CHWR: Learning our histories and writing our future

Today’s the last day of the Conference on the History of Women Religious, hosted by the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame. Archivists, historians, Sisters, and others all gather to share research, methodology, and most importantly – stories – for 4 days. This year’s theme is “Commemoration, Preservation, Celebration,” uplifting the histories of women religious in order to orient us – all of us – toward more just and peaceful futures.

In a keynote address by Eileen Markey, author of A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura, she commented that by studying the histories of women religious, we are also studying the histories of social movements. Sr. Maura Clark, a Maryknoll Sister murdered in 1980 in El Salvador, is a perfect example of that. Further, from Sisters involvement and leadership in sanctuary and solidarity efforts of the 1980s, we can learn about how to show up at today’s border, where immigrants and children are in inhumane conditions and dying in their journey toward peace and freedom. We need to study these social movements, she said, in order to do it again. We need to re-vitalize these revolutionary spirits that Sisters have been throughout history, in our own context and culture. We need their stories, in order to save our lives today.

Eileen said that we’re living in a “kairos moment,” a moment of possibility, for the preservation and celebration of these stories. Now is the time to learn these stories. And if it’s not yet time to share these stories, then preserve them now so that one day we can come back and ask the right questions in order to learn from them. No matter what, Sisters and their collaborators need to know that their stories are worth celebrating – and learning from – for all of us.

Earlier in the day at the conference, I presented on “Learning & Stewarding Sisters’ Stories for the Next Generation.” In my talk, I shared about Nuns & Nones, and how our vehicle for story transmission between Sisters and millennials is through relationship, trust, and community. It is in spaces of gatherings that we come to learn one another’s stories of their own individual self, their community, and their tradition. And then I talked about my Foundress podcast project, where I am recording interviews with women religious about the stories of their female founders, and how they still shape spiritual and community life. In that project, the vehicle for story transmission is audio/oral, and because of that, I hope it will be able to reach a new audience – an audience unfamiliar with Sisters and their histories, but will still surely be inspired by their lives committed to contemplation, community, and justice.

After I talked about the Foundress project, someone asked me who my intended audience will be. And I immediately thought of all of the community builders and spiritual innovators that I know. Mostly young-ish people, between 25 and 45, who are building communities outside of traditional religious structures, but still communities that are committed to connection, action, and “something more.” Because especially people like us – who are often creating our own stories – could learn from the stories of the people that have built up these communities of the past.

As I’ve been here, sitting in the company of Sisters and historians who hold these stories and histories within them – within their minds, within their spirits – I’ve seen what can help shape young people today in our own processes of becoming and creating. Whether it comes through learning the stories of the Sisters in your city, or reading books like Eileen Markey’s, A Radical Faith, or comes from live-in experiences like our pilot residency in Burlingame or my own summer experience with the Erie Benedictines, what I know is that we need these relationships in order to help shape our own collective futures.

And what comes through those relationships is new stories that we can then create and write together – to inform and inspire us for the challenges and the mystery ahead.

If there’s one action step or take-away I can encourage to people energized by this call, it is for you – or your community – to record and document your stories, of the past and the present. Sit down with a Sister or a few Sisters and interview them. Record them. Capture some wisdom so it can live on in ever unfolding, new ways. And in doing so, keep in mind that Sisters and collaborators alike are participants in a journey of co-creation of our collective future. It is by sharing stories with one another that we can start to imagine a rough draft of the future to come.


Loretto Community Visit, Day 4 – Spirit, transformation, and Gethsemani

My day started and ended with prayer. At 6:30am, Mary Swain and I walked out to the chapel in the woods for thirty minutes of silence. Later this morning, at 10am I went to mass at the Loretto Church. This evening, we were at the Abbey of Gethsemani and attended 5pm vespers followed by 7pm compline. Four times for prayer today alone! Who have I become?

Anyways – today started with the same 6:30am walk as yesterday, but today as we walked out, due to the “spring forward” time change, instead of walking in dusk light we walked in the darkness. The night sky was clear, and Mary pointed out to me the planets and constellations. She said the stars feel like friends because they’ve spent so many mornings together. As for this morning ritual of a walk and silence, it seems that Mary has been doing this since Cedars of Peace opened in 1978. But when asked about what it’s about for her, she says it’s not about any deep or profound prayer – it’s simply about showing up. Maybe orienting ourselves and our time toward God is all we need to do in our spiritual lives.

