Love like Francis…just like the sisters

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisBeyond this, there is a desire for immediacy sustained by consumerism (and reinforced by aspects of information technology) that tends to encourage a memory-less culture without a sense of historical identity. – Philip F. Sheldrake (The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, chapter 26, page 461, edited by Arthur Holder, Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

In preparation for the journey ahead into the Masters of Arts in Ministry program at Creighton University which begins next week, I am reading some materials assigned by a professor to get ready to dive into the study of Christian spirituality through ancient writings of monks and martyrs. The quote above struck me as I thought back on a quick trip to Dubuque, Iowa, last week to visit my Aunt Carolyn, a 60-year member of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Holy Family.

Mt St Francis Xaveria TermehrJana and I spent two nights and three meals with the sisters of this order. As opposed to an environment of the “immediacy sustained by consumerism,” we found ourselves in a place of a long vision forward sustained by faith. We met so many of these living saints now retired – if that is a word that can be associated with those whose calling is eternal – in the motherhouse of this order founded in the 1870s in Germany. Foundress Sister Xaveria Termehr is interred in the same cemetery as my grandmother Bea Thirtle, under a plain headstone and surrounded by others like it of her daughter-sisters who followed her into this order and lived their lives in service to God’s kingdom.

It is not an ancient order like those whose words I will read in my theology class, but as I learned in my short visit with heart open to their story, it is a servant group of women who have been called into it. Aunt Carolyn gave me her histories so I could read up on them in the days to come.

Mt St Francis mission statementThey are a Franciscan order after Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. The images of these two are everywhere in the house and also in the close-by Shalom Spirituality Center which was the original Mount Saint Francis motherhouse. When I was a little girl and first visited my aunt as she was then known, Sr. Mary Edith Ann, they wore brown habits like Francis. Their mission statement was framed on the wall: Rooted in the Gospel and in the spirit of Francis and Clare, the Sisters of St. Francis live in right relationship with all creation. The culture of their patron saint is a living witness to those walking today.

They have founded schools and hospitals and elderly homes. They have served the immigrant in a new land both in Germany where they started and here where they have been planted since crossing the sea. They build wells in Africa. They have had a presence in China and the east. And in all those places and to this day, these sisters in Christ have served tirelessly and selflessly those in need of healing and resting and learning. Those with gifts of administration have led the institutions they built.

Mt St Francis b&w of SAC GRandma and Mom Mt St Francis photo redone with us

We went to a now-closed church in Dubuque, Saint Mary’s, which once had an active school, a convent for the sisters and of course, the church. In hand I carried an old black and white photo taken in 1962. There is Aunt Carolyn in her pre-Vatican II habit, my mom Jeanne (holding the hand of an unseen sibling that I believe is Susan) and their mom Bea, my grandmother. They are standing on the playground between the convent and the church. We decided to recreate the photo in the same spot (no more fence or playground equipment) with the same house in the background as the 1962 picture. As we were trying to figure out how to take it, a young woman came up to see what we were doing. It turns out she is a resident in the old convent, now known as Maria House. The building that once housed the sisters like my aunt, is now a home for women coming out of the prison of addiction. This woman was eager to tell us her story. Caught in the cycle of alcoholism by parents of brokenness, she has not had custody of her children for years. But with the help of this project of the Franciscans, she is clean and sober and about to get her children on a five-day-per-week basis. And then she will transition into the new apartments next door: the former school where Aunt Carolyn spent her early years teaching.

We saw how resourceful this group of nuns has been in the years since they began these ministries. A hospital built in the 1940s is now an apartment building. Saint Mary’s Church is being turned into a neighborhood center for small offices and gatherings. The school will be a longer-term residence for those women being freed from the bondage of addiction. These women who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, have lived into those vows by pouring into the lives of others.

We couldn’t go anywhere in Dubuque without someone coming up to Aunt Carolyn to say hello. Either she taught them as children in school or preschool or daycare, or had cared for their aging parents at the Stonehill facility where they lived or rehabbed. They all knew her. And I imagine that other sisters are known in the community in the same way.

Mt St Francis last supperWe closed our visit with a short trip to the Clare House dining room of Mount Saint Francis. In this new long-term residence for the elderly and infirm sisters, there is a beautiful depiction of the last supper done in intarsia by a very talented sister-artist. In this three-dimensional picture of the table of community we find Jesus and his apostles. Not just the ones you know were there like John and Peter, but others whose lives speak to the history and tradition of Francis and Clare, those who served and advocated for the poor and unheard. There is Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. There is Oscar Romero. And there is Mother Xaveria Termehr. She is seated at the table with Jesus, and even this evening her daughters will be gathered to pray before they share their common table. A tradition that continues under the eyes of a community and communion of saints.

