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Religion: Laborare Est Orare

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Hong Kong had 1,100 baptisms at Easter, of whom our sisters prepared 458. —Sister Rosalia

Hong Kong

Ninety-six adult baptisms this morning at the mission church. In about three days some 40 children and babies will follow their parents into the Church . . . —Sister Margaret Rose

Kowak, Tanganyika, Africa

Our first group of new Catholics was formed this morning as 24 received the sacrament of baptism. —Sister Rita Marie

Miaoli, Formosa Six of our big boys baptized today. —Sister Jarte Dolores

Malabon, Philippines

Such reports, and hundreds of others, flow every week into an uncarpeted, buff-walled office overlooking the Hudson River, 32 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. At her plain desk a kindly looking woman with china-blue eyes and a no-nonsense way of handling paperwork sifts the reports, ponders, scribbles notations. On her decisions depends the deployment of a worldwide spiritual army. Her title is appropriate to the task: she is Mother General Mary Columba, 63, of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, head of the U.S.’s biggest, most active Roman Catholic women’s missionary order. She is also a symbol of a remarkable 20th century fact: monastic orders are booming, especially in the U.S.

Fascinating Marriage. Mother Mary Columba’s army stretches from Peru to the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific, from Korea to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Among her 1,127 sisters are eleven physicians, 118 trained nurses, 330 teachers (with a heavy sprinkling of Ph.D.s) as well as social workers, pharmacists, stenographers, cooks. They teach school in an abandoned Navy Quonset hut on Palau, and in a fine, modern, brick building in Lima, Peru. On Africa’s Gold Coast they treat patients who are brought to them through the jungle on homemade stretchers, and in San Francisco they give psychiatric advice to troubled Negroes and Chinese. The yearly illustrated bulletin that reports the departure of a new detail of missionary sisters (last year’s headline: FIFTY MORE IN FIFTY-FOUR) usually carries the photographs of young, remarkably handsome girls smiling under their black, pointed headdress.

The Maryknoll sisters* know how to drive jeeps (and repair them), how to administer hypodermics and do major surgery, how to teach Christian doctrine—and how to be gay. When they return from the missions to the mother house on the Hudson, they are received with laughter and merry chatter. And on the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, Oct. 15, they celebrate by adding to their far from ascetic meals a special ice-cream soda.

A visitor noting the ice-cream sodas might conclude that all has changed since the days of the formidable Teresa, who 400 years ago traveled the rutted roads of Spain inveighing against lax monasteries, chivvying Pope and emperor to institute reform, and scandalizing her squeamish sisters by insisting on the discalced (barefoot) rule. But St. Teresa, who wrote some of Christianity’s most exalted mystical prose, and often was in such a state of religious ecstasy that she felt herself levitated from the ground, was also gay and relentlessly practical. Once, feeling joyful, she led her nuns in an impromptu dance, but she had a born executive’s capacity for administrative detail, down to the latest cookstove (“A real treasure for all the friars and nuns”). The essence of monasticism has always been a fascinating marriage between the spiritual and the practical. History’s greatest monastic figures not only knew how to suffer for God; they knew how to organize for Him.

Frontiers of Civilization. Maryknoll’s organization began, strictly speaking, with Augustine, reformed man of the world who became the famed bishop of Hippo (354-430). The Vandals were nearing the gates of his city, and Roman civilization was crumbling, but St. Augustine had a special problem. A group of nuns in Hippo had asked him for advice, and, as usual, he obliged at length. Augustine wrote them, among other things, how to keep moths out of their clothes (shake them out), how to take care of their laundry (hire washerwomen), and admonished them to “harken without din and wrangling” to their superiors.

Maryknoll, in 1955, still follows such sage advice, as do all orders, whether under the Augustinian rule or any of the others—Franciscan, Benedictine, Dominican, etc. Changes have occurred in 1,500 years. The Maryknoll sisters combat moths by using nylon and other mothproof garb whenever possible, and they do their own laundry in gleaming washing machines. At no time is there any din or wrangling; most meals are taken in silence, except on special days, or when the Mother General looks out the window and says: “It’s too nice a day to be silent.”