After we got back from our morning walk and silence, the sun started to rise, and I watched it through my window as I sipped coffee and read New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. It was an idyllic morning.

From there, I went to Sunday mass, where Mary was giving the homily (and playing the organ, for that matter). And – by the way – today was her 79th. birthday. I’m mostly including these details because Mary seems to be a woman who does it all and remains grounded the entire time. It’s exactly why I love to hang out around these women. They all seem to have this spirit.

Speaking of this spirit, after mass I talked with a Sister who casually mentioned that she founded a Women’s Spirituality Center in Santa Fe, NM. It was open for 8 years, and really had a profound impact on her and the women who came through its doors. This is why I’m particularly drawn to the narrative thread of Foundresses in women religious orders. One foundress seems to inspire the next; there is a spirit of founding that is very much alive in religious life. And it’s a founding that recognizes both life and birth, as well as new life and resurrection.  The Sister who founded the Women’s Spirituality Center said that after 8 years they decided to close it, and hosted a grieving ceremony. Her attitude wasn’t one of sadness but acceptance; the organization ran its course, and served its need. It was time to find the next need and ministry. This spirit of founding and re-founding has shaped not only religious life as a whole, but the many ministries that have come out of religious communities as well.

Back to the day. The sun was finally out, so Susan and I went on a walk before lunch, around Mary’s Lake and then through the cabin she built that she and JoAnn now live in. We reflected on this shared work we seem to be a part of – the questions that are guiding us, but are so much bigger than us. The questions that seem to hold us as we move around inside of them and figure out what its asking of us.  The same threads have been pulling on both of us – the signs in religious life and in spiritual life that there is a new form of community life aching to be born. Neither of us – nor the projects we’re a part of – know what that is, but we’re going to keep experimenting, and talking, and dreaming into that future. Like we see modeled in Susan and JoAnn’s cabin, which was built out of the trees and clay and stones from the very land it stands on, transformation is possible. Something found in nature can be used for building walls of a house; old kneelers can be used as interior siding; a wheel from a wheelbarrow can be repurposed into a dish hanger. Just like nature, and just like this cabin, we are capable of transforming and being transformed.

Over lunch, I met Jessie and Andy – a married couple with a foster child – who moved from Colorado onto the motherhouse grounds two years ago in order to live in community with the Loretto’s and in order to live more sustainably. They’re now dreaming up even deeper and bigger possibilities of community life in Loretto. Again, transformation is possible.

After lunch, Eleanor, the archivist, and I went to the Merton room with Cecily Jones’ poetry – from her collections “Mostly for Promise” and “The Porch of Possibility.” From these books, Eleanor read poems Cecily’s poems about the history of the community. The poems are sometimes told from the perspectives of these founding women, and sometimes told by current-day Sisters. Each poem embodies the spirit of this place as one of founding and re-founding, always open to seekers and searchers, as we all accompany each other along the journey.

Late afternoon, a few of us went to the Abbey of Gethsemani – only 15 minutes down the road – to visit with monks and explore this home monastery of Thomas Merton. When we arrived, Brother Michael greeted us, and brought us to see Merton’s gravestone. Since he is the celebrity of Gethsemani, and the Abbey is a pilgrimage site largely due to the fame that Merton brought to it, I thought that he might have a special location or at least a special marker. But I was glad to find that he fit in just like any other brother. And from the stories we heard, he really did have a humble presence, so much that novices wouldn’t realize that “Fr. Louis” was actually Thomas Merton.

From there, we went up to Merton’s hermitage, where he spent his last couple years before he died. Brother Paul met us up there, and showed us into the hermitage, which functions today as a retreat spot for the brothers. Before we walked in the door though, Paul asked us to turn around, so we could see the most important part of the hermitage: the view from the porch. Inside, there’s a small chapel, kitchen, bedroom, and living room. As we were sitting down, Paul’s next request was that we play “Merton Roulette” – as the guest, I would pick one of his personal journals and we would open to today’s date in that journal. We read the entry from March 10, 1962. And of course, it spoke to me even in today’s context.

Then the six of us, three from Loretto, two brothers, and myself, just sat down in a circle in the hermitage to talk. We talked about the role and relevance of monasticism today; we talked about “new monasticism” and Nuns & Nones; we talked about silence, pilgrimage, and work; we talked about the monastery’s Fudge Department while enjoying some of it ourselves. Though mostly lofty topics, the brothers always brought it back to moving, personal experience, and most importantly, they brought in a light-hearted sense of humor. I could feel the presence of Merton in the space, through these two individuals that he had spent time with before his death in 1968.

