60s and all the times of questioning, but there was never a doubt for me. The only Sisters I had been exposed to were the Sisters in my school. And the only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to teach; so I talked to a priest, and he suggested a community of nurses who worked in the homes of the poor. I entered that community, and while I was with them I received a scholarship that the Religious Sisters of Mercy offered to their nursing program at Mercy College of Detroit. Now I’m here with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee (serving as executive director), and I am so grateful.”
Pope Francis’s call for men and women religious “to live the present with passion” and “embrace the future with hope,” is embodied in the lives of these women presently living at the Convent of St. Richard. The passion they have for their professions, their order and for the Church is inspiring. The joy they feel for the communal life is palpable. The laughter, love and piety within the walls of the Convent of St. Richard can leave a person in awe.