The missionary sisters of Maryknoll know, as did St. Augustine, that the survival of civilization always depends on faith and discipline, often on details.

When Maryknoll was formally recognized by the Vatican, only 35 years ago, it had two houses and 35 sisters. Today, the order has 16 missions in the U.S. and 61 abroad, including five hospitals, eight high schools, two colleges, four refugee centers, with more mission outposts being added all the time on all the frontiers of civilization.

The Boom. The Maryknoll success story typifies but does not tell the whole story of monastic life in mid-20th century. From the time (circa 530) that a young Italian nobleman, Benedict of Nursia, smashed the statue of Apollo on Monte Cassino and founded his famed abbey, the monastery has been the heart of Christendom. Even after the Middle Ages monasteries continued to dominate religious life, provided much of the fire of reform within the Catholic Church. But with the 18th century the monastery was relegated to a dark corner. More devastating than the French Revolution’s “freeing” of nuns and monks from their vows—more deadly than the guillotine that executed Carmelites and others who did not want to be freed—were the widespread notions that the monastic life was unnatural, unhealthy, a “waste.” Today that view is drastically changing: the monastery has begun to recapture the world’s imagination. It has dawned on the world that the robed nun, the cowled monk have a place in the Age of Fission.

There are now some 575,000 Roman Catholic nuns and sisters scattered around the globe. The majority are in “active” orders (mostly nursing and teaching). More and more are going into social work—in prisons, factories, among juvenile delinquents, in the limbo of Europe’s D.P. camps.

In the U.S. the monastic boom is strongest. The number of women in religious orders in the U.S. today is 154,055, up more than three times from the year 1900. There are also 25,431 men (not counting diocesan priests) in orders, twice as many as in 1900.

The religious teach in 250 Catholic colleges, 1,536 diocesan and parochial high schools and 8,493 parochial elementary schools, treat more than 8,000,000 patients a year in 790 general hospitals. Among the principal women’s orders:

¶ Sisters of Charity: founded by St. Vincent de Paul in France in 1633, they specialize in schools and hospitals, run a leprosarium in Louisiana, and number 8,000 in the U.S., 60,000 throughout the world.

¶ Dominican Sisters: founded in France in 1206, they maintain 30 independent congregations in the U.S. with 19,383 professed sisters, most of them teaching or caring for the orphaned and the aged.

¶ Sisters of the Order of Mercy: founded in Dublin, Ireland in 1831, they specialize in visiting the sick and imprisoned, managing hospitals and orphanages. U.S. membership: 5,236 professed sisters.

¶ Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet: founded in France in 1650, they teach schools, manage hospitals and charitable institutions. U.S. membership: 15,244 professed sisters.

¶ Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: founded in 1800 by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, they specialize in teaching, maintain four vicariates (provinces) in the U.S. with 909 professed sisters.

In addition to the older orders, the U.S. has seen the growth of young and specialized congregations, e.g.:

¶ The Daughters of St. Paul Missionaries of the Catholic Press, who concentrate on propagation of the faith through press, screen and radio.

¶ The Medical Mission Sisters, founded 30 years ago by a woman physician, the majority of whose members are all M.D.s, nurses or medical technicians.

Most of the orders are “active,” i.e., members live under the full vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but they offer themselves to God through service to others. In contrast, the cloistered orders have different tasks: to set an example of the Christian life, to pray, to serve as a source of penance for the sins of the world. Today there are only 65,000 nuns in strictly cloistered orders (some 1,500 cloistered contemplatives in the U.S.), but their numbers are actually growing faster than those of their “active” sisters.

The World Inside. Despite a new interest in monasticism, relatively few Americans have actually ever been inside a convent. It is still surrounded by a feeling that the world inside is strange, forbidding, perhaps a little frightening.