After Vespers back at the monastery chapel, the six of us shared dinner in the visiting room – wine, bread, cheese, and fruit. We heard stories from Michael and Paul about Merton and their conversations. We also talked about his close friendship with Mary Luke Tobin, the pivotal leader of Loretto in the 1960s. I brought up the Merton Center for Creative Exchange that Mary Luke created as an event and discussion space in her basement to honor her friend, and that it eventually ended up at the Loretto Motherhouse. I asked if he spoke about this vision for creative exchange, but Paul mentioned instead his vision for the hermitage, which he intended to name Mt. Olivet. He wanted the hermitage to be a space for writers, artists, intellectuals and activist to come together and engage with one another. While Merton died only a couple years after the hermitage opening, it has certainly still lived into that vision ever since. It feels like we just got a small taste of that vision in the hermitage today.

I’ll close with this story. Michael, reflecting back what he read in the Nuns & Nones article from Global Sisters Report, said that it seems like there’s something special happening there. There’s some sort of seeing between the communities of Sisters and millennials, a deep recognition in the other of their inner light. He said it reminded him of Merton’s epiphany on Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. I looked up the piece tonight, and feel immensely grateful for him to see Nuns & Nones alive in this excerpt. I will end with Merton’s words from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

Loretto Community Visit, Day 3: Renewal and Emerging Forms

Today started with a walk to the woods, and sitting in silence. Mary Swain, a community member and Sister here, walks out to the chapel in the woods every morning for 30 minutes of contemplative silence. So we left the novitiate at 6:30am, and walked out to Cedars of Peace, the retreat center of Loretto that is located just a 10 minute walk away into the woods. Cedars of Peace is a collection of hermitages where people take individual silent retreats. Within that small compound, once you walk past hermitages with names like Hope and Namaste, down the cedar path and next to the labyrinth, there is a small chapel that feels more like a meditation room. Walking into it, you take off your shoes and enter into the chapel. There are cushions for four people to sit, two chairs, and windows as large as the walls themselves to look into the woods.

After 30 minutes of silence, where I probably realistically experienced more like 30 seconds of internal silence, I still felt renewed. Just being in the space helped me feel present, grounded, and connected to place. This is what I consider one of the greatest gifts of Sisters’ communities: there is always space to pause, even – and perhaps especially – in the midst of an active life.

Later this morning, I started my meetings with community members. From talking with the community archivist, to lunch with the Emerging Forms Committee, and finally an afternoon conversation with a Loretto who marched in Selma in 1964, it was another incredible day of learning the stories of this community.

Eleanor Craig, the archivist, shared with me even more context for the history and renewal of the Loretto’s. As I learned from Eleanor, renewal of the community started beforeVatican II. In fact, much of the 1950s actually paved the way for more changes to be implemented in the 1960s. And Loretto Sisters were often a part of these global conversations about the future of religious life – from Loretto Sisters studying theology in Europe in the 1950s and learning the ideas that fed into Vatican II, and then Mary Luke Tobin being able to audit Vatican II. Coming out of these changes, the community started to write a new rule for their community, although rather than understanding it as a rule, it was considered a guideline for life. It was called I Am The Way, and was drafted, edited, and revised over 30 years, starting in 1967 and being approved by the Vatican in 1997. This document still feels very alive today in this community.

Around this same time of the original drafting of this document, the community also started to consider the role of co-members in the community. Originally called for by Sisters who were leaving their vowed life but still wanted to associate deeply with the community, the structure of “co-members” was created in the 1970s. Co-members include both women and men of different affiliations and traditions who share the Loretto mission: “to work for justice and act for peace because the gospel urges us.” Today, the Loretto Community includes both the Sisters of Loretto, who are vowed, and co-members, who tend to not be vowed. But as I’ve mentioned, in November 2017, two co-members took vows and started another way of deepening in this community.

If you look on their website, the Loretto’s have a Belonging tab that includes the Sisters, co-membersLoretto Volunteers, and Loretto Circles. As they expand their sense of who belongs, or who counts, in the community, the Emerging Forms committee is holding some of the imagination and direction forward. This is who I spent a nice, long three-hour lunch conversation with.

What is happening in the Emerging Forms committee is incredibly exciting. They are continuously asking the question, what form will community life take in the future? Their method for asking the question is cross-pollinating across traditions and networks, and in fact we have been inspired by many of the same people, including Carol Zinn, CSJ and her talk at Dominican University in 2016, as well as my colleagues from How We Gather, Casper ter-Kuile and Angie Thurston.

