Ann Miller Was a Wife and Mother Who Became a Nun — But She’s Not the Only One

The life and death of Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity has sparked fresh interest in other examples of dual vocations to marriage and consecrated life.

Carmelite Sister Mary Joseph at the Monastery of St. Joseph in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Carmelite Sister Mary Joseph at the Monastery of St. Joseph in Des Plaines, Illinois. (photo: Mark R. Miller/@4T9ER on Twitter)

Discalced Carmelite Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity (formerly Ann Russell Miller) passed on from this life on June 5 at 92 years old, having spent her last 31 years in a convent. This Carmelite nun left behind a striking legacy, but not one that is foreign to the Church — that of having a dual vocation to both marriage and consecrated life and in the process leaving behind a comfortable lifestyle for an austere one. She was a wife, mother of 10, grandmother of 28, great-grandmother of 16. Her granddaughter, Jane Gubser, told the Chicago Tribune that it was “like ‘The Great Gatsby’ turned into ‘The Sound of Music.’”

Ann had desired to enter the convent as a young woman, but as Providence would have it, she met her husband Richard “Dick” Kendall Miller and they eloped and got married when she was 20. Her father was the chairman of the Southern Pacific Railroad and her father-in-law founded what became Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), where Dick worked. 

By the time she was 27, they had five children and they went on to have five more. A wealthy San Francisco socialite and millionaire, a friend called her and her husband “Rockefellers of the West Coast.” She was vibrant with life, bubbling with personality, strong-willed, with seemingly a million friends. 

Her life, pre-convent, was filled with luxuries that most people only dream of, including yachting trips in the Mediterranean, going on various adventures around the world, trips to Elizabeth Arden four days a week, and a collection of designer shoes that made Imelda Marcos’ seem “pitiful in comparison.” She counted Nancy Reagan, Marie Gallo, Loretta Lynn and Phyllis Diller among her many friends. 

There was a part of Ann and Dick that yearned for consecrated life during their marriage, however, reminiscent of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin. According to the Millers’ son Mark, they made a pact that one or both would enter consecrated life after the kids grew up, he in a Trappist monastery and she in a Carmelite monastery, “as long as they allowed conjugal visits,” they joked. 

Their love for each other was evident. God first, then their relationship and then their children — the proper hierarchy of a healthy marriage. God and their spiritual lives were the center of their marriage and it poured out into the rest of their lives. They were members of the Order of Malta and Order of the Holy Sepulchre. She was one of the founders of the Daughters of Charity Foundation, was involved with the International Dominican Foundation, and the California Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

The couple hosted large dinner parties with foreign dignitaries and priests alike, and generously shared their 660-acre San Mateo County retreat property, the Island Farm, with family, friends and dignitaries. In the midst of the worldly hustle and bustle, Ann kept her Catholic faith strong through the years. One example is that she would travel the world, with priests in tow to ensure that she didn’t miss daily Mass. She had a special altar in their home mansion where she prayed. She wore a Tiffany pin that said, “Try God,” prayed the Rosary during longer car trips, and added the Stations of the Cross at their retreat property. Not everyone in the family appreciated her strong faith though, especially when her children made life decisions that were at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In 1984, Dick passed away from cancer. Two years later. Ann sat her daughters down over lunch and then her sons and told them that she planned to enter the convent. A year before she entered, she even turned down a marriage proposal from a longtime friend. Then, five years from Dick’s passing, she entered the convent, and said goodbye to the world with a bang. On Oct. 30, 1989, her 61st birthday, she had a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco followed by a grand farewell party at the San Francisco Hilton with her 800 closest friends, an event featuring fancy food and a live orchestra. She would have invited more if she wasn’t at the fire marshal’s limit. The next day, she boarded a plane to Chicago to joyfully enter consecrated life in the Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph in Des Plaines, Illinois. And just like that, she left the trappings of the world behind, to embrace a life of poverty, chastity and obedience as a cloistered Carmelite nun.

It is unusual for a convent to take someone of Ann’s age, but an earlier relationship with the convent had paved the way to her entrance. The Chicago Tribune described that a priest friend urged Ann to visit the Des Plaines monastery years before and she did so several times. She and Dick became friends with the prioress and foundress, Mother Agnes. 