There is nothing to frighten the visitor to Maryknoll’s mother house at Sunset Hill, in Ossining, N.Y. It is a sprawling, yellow brick structure, vaguely Spanish-looking. There is no wall to separate it from the outside. The keynote is bustling activity. Sisters hurry along in silence, but they will murmur “Excuse me” if they bump into someone, because “courtesy is more important than strict adherence to a rule.” As missionaries, the sisters will be on their own on the outside, and their superiors feel that too strict a rule would hamper their self-reliance.

In “free periods” the sisters are apt to act as gay and carefree as schoolgirls. Last St. Patrick’s Day some of them dressed up in green and staged impromptu skits in honor of the saint. There are games, sports (tennis, basketball, ice-skating), sometimes even movies. But existence at Maryknoll nevertheless moves by firm discipline. Its watchful voice is the bell that sounds the hours and rules the day.

At 5:15 each morning, the bell rouses the sisters from their brown metal beds in their sparsely furnished cells. They wash quickly and silently in a large lavatory lined with shower stalls and basins (but no mirrors). They are at their places in their choir stalls at 5:30 a.m. to say Prime, the morning prayer of the Divine Office. (Throughout the day, Maryknollers recite all eight of the hours—Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.)

The Day. After Prime the sisters meditate at their places for half an hour, sitting or kneeling as they prefer, until Mass at 6:25. At 7:30 there is breakfast of cereal, eggs and coffee in the long, brick-walled refectory, eaten in silence. At a microphone-equipped lectern one of the sisters reads aloud throughout all silent meals. (Some recent selections: Kon-Tiki, Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, Romano Guardini’s The Lord.) Dinner (at noon) is ample: juice or soup, meat, potatoes, vegetables or salad, and dessert, with tea, coffee or milk, and good, home-made bread.

From 8:30 to 9 is a “charge” period in which sisters do whatever cleaning has been assigned to them. This is the first time in the day that they are permitted to talk. From 9 to noon, and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the sisters work. Many attend classes (Maryknoll operates an accredited teachers’ normal college). Some take courses outside the convent in nursing, social work, medicine. Those not studying during work periods may be building a new terrace, or working in the kitchen to help Sister Gregory, who spent 26 years in Hawaii and can manage a graceful hula. Maintenance Chief Sister Jeannette always has plenty of odd jobs going begging. “I received the most wonderful present for Christmas,” she says. “A power saw! Things like that are what we really need—not more black gloves and fountain pens and devotional books.”

Compline, the last hour of the Divine Office, is sung at 7 p.m. and closes with a candlelight procession in the chapel. Real recreation comes now, from 7:30 to 8:30. The sisters usually spend it in the large, attractive community room, chatting. At 9 o’clock all sisters pause wherever they are to recite to themselves the De Profundis for the dead. Curfew rings at 9:30, but not all the sisters go right to bed. Mother Mary Columba’s light burns late into the night.

The Torch-Song Background. Each year some 75 young women between the ages of 16 and 30 are accepted as postulants. They bring a “dowry” of $100 (it may be dispensed with in hardship cases), which goes toward financing the order’s work. Postulants take no vows while undergoing a kind of basic training. After six months a postulant may receive the habit and white veil of a novice together with a new name. For the next two years she leads the full life of a Maryknoll sister, but also studies Catholic doctrine, the essentials of religious life (“Emily Post in the Convent,”as the course is jocularly known), and the Mass responses and Gregorian chant.”When they first come, nowadays,” says Sister Jeanne Marie, the novice mistress, “their singing is a cross between a howl and a wail— I guess it’s a torch-song background.”

After two years a novice normally takes her temporary vows. The ceremony resembles a marriage service: the priest puts the Maryknoll ring on the third finger of the novice’s left hand, and she receives the black veil of a full-fledged sister, vowing poverty, chastity and obedience. These are binding for six years only; at the end of that time, provided that she is at least 21, she may make her perpetual vows, which commit her— unless she is specifically released by the Vatican—for the rest of her life.