In 2012, Susan and JoAnn, the two vowed co-members, began the five-year journey toward their vows. Through deep dives into books, retreats, and discernment, they drafted their own vows, which can be read in this article. The vows are largely inspired by the chakras, intending to commit to these energies in order to release them for the good of community, rather constrain them to a narrow view consumed by power and control. In thinking about the vows, building off of Diarmuid O’Murchu’s book Poverty, Celibacy, Obedience, they often asked themselves the question: “What values need to be radiated?” A vow, as they came to understand it, were energies that have been given to us, and that we want to give to the world. At the core of these vows, as well as vowed co-membership as a whole, was to contribute to the Loretto Community and its future. They wanted to commit to working with the energies that were most “life giving and forward moving.”

I’m so grateful for the innovative and experimental drive that the Emerging Forms committee holds – and for the ways that Loretto have fed and followed this creative energy. The implications of these conversations feel awe-inspiring. With communities facing diminishing numbers, the narrative does not have to be one of despair. It can instead be one of hope and new life – taking root in co-members, in 20-something volunteers, or in lay led community circles.

As I mentioned, after this energizing conversation, I sat with Maureen, who is actually a testament to the value of these emerging forms of religious life. She joined as a Sister in the early 1950s, and ended up leaving in the midst of the “mass exodus” after Vatican II. However, as she says, she never really left. While in law school, she still spent summers with Loretto, and then within a few years she was able to re-join the community as a co-member.

Maureen is someone this community is lucky to have around. As a teacher in the 1950s, she taught her students to be committed to justice and speaking up for important issues. In 1964, she was called upon as a faith leader to join the marchers in Selma, and flew out there from Kansas City to put her body on the line for a greater cause. Trained in non-violence resistance, and formed by those protest songs, she said she still sings them to herself in church when she finds the hymns boring. Even now, in her old age and lessened ability to put her body on the line, since she walks around slowly with oxygen aids and a walker, she still serves in the ways she can. By calling congress, or feeding her fellow community members who can no longer feed themselves, she simply wants to keep spreading gifts, as she has been so gifted in her own life. Because of the co-member model, Maureen remained a part of the community even after leaving her vowed life, and what a blessing for her and the community it has been.

My hope for the future is that the spirit of experimentation and exploration continue in this community and beyond, and that Loretto may be a hint of possibility for those exploring new ways of being together. The hunger for belonging and becoming in communities of spirit in action like this one is increasingly present – in people who stretch far beyond the Catholic Church and the Christian tradition. If the models can evolve, to envelope all those seeking such commitment to these contemplative and justice-oriented ways of life, perhaps another renewal is on its way.

Loretto Community Visit, Day 2: the founding and the future

Day 2 was dedicated to learning the history and story of this place, particularly the stories of the founding and foundresses of this community. Naturally, in the end, this also became a day about the community’s future: how they are imagining and living into a new stage of religious life.

To start, I walked into the Archives that morning, greeted by their staff with a few pamphlets that were left for me: Courage, American: A sketch of the life of the Lorettine foundressAn Army of Peace: the story of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross and With Captain Dogwood: A Life of Charles Nerinckx. I also looked through their book collections – finding a book from 1929 on Great American Foundresses, one of the few books I’ve seen name and celebrate foundresses specifically. Then I found the books published by Loretto Sisters over the years – commentaries on the evolution of religious life, books of poetry, and creative zines with comics and spiritual insight. A few that piqued my interest: “Toward a Spirituality for Global Justice: A Call to Kinship” by Elaine Prevallet; “Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in their Own Words” edited by Maureen Fielder; and “The Porch of Possibility: Poems” by Cicily Jones, SL.

After spending time in the archives, I went to meet with Sr. Kathleen, in one of her favorite rooms at Loretto: The Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange. As she shared with me, Merton had developed this idea of a center for creative exchange, a place where people from all philosophical and religious backgrounds could come together for engaging with one another respectfully and creatively. After his death, his friend and former Loretto leader Mary Luke Tobin opened up a Center for Creative Exchange in her house’s basement in Denver, CO, hosting events and gatherings. Then the Center moved to the motherhouse where it’s lived for many years now – housing a collection of works by Merton, works about Merton, and many beautiful photographs and relics from his life.

