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[whitespace] Change in habit

With shrinking numbers of women joining their order, Sisters of the Holy Names are looking for ways to keep up the good work.

Los Gatos--There was a time, not so long ago, when nuns strolled in their long, black habits down the corridors of Catholic schools and the halls of Catholic hospitals.

But nuns are disappearing. They are becoming a shadow of the past--almost mythical figures whose work is being taken over by lay people, many of them associates. Associates are people who have given themselves to the spiritual mission of a particular order, but have not taken the vows.

Silicon Valley has had a good share of nuns living and working within its confines over the years. Three different convents, Notre Dame and Our Lady of Fatima in Saratoga and Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Los Gatos, have given the local area some of its most popular institutions, including preschools, elementary schools and high schools.

Their orders have also built Holy Names college in Oakland and Notre Dame high school in Belmont. The Dominican Sisters created the popular Our Lady of Fatima long-term care hospital on Highway 9.

Our Lady of Fatima is now run entirely by lay people, with just a few elderly nuns living out their lives in the extended-care center. The Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur sold their convent in 1998, and the nuns dispersed, most to the convent in Belmont. But in what they call "taking a risk," one of the Notre Dame sisters moved into the Holy Names convent in the hills just above the Los Gatos town hall, and this mixing of the two orders seems to be working well.

But the big order of the day is how to keep vowed religious life going. "We are called not to let religious life die out," Sister Joan Doyle, the current administrator at Holy Names, says. She adds, "If it's God's will."

During the 1950s, as many as 35 or 40 women became novices in Holy Names' California province every year. Now there are only five novices for the entire order, which includes California, Oregon, Washington and Canada. Novices today tend to be older--in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Ironically, while nuns are figuring out how to keep their mission alive, scientists are trying to figure out why nuns live so long and with less dementia and Alzheimer's disease than the population at large. Sociologists are also studying why nuns are such a resilient group when it comes to surviving change and tough times.

"We have the best of two worlds, all the worldly benefits and the spiritual benefits," Sister Claudine Peacock says." Our feet are in two places."

Life at the convent and beyond

Up at Sisters of the Holy Names convent in Los Gatos, Sister Claudine is sitting in an overstuffed chair. Her face wrinkles into a smile as she sorts through photographs. "Carla is a monkey," Claudine says and laughs as she points to a little girl in one of the pictures. "I kept praying for her."

The white-haired nun glows like a grandmother pointing to her grandchildren, as she chatters on about Carla and the other Nicaraguan orphans she cared for. "I couldn't speak Spanish," she says, "and the children couldn't speak English, but they could read my eyes and my smile and my body language. I made a lot of little friends there." She says her biggest contribution was showing love to the children and making them feel special.

Sister Claudine says she felt the call to go to Nicaragua when she heard they needed help down there. She had planned to stay a year. "But," she says, "after two months, I realized that 85-years-young is not a time to start this adventure. The babies were too heavy for me to lift. I knew I couldn't keep it up for a whole year."

Sister Claudine is like most of the nuns at Holy Names convent. She joined the order at 18, and she has stayed through the changes in society and in the church. The convent is home to 70 sisters, most of them in their 70s, 80s and 90s, with the oldest turning 99 on March 31. Fifteen of the sisters are 90 or older, and very few are senile. Even in their 90s, they serve their order in some way.

Sister Christina Maria Weber has been a nun for 74 years. "I'm the afghan queen of the world," the 92-year-old nun says about her penchant for knitting and laughs as she drops her bag of white yarn on the floor next to her chair. She's just finished reading Gallileo's Daughter. It seems Gallileo had three illegitimate daughters, one of whom became a nun.

Every week, Christina summarizes the news for a gathering in the library. She leads exercise classes, and she teaches English to the Spanish-speaking staff. "I forget my age when I'm teaching," Christina says, with a twinkle in her eye.

Christina has a masters in history from Berkeley and a doctorate from the University of Toronto. For her dissertation, she spent time in England, finding out why the bishops supported Henry IV, instead of Richard II. She raises her hand and rubs her fingers together and says, "money and power. They thought they could control him." Among other places, Christina taught at Holy Names College, and also taught English at a Catholic college in Taiwan.