Beginnings on the Hill. “I never had any idea of being a nun,” recalls Maryknoll’s founder, Mother Mary Joseph, now 72. “As a matter of fact I never cared for nuns, anyway. They wore black habits, and I thought, ‘I certainly wouldn’t want to go around dressed that way.’ ”

In 1906-07 Mary Rogers was assistant professor of biology at Smith College. She had taken to helping Father (later Bishop) James Anthony Walsh, Boston’s director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, in his busy work. When Father Walsh started a foreign mission society, he found a fine headquarters site near Ossining, N.Y., but there was some prejudice in those parts against Catholic organizations. Mary Rogers suddenly became a wealthy young Bostonian looking for a country place. Her goggled chauffeur accompanied her to the negotiations with hardly a word; beneath his linen duster was a clerical collar. After the transaction was completed, she transferred the deed to Chauffeur Walsh in consideration of $1. Mary Rogers, and five other women who had come to help the Maryknoll Fathers,* began by calling themselves “Teresians” because of their devotion to St. Teresa. By 1920 they were a congregation of 35 missionary sisters, were self-supporting and had canonical approval. By common consent they made Mary Rogers their Mother General. Her new religious name: Mother Mary Joseph. One of her friends (a dressmaker who used to make clothes for Actress Maude Adams) helped Mother Mary Joseph with the new order’s uniform—grey chambray, modeled on one of her own homemade dresses.

Mother Mary Joseph is retired but still lives at Maryknoll. Since 1947, Mother Mary Columba has run the order with great skill, humor, and an unflagging capacity for travel (every six years she must visit every single chapter house of the order, takes frequent trips between times). The Mother General plainly has the abilities of a top industrial executive—which she might easily have become.

Up from the Files. Mother Mary Columba, once Elizabeth H. Tarpey, was born in Philadelphia to an Irish mother and an English father (“I wouldn’t say he was very devout, but Mother was”), went to Catholic grade and high school. When she was twelve, she heard a Jesuit speak on Indian missions and wanted to leave at once. Her parents managed to persuade her to wait. While she waited, she read (Mark Twain and Horatio Alger in public, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the sly), eventually went to work as bookkeeper for Shellenberger Inc. (candy manufacturers). Six years later, in 1914, she moved to the Remington Arms Co., Inc. as secretary to the chief of records. In a short time she was in charge of the company’s special-service department.

But Elizabeth Tarpey was still waiting. When she read about the new Teresians, she decided that perhaps she had waited long enough. She entered as a postulant in December 1919, just before her 27th birthday. At first she had executive jobs at home, then she was appointed regional superior in the Philippines. In 1931 she was elected vicaress (second in command), and in 1935 she spent a year traveling as Mother Mary Joseph’s deputy through Asia and the U.S. This world wide experience was helpful when she became Mother General herself, and had to direct the liquidation of the mission in Communist China.

Around the World. Since 1950, Mother Mary Columba has launched new missions on Likiep and Yap (Pacific islands), in Chile and Peru, on Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean, in Formosa. Maryknoll’s main activities around the world include :

AFRICA. Two dispensaries and a novitiate for training native sisters.

PHILIPPINES. Since the war, when sisters spent three years in internment camps, six large schools and a hospital have been built up. HAWAII. Six schools, a children’s home, a social-service bureau, and release-time religious classes of thousands of schoolchildren.


KOREA. A dispensary at Pusan, treating 2,000 refugees daily.

JAPAN. Five missionary centers, with the special task of making converts.

FORMOSA. One dispensary, one catechetical center.

BOLIVIA. A hospital, six schools, three dispensaries, a home-visiting program.

U.S. Schools, social-service and catechetical centers in New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, California, Arizona and Texas for racial-minority groups, novitiates at Topsfield, Mass. and Valley Park, Mo.