This is the setting in which Kathleen walked me through the history of Loretto. Using coins and jolly ranchers, because, as she said, she’s used to teaching kids and using visual aids, she told me the story of how Loretto came to be through Catholics from Maryland settling in Kentucky in the late 18thand early 19thcentury. Mary Rhodes was one of these Catholics from Maryland, and she wanted to teach her brothers’ kids in a school. She taught them in a cabin, and soon other kids joined, looking for schooling, and then two other women joined her as teachers. The need for education grew, and the three women also wanted to grow in their own piety. Working with a local priest, he helped them to establish their own order – a distinctly American order not rooted in a community from Europe, but starting with these three women. After they were officially recognized in April 1812, within a few months three more women joined them.  They were now able to elect the first leader – Mother Superior – and they voted in the youngest woman in the group: Ann Rhodes, who at the time was just 19. (What a story to learn on International Women’s Day, huh?)

While there is much more to the story to be explored in a deeper format down the road, the thrust of the story is typical of other Foundress narratives I have heard: a woman or women noticed a need in their community, they joined with other women, they committed to each other and to that work, and they created the response necessary to the need in community through their own creation of community.

Here on the property, they have a diorama of this origin story. It’s labeled: “The Three Foundresses of the Sisters of Loretto – 1812 – Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, Nancy Havern.” The diorama shows the three women teaching children in different settings, with backdrops including their seal of the community, the Rules of the School, and finally a map of the “Holy Land of Kentucky.”

This is another fascinating aspect of this place – there seems to be holiness infused into the land. After the Sisters of Loretto began in 1812, within 30 years the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were created, then an order of Dominican Sisters. Ultimately it was the Sisters of Loretto that sold Gethsemani to a group of Trappist monks, which is where Thomas Merton spent his life. This small area in the middle of rural Kentucky is home to several religious orders that have existed for the last 200 years, formed tens of thousands of people in religious life, and collectively started thousands of schools, hospitals, and non-profit organizations across the country and world.

Mary Rhodes was the first one.  Among this overflowing energy of commitment to faith and service in this region, she was the first to say yes to a calling she felt. She was the first in this area to ask what the needs were, and how she could serve. Her legacy lives on today in and is as forward thinking as ever; the Loretto Life states: “We strive to educate and be educated in order to face the challenges of the 21stcentury and beyond.”

The legacy of the founding women lives on today through the many Sisters and co-members that continue to respond to the signs of the times in creative ways, to challenge unjust structures, and to build community as support structure to get work done.

My day unfolded to reveal ever enriching details to the story of the founding of the community, and its continuous evolution.  After lunch, I sat in the Church with Sr. Antoinette, learning about the history of the land and the buildings, receiving her detailed wisdom about the particulars of place and people.  Then I had a tour through the Heritage Museum with the Archivists, two young women who have both started working here both in the last year. These two young women, neither Catholic, are immersing themselves in the story of this community, and preserving these stories for future generations to learn from.

My favorite exhibits in the museum are the ones focused on justice and change. One is dedicated to Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, the leader of the community during the renewal years, who was one of fifteen women present at Vatican II in the 1960s. She also was elected to serve in leadership beyond Loretto, in the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which became known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Tobin, as a close friend of Merton, also brought him to the motherhouse to speak with novices, and even got him to give his opinion on the early drafts of the community’s emerging new document “I Am the Way.”

Another exhibit is on the School of Americas protests, where Sisters have consistently showed up to advocate for non-violence in the face of military aggression. One very apt pin, in their collection of activist pins, says “Pro Future.” This is a political stance that can sum up many social concerns women religious dedicate themselves to today.

Finally, the museum has a giant globe-type-structure you can step into to imagine the future of religious life. There are quotes all around:

  • “I believe the future will surprise us with its beauty when we thought all good was gone.”
  • “We need the skills of open listening, trustful sharing and patient waiting as we walk into the future, so that our Loretto journey can unfold and shape as we go.”
  • “Our future is already here and our mission is to be conscious of it and begin living in it.”
  • “Something new is waiting to be born. We are called to be midwives of a new form of religious life, a model of the single sacred community that is the Universe. Not only is the human sacred. The entire universe is sacred! We are all kin.”
  • “The greatest thanks we can give for our past is to take responsibility for our future.”
  • “No matter what our future holds, I think Loretto values will endure through those whose lives have been touched by us through the years.”
  • “It’s natural to ask: ‘What new ministries are we being called to?’ But I think there is a crucial preceding question: ‘What new understanding of mission is being called forth from us?’”
  • “I am not good at dreaming up the future. However, I believe that we are meant to be a stable rock, a trusted group within the Church and society that people can count on during times of doubt and confusion.”
  • “I hope Loretto becomes a microcosm of what we would like the world to be—inclusive, egalitarian, progressive, joyful, ingenious, just, compassionate, authentic, courageous, flexible and loving—a world worthy of our creator.