"They used to pluck you right out of your job to train you for a position they needed to fill," Sister Christina says.

These women joined the order when the life of nuns was very regimented. Sister Mary O'Brien says that before Vatican II and the loosening up of the church's rules, the sisters kept silent all the time, except for one hour after breakfast, one hour after dinner and a few special occasions. "It was very artificial," she says. The days were tightly scheduled--up at 5:30, prayers, breakfast and so on through the day.

They went everywhere in twos or more because the rules said they had to always have a companion. This was a custom for women at the time the order began in 1843, and was written into the sisters' guidelines.

The nuns never challenged the rules and went unquestioning to their assignments. The sisters kept to themselves, living in convents next to the schools where they taught. "Our job was to what was needed at the time, and teachers were what was needed." The sisters' entire lives were given over to the mission of their order, whether it be teaching or nursing, the two main vocations for nuns back then.

Even a nun's clothes were limited to the habit and that was specified by each order. "Our habit was one of the best," Sister Christina says. They were fashioned after dresses widows wore in Marseilles, France. Before World War I women were all wearing long dresses, so nuns didn't stand out as much as they did later.

Sewing the holy habits was Sister Mary Evangela Brannaman's job for 25 years at the Los Gatos convent. The 92-year-old sister, a Catholic convert and a nun for 70 years, sits in the light of the convent's third floor hall window reading a Mary Higgins Clark mystery novel. Third floor is home to those who need assisted care. Her walker is nearby.

"I liked wearing the holy habit," she says. "It made me feel like I was doing some good. When I knew habits were going out, I took up nursing," she says. For seven years she was a school nurse in Southern California and worked evenings at a hospital. She worked until she was 90 in the convent's infirmary.

Sister Mary O'Brien recalls the day she got her habit. "I danced around in it. I was so excited." She also remembers the night she was to enter the order. "I wanted to go home. This was too much change for me." But then she says, "All of a sudden something came over me." She says, "I felt this is it, and this was it, and I knew it." It's been 60 years since the 79-year-old sister took her vows.

Sister Mary Evangela doesn't care for a lot of the modern changes in the religious life. She says a lot of those in religious life have become too worldly, and she's concerned that nuns aren't in the schools. "We've been closing schools," she says. "And we've put off taking high school girls. By the time college girls get to college they have too many temptations to become nuns," she says.

Changes in the church

Vatican II brought many changes to the Catholic religion. When Pope John 23 called his cardinals together for the Vatican II conference, he said he wanted to "open the windows of the church to let fresh air in."

As a result of the 4-year conference, the church for the first time recognized the validity of other religions. Mass was to be given in the language of the people attending the church and no longer in Latin. The laity was to take on more leadership. Parishioners could read scripture and distribute communion.

The leadership of the church experienced more freedom and began to read about and question various church practices. Nuns began to live in other places besides convents. They began to shed their holy habits, and during the 1970s, many priests and nuns left the church.

Other things were happening in the United States during the time of Vatican II. When Sister Ambrose Devereux, who has a doctorate in chemistry, left her job teaching at Holy Names College in Oakland, she became president of the college in 1965. Shaking her head, she says, "It was a very tough time."

First she weathered a major culinary union strike. Then after the United States invaded Cambodia, she says, the students and the faculty were so angry that they didn't want to hold a graduation symposium. "They were together on that." She leans over from her chair in one of the large sitting rooms and says "I agreed with them." She got a nasty letter from the college's board of trustees about the whole thing. "But I told them too bad."

"I love the way things are now," Sister Ambrose, who will be 88 on March 31, says. She took her vows in 1935 when she was 20. She says most of the communities of nuns are flexible these days. "Now we can go places without a companion." She likes the way the chapel in the convent has been redesigned. "I love the symbolism of it." She says, before, the priest was always up high during the service and had his back to them most of the time.

Mary Goldsworthy, activities director at Holy Names convent stands on a landing above the convent's new chapel. "The changes in the chapel in a way symbolize the changes in the community," Goldsworthy says. Instead of the altar being up on a stage with the priest, and the chairs lined up in rows facing the altar, the altar is in the middle of the room with the chairs in concentric arcs around the altar. Partly because of the shortage of priests and partly because of the Vatican II changes, nuns have taken over some of the duties of the mass.