The “Lifers.” That is the active side of Maryknoll. There is a contemplative side, too. For monasticism has always been a blend of Martha and Mary,* of the temper represented by Vincent de Paul, the great fighter against poverty, and the spirit of Francis of Assisi, who considered it more important to live in poverty than to fight it. From time to time, a Maryknoll sister will disappear from her mission rounds and make her way to a secluded farmhouse close to Maryknoll’s main building. That is the Maryknoll cloister, where 18 sisters (there will ultimately be 24) selected from the active side of the order lead a separate existence of lifelong austerity and devotion.

Their rule is strict. They rise at midnight for Matins and Lauds, and rise again at 6 for Prime and Mass, and the day’s routine. Meals are meager (no meat ever allowed). The sisters fast from Sept. 14, the Feast of the Holy Cross, until Easter Saturday. They maintain strict silence at all times, except for the evening’s hour of recreation. (Every now and then, the chaplain at Sing Sing comes over from nearby Ossining and asks how “the lifers” are doing.)

The Mysterious Stirring. What kind of girl enters a religious order? The drawn visage and sunken eye are not encouraging signs to a Mother Prioress interviewing a prospective postulant. High-spirited, happy girls make the best sisters—the ones who enjoy parties and have dates. Such a girl was St. Teresa herself, who told a Spanish swain who admired her pretty feet at a party: “Have a good look, caballero, for this is the last time you will see them.”

Such girls are just the kind whose friends say: “Oh, but not you! You’re not the type for a nun.” Why, then, do they choose the life? The answer, in the Catholic view, lies in the mysterious stirring called “vocation.” A vocation is not to be measured in mere piety or a ready turning to prayer. Nor is it usually revealed in a traumatic spiritual experience, like Paul’s blinding light on the Damascus road. A sense of vocation for the religious life is the insistent conviction that the decision represents God’s will, not one’s own. Many of the most successful religious have struggled against this inner prompting at first, only to capitulate in the end.

Granted a valid vocation and a healthy body and mind, what does the postulant find in a cloistered convent? The group she has joined gives a family’s sense of solidarity and protection. Silence does not exclude communication, and a world that talks from morning to night may not appreciate the gaiety of the recreation hour after a day-long silence. Barring homesickness, the postulant is likely to be happy during her first few convent months. But, as New York-born Carmelite Mother Catherine Thomas puts it, in her autobiography, My Beloved, The Story of a Carmelite Nun, “Postulants are new brides; and like other new brides, for the most part they are blissfully ignorant of the trials that lie ahead.”

The contemplative convent is far more than a quiet place to provide the opportunity for prayer. It is also a kind of operating room where prolonged and drastic surgery takes place to free the individual from those things that stand between her and the love of God.

Sacrifice of Self. There are three main areas to be operated upon, represented by the vows. The vow of poverty, designed to cut through the hampering entanglement of material things, operates on many levels; Carmelites and some other religious are forbidden to use the word “my” except for their faults (they refer to “our” cell, “our” Breviary). Poverty applies equally to any kind of attachment. Sisters are systematically frustrated by their superiors in the tendency to become identified with a particular job or hobby. Still more strictly applied, the vow of poverty applies also to impressions. Contemplatives are actually enjoined to see and hear as little as possible of what goes on around them.

The vow of chastity is the easiest to fulfill for most religious. Hardest is the vow of obedience, designed to eliminate the most formidable barrier between the human and divine: the self.

Obedience to the superior is looked upon by the monastic as obedience to the will of God—much as the soldier is trained to salute not the officer but the uniform of his country. The superior deliberately imposes humiliations to break the natural self-love most lay Christians take as a matter of course. Obedience even to a relatively relaxed rule can be a stringent whip if performed, as it should be, on the split instant. St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), the “Little Flower,” once advised a novice: “When someone knocks at your door, or when you are called, you must practice mortification and refrain from doing even one additional stitch before answering. I have practiced this myself, and I assure you that it is a source of much peace.”