While museums might be natural places for audacious dreaming for the future and its possibilities, the spirit of openness is present far beyond the museum as well. Over supper with two Sisters this evening, they casually talked about how religious life as they know it is over. Citing Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Religious Life in the 21stCentury, one Sister said that most religious institutions die after 200 years anyways, so the time is ripe for a new form to take shape.

In the meantime of that new form, the current form is an incredible gift. Tonight the community hosted two professional musicians for a private concert held in the Church, a tradition they’ve had for decades, and we enjoyed wine and cheese with them afterward in the novitiate living room. The daily rhythms of life here inspire groundedness and connection, stability and growth, curiosity and compassion. I could not hope for better midwives than communities like the Lorettos to help usher in whatever comes next in religion and spirituality.

Loretto Community Visit, Day 1: entering the mystery

Hello, world. Keeping with tradition of blogging during my trips for the Foundress project, which I outlined in this blog from my trip to the Benedictine Sisters in Erie, PA, I’ll be writing and reflecting during these visits.

Today I arrived into Loretto, KY to visit the Loretto Community.  I say community rather than Sistersbecause I’ll be spending time with both their Sisters and co-members – as they consider themselves to be in one community together, not as separated between those who are vowed and those who are not. Co-members, like oblates, associates, covenant companions, or other names, are lay people who commit to holding the charism of the community alongside the Sisters. Co-members in the Loretto Community now out-number the number of Sisters in the community; there are something like 200 co-members across the country, and 134 Sisters. Additionally, 70 or so Sisters andco-members live here at the motherhouse, and many of the Sisters’ ministries today are now run by co-members or lay people.

This community has been thinking about emerging forms of religious life for years. In fact, last year two long-time co-members, Susan Classen and JoAnn Gates, became vowed co-members, as written about in this piece from Global Sisters Report. Susan and JoAnn are the ones that helped facilitate my coming to Loretto, and they also run the two retreat centers on the Loretto property – Knob’s Haven and Cedars of Peace.

This is actually what initially drew me into curiosity about Loretto. Two co-members professing vows to a religious community was a clear sign that there is something happening in Loretto – there is some sort of radical openness to the evolution of religious life. I needed to come and see it for myself – what was happening, how, and why.  I wanted to learn more about this forward-looking community, understand their past – particularly their foundresses’ stories – and get a feel for how they are living into this transitional moment in religious life.

So – I landed into Louisville, about an hour from Loretto, and Susan graciously picked me up. Immediately, we had too many things we wanted to talk about! Thankfully, we have days to allow our shared passions to all unfold. When we arrived to the convent, we had lunch with Mary Swain, a Loretto Sister, and I became oriented to the space and to the weekend. I’d spend some time in my own personal research on foundresses, visit with Sisters and community members, attend some of the vespers and prayers, and speak to the whole community about Nuns & Nones on Saturday night.

And excitingly, Mary also coordinated a trip for us to go to Gethsemani, Thomas Merton’s monastery. Gethsemani is only about 15 minutes away from Loretto, and actually shares some roots with the Loretto community. We’ll go over on Sunday to explore the grounds, visit Merton’s hermitage and grave, and share supper with some of the Brothers.

Trips like this make me so thankful for divinity school – and for getting out of the walls of academia. Being in communities like this one are what make all the readings and papers on spirituality, contemplation, and formation feel real and relevant.

Anyways, after lunch, Mary showed me to my room – a novitiate room, which is a former classroom from when this building was a school. Winding through the halls, she greeted nearly every plant we saw, cheering on their growth or apologizing for their dryness. We arrived into the room I would stay in, and there was a quotation on the wall that immediately spoke to me – from StoryPeople, it said:

I don’t know how long I can do this, she said. I think the universe has different plans for me & we sat there in silence & I thought to myself that this is the thing we all come to & this is the thing we all fight & if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again & I sat there silent because that is not something that can be said.

Arriving into this new place, seeing this story above my bed, I felt affirmed that I’m making the right choices in my life that help me to keep living into the mystery. But how do you say that, when people are asking you what you are doing after graduation? “Following the spirit” isn’t exactly what most people would expect from a Harvard Divinity School graduate.  But at least in this space, in this community, there are plenty of people living into the mystery without words, living into the questions without answers, living into the future without certainty. In that sense, places like this feel like home.