Sister Joan Doyle, the current administrator at Holy Names, says some of the reasons for the changes were practical. They needed to eliminate the steps up for the older sisters and make room for walkers. Sister Joan says each room in the convent is fitted with a television and the mass can be fed over closed-circuit channel to those nuns who can't make it to the chapel.

A career of caring

Nuns don't necessarily live longer and healthier than other people because they all reside safely in convents. Except for the contemplative orders who are sequestered in convents, nuns have been very much a part of the bigger world. They've given their services in some of the most dangerous places.

Nuns were the ones who nursed civil war soldiers, often on or near the battlefield. Virtually every convent in Poland hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Nuns have even been killed on the job. Most of us remember the Dec. 2, 1980, murder of three nuns and a lay woman in El Salvador.

Nuns have started schools and hospitals using the same ingenuity and creativity that start-up companies use today: raising money and working long, dedicated hours to fulfill their mission. Nuns are still creating orphanages and schools in Third World countries. They've created homes for unwed mothers and halfway houses for recovering drug addicts.

Nuns' work is their service. Historically, because of their vow of poverty, they don't get a paycheck. "Our work is not a job; it's a ministry," Sister Marguerite Kirk says. In these modern times when a sister does receive a paycheck, it is donated to their religious community.

Sister Maureen Webb retired after years of teaching elementary school, high school and college biology at the Pacific School of Religion. Then she started a home in Oakland for pregnant girls. She came to Los Gatos last October, and only because she'd fallen twice before that. "I love it here," she says.

Most people who visit Holy Names, are attracted to the grounds. Walk a few steps from the parking lot, and visitors begin to relax. Paths meander through oak trees, sycamores, fruit trees, junipers, and little patches of flowers. A cat sits on a stone wall scratching his ears. It's a perfect place to sit on one of the benches on a warm spring or summer day and listen to the birds.

In 1945, when Los Gatos was still way out in the country, Holy Names bought much of their property, including what is called the villa, from famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Out of this property, they created Villa Holy Names, a vacation and retreat house for nuns.

In 1950, the sisters bought a few more adjacent acres from The Ciodo family--know in these parts for making candy. The 17 acres allowed the order to build two large buildings, one a novitiate for novice nuns and the other a care center for retiring nuns. With the numbers of novices shrinking, the convent closed the novitiate in the late 1960s and extended the retirement home.

To keep their nonprofit status, the community was required to have a school on the property. In 1970, they opened Casa Maria Montessori school that lasted almost 30 years. When operating the school became too cumbersome for the aging sisters and the laws governing nonprofit status changed, Holy Names closed down the popular school.

Still, one finds a vibrant group of women and a lively place at the Holy Names convent. They do a lot of adult education in the parishes. They run the Villa Maria retreat house in Santa Cruz. They are now psychologists, sociologists, community organizers and artists and more.

The nuns run the Next Step literacy center in Oakland, and the sisters work closely with associates, helping them to carry on the mission. A few are still teaching. Sister Nikki Thomas is the principal at St. Mary's school in Los Gatos.

"We are widening our tents," Sister Joan says, "looking beyond ourselves to the bigger world to see what is needed and also looking back to our foundress for vision."

The founder of every order sets the ideal, the mission and the spirit that the nuns carry into the world. The founder of the Sisters of the Holy Names, Blessed Marie Rose Durocher, died at age 39, only six years after starting the order. Her mission was to provide a Christian education for girls and young children. Sisters of the Holy Names have carried on her mission and widened its scope further than she could have imagined.

Passing their spiritual devotion on today is not an easy task when vowed religious life is no longer attractive in American culture. The Sisters of the Holy Names order currently has all its provinces, including Canada, Oregon, Washington and California talking about their future mission.

They call this future planning Reconfiguration. Sister Sally Gunn who is one of the five leaders for California says, "We are in a religious evolution, and we don't know what form religious life will take in the future."
Sandy Sims

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Web extra to the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro.

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