Dark Night of the Soul. The life of contemplation has its occupational diseases. Sisters sometimes suffer shattering doubts about the genuineness of their vocation, or an onslaught of “scrupulosity”—obsession with insignificant imperfections that begin to loom like mortal sins. Most agonizing of all is spiritual dryness, analyzed by St. John of the Cross in his book, The Dark Night of the Soul. Without any apparent cause, all the warm joy and pleasure that the religious normally finds in prayer and the monastic routine suddenly disappears. As one contemporary has described it: “The entire spiritual world seems meaningless and unreal; even one’s own most vivid spiritual experiences fade out like half-forgotten dreams. One becomes keenly, sometimes agonizingly aware of everything prosaic: heat, cold, stuffy rooms . . . excessive weariness, the irritation of the heavy, uncomfortable garments . . . other people’s maddening ‘little ways’; the ‘sinking feeling’ and depression that are inseparable from fasting: the appalling monotony of the rule-imposed routine . . .”

Infractions of the rule, in letter or spirit, are inevitable, and different orders have different ways of dealing with them. Carmelites have a weekly “Chapter of Faults,” at which the monitress is honor-bound to report all lapses observed during the past week: “In charity I accuse Sister—of the fault of doing . . .” This is considered a valued opportunity to practice humility. Sisters may also publicly accuse themselves of their own faults (as they do at Maryknoll) and accept appropriate penances from the Mother Prioress.

Corporeal penances, such as hair shirts or scourging, are practiced today only in the strictest orders, though Carmelites sometimes make and sell both hair shirts and scourges to priests. They themselves still subdue their bodies with whips. Writes Mother Catherine Thomas: “In Carmel, when we are inflicting this penance upon ourselves, we have more than our own bodies and our own souls in mind. It is true that we accompany the flagellation with the chanting of the psalm Miserere for our own sins; but we also recite prayers at this time for the exaltation of the church, for peace and concord on earth, for our benefactors, for the souls in Purgatory, for those in the state of sin, and for those in captivity.”

The Walled Town. This is the life of Mary, the cloistered life the world does not see, and it is part of the plan of Maryknoll that its busy Martha body recognizes its dependence on what the sisters call the convent’s “hidden heart.” For the apparent separation (and even conflict) between activity and adoration that seems to bifurcate Christianity is not real. Many great figures of the church, beginning with St. Paul, have combined both elements without conflict. “Laborare est orare,” said St. Benedict (work is prayer). The Maryknoll sister hacking a kitchen garden out of the Bolivian jungle is living a prayer. And prayer is work. The cloistered contemplative rising at midnight to sing the psalms of the Divine Office is working for her fellow men—in Bolivia or The Bronx—whom she may never see. One prayer without the other would fall to the ground.

The convent or monastery, said St. Teresa, is a strong point in a dangerous situation. This, she told her followers 400 years ago, when the world was no less dangerous than it is today, is “the chief reason why Our Lord gathered us together in this house. “

“In time of war, when the enemy has overrun the whole country and the situation is desperate, the lord of the region withdraws into a town which he orders strongly fortified, and from it he sometimes attacks the enemy. As those in his stronghold are chosen men, they can do more by themselves than they could with whole armies . . . Even if they are not victorious, they are never vanquished.”

*The Church distinguishes between nuns, who generally take “solemn vows” and are strictly cloistered; and sisters, who take “simple vows” and are usually active in the outside world. *One of the foremost U.S. missionary societies, active in the U.S., South America, Africa and Asia. The Maryknoll Sisters are a completely separate organization. *When Martha asked her sister Mary to help her get dinner ready for Jesus and the disciples, instead of sitting adoringly at the Lord’s feet. Jesus admonished the busy woman. “Martha, Martha,” He said. “Thou art careful, and thou art troubled about many things: but . . . Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10: 41-42).

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