Day one finished out gently and beautifully. A slow walk outside. Energizing conversation over supper. And reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation in my room while Sisters watched MSNBC in the living room outside my door. A taste of simplicity for these few days while I’m here, and a chance to enter the mystery.

Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 4: What is a Foundress?

Today I did my first interview on the story of the foundress of this community, Benedicta Riepp. Her full story can be read at that link, but I wanted the stories that have been passed down through the community, the parts of Benedicta’s life that lives on in the Sisters today. I interviewed Anne McCarthy, OSB and author of that biography, and Jacqueline Small, an oblate who recently presented on Benedicta’s life and legacy to a visiting group of young women theologians and students.

There are many things that stand out in Benedicta’s story. She came over to the United States and founded the first women’s monastic community by the age of 31. She struggled against the male monks trying take control over their community, and along with the other Sisters set the measures in place so they could remain independent. This was in the mid-1800s. Women claiming their own ownership of place and community, not only advocating for their independence but taking it for themselves. In the 1850s. While Benedicta died of tuberculosis after only 10 years in the US, she had already helped establish six thriving Benedictine women’s communities. She had seen her vision through and changed US monastic life for women entirely.

At the end of our interview, I asked Anne and Jacqueline to reflect on what qualities or characteristics might be unique to foundresses. Jacqueline pointed to vision, and a deep sensitivity and awareness to the community needs. Starting something new requires creative thinking, and as she pointed out, we see this live on today as plenty of Erie Benedictines continue to found new ministries to responds to the needs around them.

Anne pointed to community as a core value of a foundress… these women never do it alone. They might be visionaries and leaders, but community and relationships are also always core to founding something new. Anne pointed to the importance of freedom and love in order to be innovative and risk new things, and the role of community to support, encourage, challenge and provide roots to help enable that innovation and risk.

There are still many untold and/or unknown stories of women leaders and foundresses who come before us, but I think once we learn their stories, not only will we be able to honor them, but may we also live into their legacies. Benedicta Riepp’s legacy invites us to risk, to challenge oppressive structures, to find strong women to stand at our side, to place the dire needs of others over the letters of the law. Benedicta Riepp has inspired this community’s 150+ years’ worth of women, Sisters, and oblates, to live into this legacy in their day-to-day lives, in Erie, and around the globe. Imagine what is possible if more knew this story. If more knew of what was possible.

Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 2: Lessons in Eldership

Monday was filled with conversation. So much conversation I thought it was Wednesday by the time the day was over.

In the morning, much to the surprise of the Sisters and myself, I made it up for 6:30am prayer. A recording of bells rings through the hallways of the Mount five minutes before prayer begins, and I ran upstairs to get a spot. It was Feast of Transfiguration, so we sang hymns about embracing transformation, sat in contemplative silence, and closed with a recognition of the 73rdanniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Later that morning, I went to the Erie Benedictine’s downtown offices and spent time on “the 4thfloor,” which includes the ministries of Benet Vision, Monasteries of the Heart, Alliance for International Monasticism, and Emmaus Ministries. Walking through the hallway and greeting the Sisters, oblates, and others who work at these offices, there’s a palpable environment of excited hospitality, genuine appreciation of visitors. No one is too busy to meet the newcomer, meetings and emails can wait until all feel welcomed. It’s a work environment foreign to the usual grind associated with the workday, too often driven by urgent deadlines rather than relationships.

From there, I went over to meet with Sister Joan Chittister, renowned and respected writer on spirituality, monasticism, and feminism in the church. She lives at the same house in downtown Erie she has lived in for many years, brews me a cup of coffee as I arrive, and we sit down to talk as her parrot, Lady, becomes very interested in pecking at my toes. Our conversation was filled with wisdom and apt advice in regards to the ministry I have found myself in – namely, Nuns & Nones. The first piece of advice was that I shouldn’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel. Look to the traditions and the structures that already exist as potential partners, and create alongside those communities. And she encouraged me to think about how we can base our gatherings in one tradition. Community needs a place to stand; community needs grounding in order to grow and flourish.

I spent the rest of the afternoon back at the 4th floor offices, surrounded by all the inspiring feminist and social justice fridge magnets and posters you can imagine.

