“You could sit on your bed, and reach the sink!” This was an oft-repeated line of our Sisters when describing the tiny bedrooms in the mission convents – the beds and sinks were apparently set very close together!
The “younger” Sisters in our community (the newbies) are used to hearing the many old stories that the “elder” members tell over and over again. Many of the stories have become legend in our community, told so many times that the newbies can sometimes repeat them word for word. In fact, I recently found myself retelling one of the stories as if I had actually been there. I had to remind myself (and my listener) that I had not been around in 1967 when the story took place!
A number of our Sisters are marvelous storytellers, and the dramatic way in which they recount the old tales is part of the fun. There is the famous story when a Sister with an injured back was brought to the hospital in a hearse; the time a Sister “laid an egg” (she put it on the floor!) outside the Prioress’ door; the time a Sister fell on the organ with such force that others thought she’d had a heart attack; and so on. These stories are wonderful and funny and reflect the heartwarming community spirit of our Sisters. However, it is difficult for us newbies to completely enter into these stories because of the simple fact that WE WERE NOT THERE. Often, as a Sister is retelling one of these stories, she throws in names of long-ago people and places that do mean anything to us.
Some of that changed this past July when the newbies got to actually visit some of the places in Dickinson, ND, where our Sisters lived and worked in the 1940s up until the early 1980s. We were accompanied by Sister JoAnn, an “elder” Sister who spent a number of years in Dickinson. It was a great trip – we got to see the churches and schools where the Sisters once ministered, as well as some of the old convents where they lived.
The night before our Dickinson trip, the newbies met with twelve of our Sisters who had served in Dickinson to hear stories about the old days. The Sisters recounted both the hardships and joys of living “on mission” as they called it, away from the main motherhouse in Bismarck. They talked matter-of-factly about receiving their annual mission assignments from the Prioress, never knowing for sure where they would end up the next year, or who they would be living with, or even exactly what they would be doing. I was inspired by the way they took each change with a sense of calmness, having total faith in their Prioress, in their community, and ultimately in God.
The evening we spent at the monastery listening to all of these memories made the trip to Dickinson much richer for the newbies. It was a wonderful experience to actually see the places that the Sisters described so clearly in their stories. For example, we got to walk through the old bedrooms at the former St. Patrick’s convent, which gave us newbies a good picture of just how small they were! Seeing these sites through Sister JoAnn’s eyes reminded me again of the special shared experience of a monastic community. Sister JoAnn’s memories of her experiences in Dickinson were so vivid and her joy so obvious at seeing the places where so many happy times occurred – that the newbies could not help but be affected. I again felt almost as if I had been there myself. I think these shared memories are common in close families, whether it is a genetic family or a monastic family. The closer family members are to one another, the more their lives become intertwined so that eventually what happened to them may as well have happened to you, and vice versa! These shared feelings are especially amazing when one considers that Sister JoAnn and I are forty years apart in age, and have vastly different experiences when it concerns our early lives as religious Sisters.
In the present time, we newbies are working on our own stories…the time I fell off the ladder cleaning windows, the time we played the greatest practical joke ever on our novice director, the time we created our own porrectus (you can ask me about that later!)…and so on. The stories and laughter and wonderful reminiscences will never end because every day at the monastery we make new memories and generate new tales to tell the coming generations. Some things may change (our bedrooms are a little bigger now!), but the stories will continue – and for that I am grateful.