I claim as my own now their sense of historical identity, even as their order now diminishes in size. Through my Aunt Carolyn I will carry the stories she shared with us in those precious hours. As I read the history books she left with me and read the stories of the saints in my theology class, I will be sustained and encouraged by the culture of this way of life. The religious orders may not look in the future like they looked in the past, but as long as I – we – remember, their traditions will carry on.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

Grandma’s picture

A couple of weekends ago my brother Mike took Jana and me and Barb up to Dubuque to have a quick visit with one of our favorite people, Sister Aunt Carolyn. We call her SAC for short. We came up with that acronym many years ago. The order of the letters made sense because, after all, she was a holy sister before she became an aunt to a collection of unholy nieces and nephews.

It was a beautiful fall weekend in Dubuque, a city on the Mississippi known as the San Francisco of the midwest because of its amazing hills. We drove up in the hills to Eagle Point Park on the last weekend it was open for the season. We went all the way to the top, surrounded by that amazing autumnal palette of colors as the leaves were getting ready to separate from the tree branches. We looked across the river to see Illinois and Wisconsin, looking equally as beautiful as Iowa. We watched a barge go through the lock and dam on the river, its containers empty now, but headed back down the river to gather more coal to bring upriver before the season ended. Or maybe it was headed downriver to be parked for the season…I don’t really know; I’m just surmising here.

From there we headed back to SAC’s apartment to pick up some furniture she had for Mike and Barb. But on the way we went by the cemetery where SAC’s mom and our grandmother was laid to rest in 1981. Grandma Thirtle (as we called her) is buried on one of those beautiful Dubuque hills next to a pine tree.

Grandma Thirtle prayer cardI remember when she died in January that year and we headed out from Omaha to go to her funeral. Grandma Thirtle lived with us for several years when we were young. Since Grandma Piskac had died in 1965, Grandma Thirtle was the grandma we knew and remembered and made good memories with. I thought that when Grandma Thirtle died she must have been very old, as in my mind’s eye she always was old. But there on the gravestone were the dates of her birth and her death: July 19, 1908 and January 26, 1981. She was only 72 when she died. And here we were standing by her grave with her daughter Carolyn, who will be 77 next year. SAC is a really young 76-year old! And it just struck me that if she is 76, Grandma must have been much, much older than that. But she wasn’t.

I said a quick prayer to myself and kept myself from crying. I have often wondered about the life my Grandma Thirtle must have experienced in her younger days. And then we went back to SAC’s apartment.

She has some wonderful family pictures on her wall. One of them was so familiar as I have the whole album of originals in my possession. It is a wedding picture of my own mom and dad, George and Jeanne Prescott, taken on September 17, 1955, in St. John’s Cathedral on the Creighton campus here in Omaha. They are so young! They would go on to have the seven of us – George, Jana, me, Susan, Mike, Sally and Cathy – from August 4, 1956, to December 7, 1964. And then on March 27, 1966, my dad would sit by Mom’s bed in the hospital as she took her last breath. Still, that wedding picture makes me smile.

It was another wedding picture on SAC’s wall that brought out some stories:

Grandma Thirtle's wedding day

June 30, 1931, in Omaha, Nebraska, was the day my grandma, Beatrice Chicoine, married my grandpa, Robert Thirtle. She is just shy of her 23rd birthday, and there she stands in her youth, a smile on her face, standing between her new husband and her own mother, my great-grandmother, Cora Chicoine.

I have never in my life seen a picture of my Grandpa Thirtle until this moment. And I have never seen a picture of my Grandma Thirtle as a young woman. And there she is, happy, radiant as a new bride. What must she have been thinking on that day in her white dress, white hat upon her head, holding onto a bouquet of flowers with a new gold band on her left ring finger?

Was she thinking that when her own daughter got married some 24 years later that she too would stand in a picture smiling, while her siblings looked on? Was she thinking that she would have five children of her own? Was she thinking of the possibility that two of them would precede her in death? Was she thinking that the man to her right would cheat on her and abuse her and cause her to flee with her children for their protection? Did she know that her own mother would be her strength and protection from this man? Did she know that life as a divorced Roman Catholic single mother would be as hard as it was? Did she know that she would inspire such love and loyalty from seven grandchildren who lost their own mother, her daughter, at such a tender age? Did she know that she would be the model for one of them in nightly prayers?

I have never seen a picture of my grandmother so young and happy and with her whole future ahead of her. And I am so glad that on June 30, 1931, she didn’t know about that future.

But there is one thing about this picture that is very familiar to me about my grandma and that is her smile. I can see that smile in my mind as we stand in her kitchen making chocolate malts. I can see that smile in my mind as she lets us take the salt and pepper shakers out of her hutch and lets us play with them. I can see that smile in my mind as she sits at the old piano and coaxes old tunes out of it as she plays from memory. I can see that smile in my mind as she teaches us how to play pinochle and canasta. I can see that smile in my mind as we ride the bus together to go downtown to shop at Kilpatrick’s and Brandeis and have a piece of pie at the lunch counter.

I can remember putting flowers on her grave that cold day on the hillside in Dubuque in 1981. We had gone into a florist shop to buy roses. When the clerk heard us say what they were for, she thought it was wasteful to put perfectly good roses on a grave on a sub-zero day. But we knew better.

And 33 years later, I am sure Grandma is smiling. And that is how I will always remember her.