I also got to sit down with Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, a monk and advocate of many years. She’s the Director of Monasteries of the Heart, has created programs that serve local neighborhoods, and served as executive director of Pax Christi USA. Mary Lou is also a poet and author, probably most well-known for a quote she’s not positive she should be credited for – “Engrave this upon my heart: ‘there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’” But Fred Rogers credited her with it several years ago, as Joan also continues to do so, so it seems at this point she is stuck with the accreditation.

I had started reading “Monk in the Inner City: The ABCs of Spirituality” by Mary Lou last week, in preparation for my trip, and it’s hard to say what a soulmate each word and idea in that book felt for me. It shows her playful relationship with prayer and her prophetic witness to justice and peace. As I quickly learned, she’s been arrested 13 times and is deeply committed to daily practice of zen meditation. She is a life-long monastic and innovates ways of teaching these spiritual values online. She has been a writer for the local paper and she has run national organizations. She responds to the needs she sees around her by filling the gap, creating the response to mend the ill. I could go on and on. The point of it all is that I am truly amazed by this woman, as is everyone else here. Our conversation was both generative and grounding.

Finally, my day on the 4th floor concluded with a conversation with Jacquelin, a younger woman in the community, around my age, who is currently discerning her vocation. It was the exact processing I needed in order to reflect on my encounter with two living saints in our midst.

That evening after prayer, 10 of us – both millennials and monastics – gathered for dinner and drinks at a downtown pub to talk about Nuns & Nones. We opened with sharing our ministries or vocations, along with what question we are holding in regards to our spiritual, political, or vocational lives. One question from Sister Anne McCarthy, who has been arrested 20 times at public demonstrations, was about what the most effective way we can use the gospel to motivate people to passionate resistance against our current political reality. Other questions were around how monastic values, and a monastic way of life, can help people in our current times. My own question is the one I have been asking since earlier this year: how can I best give and receive love, and how does community fit into this search? We explored questions of community and commitment, choosing place and people over jobs and success, how we define “seeker”, what it would look like for a group of unaffiliated millennials to join into a monastic community.

The whole day left me overflowing with gratitude for the monks in our midst, to borrow language from Monasteries of the Heart. Each one of the people I met throughout the day, from the more well-known public figures of their community to the ones quietly doing transformative work in their day-to-day lives and local contexts, are living deep and searching lives, committed to justice in their community and world.

In my work, both with Nuns & Nones and How We Gather, we often speak of the role of Elders in young people’s formation processes. Meeting two spiritual elders, Sr. Joan and Sr. Mary Lou, and getting to sit alongside them in their homes and offices, I did not know where to even begin with our conversations. But maybe that’s okay. Throughout the day, I realized that this question of who Elders are, and what they do for us, is simpler than I thought. Elders are there. Elders offer their presence and life as a gift to model one’s own life upon. They sit with you, and respond to what you ask or say. They do not correct or instruct, they simply accompany the questions and the journey to the answers…or to more questions.

Of course, these two knew this all along. They’ve written about it, they’ve talked about it. Monday evening, I revisited these lessons on eldership, in deep gratitude of their presence in my day. Here are two lessons on eldership from Sr. Joan and Sr. Mary Lou:


Joan’s story on eldership:

“The disciples ask to someone in their midst, ‘I hear you are going to see a spiritual elder.’

‘Yes I am.’

‘What rituals does the spiritual elder teach you that are so important to you?’

The disciple says, ‘The elder doesn’t do any rituals at all.’

‘Well then, what prayers does the elder teach you to say so that you have a feeling of grace and goodness?’

‘Oh, the master has never given me a prayer at all.’

‘Well then, what potions are you taking from the elder to give you a new spiritual life?’

‘Oh, the master has never given me any potion at all.’

‘Well if you’re not getting rituals, and you’re not getting prayers, and you’re not getting potions, why do you go so far to sit with this spiritual elder for nothing?’

‘To watch the spiritual elder light the fire.’

Wisdom comes from choosing the right people to watch, to grow from.”

(Joan Chittister, “Sister Joan Chittister: Lighting a Fire with Faith,”interview by Tami Simon, Sounds True: Insights at the Edge Podcast, Dec 8, 2017, audio, 59:00.)


Mary Lou’s story on eldership:

“’Is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?’ the seeker asked the elder. ‘As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning,’ the elder answered. ‘Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribed?’ the seeker asked. And the elder answered, ‘To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.’”

Mary Lou Kownacki, A Monk in the Inner City: The ABCs of a Spiritual Journey (New York: Orbis Books, 2008).