On one trip, Mother Agnes gave them a tour of a new wing before it was consecrated. Ann was so impressed that she pointed out which room cell she wanted and is said to have signed their guest book “Ann Miller, San Francisco, CA, save a place for me.” Both she and Mother Agnes had a sense that she was supposed to be there one day. 

Sister Mary Joseph follows in the footsteps of other married saints, and while we cannot know for sure the state of her soul at death, we can conjecture that 31 years of hidden prayer, stripped from the usual distractions of this world, under the obedience of a Mother Superior, must have led her to a life of deeper holiness. Before entering Sister Mary Joseph had said, “The first two-thirds of my life were devoted to the world. The last third will be devoted to my soul.” 

The Second Vatican Council dedicated a whole chapter in Lumen Gentium to the truth that everyone, in every state in life, is called to holiness, stating: 

“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one. … Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity.” 

The dual vocation to marriage and consecrated life was Sister Mary Joseph’s path, and she stands on the shoulders of spiritual giants who walked that path before her.

For example, there is St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who was a royal born in 1207. She had an exceptional marriage and three children with her pious husband. St. Elizabeth used her privileged position to serve the poor. She lived a simple, austere life, even though she was part of a royal court, and she spent her days doing prayer, penance and acts of charity, especially toward the poor. She took bread daily to hundreds of needy people, built a hospital and took care of the sick and poor herself. Her husband supported her good works, but fell ill and died six years into their marriage. St. Elizabeth is to have said, “It is to me as if the whole world died today.” She vowed never to remarry despite being pressured by her relatives. 

Although never formally entering a convent, she took a vow of obedience to her spiritual director and confessor and a vow of celibacy. She later joined the Third Order of St. Francis. She continued to do acts of charity for the sick and the poor for the rest of her short life. One of their children became a consecrated religious and an abbess of a German convent.

Then there is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S.-born saint, who was born in 1774 and married at 19 years old. She and her husband had five children. In 1803, nine years after they married, he died of tuberculosis, leaving St. Elizabeth a young widow at 29 years of age. In 1805, Elizabeth joined the Catholic Church. In 1809, she moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, the first community for religious women established in the United States.

A modern example that comes to mind is the mother of EWTN’s Mother Angelica, Sister Mary David (Mae Rizzo), who in 1961 entered her daughter’s convent of Poor Clares, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. Mother Angelica was tickled that she became her mother’s superior and that she called her mother “Sister,” while her mother called her “Mother.”

This folIowed in the tradition of the original foundress of the Poor Clares, St. Clare. In the 1200s, St. Clare’s mother, Blessed Ortolana, also joined her daughter in the Monastery of San Damiano, after the death of her husband.

I would be remiss not to mention that the dual vocation of marriage and consecrated life has been part of the Eastern Christian tradition — where married men may be ordained as priests — since the beginning.

I would also be remiss not to mention the similarities between Sister Mary Joseph and Mother Dolores Hart, who is currently 83 years old and for the last 55 years has been a consecrated nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

At 25 years old, Dolores Hart went from a Hollywood actress who co-starred in a movie with Elvis Presley to a contemplative Benedictine nun. Even though Mother Dolores never married, like Sister Mary Joseph she walked away from what many would consider a glamorous lifestyle to join the convent. In our present day, where status, money, and power is the epitome of success, voluntarily leaving that world behind is not easily understood.

While the call to holiness is universal, it is as unique as we are. For Sister Mary Joseph, it included a dual vocation to marriage and consecrated life. Her story is so captivating because she was so real. 

Before entering the convent, she smoked, drank and played cards. She was an open-water diver. She was a fast driver who frequently caused her passengers to slam invisible brakes. What is so striking about Sr. Mary Joseph is the fullness with which she lived her life. While in the world, she embraced all of its comforts, yet with the same gusto she willingly parted with those comforts for the sake of the Kingdom. Yet even as she left those things behind, she retained the fullness of her personality. 

Her son, Mark, tweeted in a series of tweets that went viral that even in the convent she was an “unusual nun”: 

“She didn’t sing very well. She was frequently late to her required duties around the convent. She threw sticks for the communal dogs which was not allowed.” 

That should give the rest of us a lot of hope for our own growth in holiness. In her colorful “unusualness,” Sister Mary Joseph glorified God with her life. In whatever vocation God calls us, as Christians we are each invited to be faithful to God’s plan in the unique way that he is calling us to practice faith, hope and charity and be salt and light in this world.