Sister Moms Balance Motherhood and Religious Life

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—At first glance, the women meeting here last June looked the way you would expect nuns to look. But listening to their conversation, you learned these women had a unique bond. Besides being religious, all 44 women were mothers.

They met for the first time as “Sister Moms,” a voluntary organization offering a connection among women religious who have children. The Sisters, who represented 36 different religious congregations, discussed their lives as mothers and religious, turning “MOM upside down and making WOW—Women of Wisdom,’” said Bea Keller, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth and one of four founders of Sister Moms.

“Becoming a nun at midlife is clearly an option for women today, she said, and is not new in the history of religious life.

“There have been other ‘sister moms’ such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, Jane Frances de Chantal and Louise de Marillac,” she said. Keller is the parish nurse coordinator for Caritas Medical Center in Louisville.

“It is important to dispel the idea that entering religious life is a career change for us,” Keller, a mother of seven, noted. “We are making a change of lifestyle and responding to a call from God. Sister Moms are women who are risk-takers. We live on the margins of our communities, since we enter later in life and lack a community history. We choose to live on the margins of our families, but we think our lifestyle has freed our children to be their own persons and to have the courage to face life, following their mothers example of risk taking.”

Among those attending the meeting was Sister Marty Mulhern from Orange, Calif., a 58-year-old mother and a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange since 1984. “I had never met another sister who was a mom,” she said. “So I was amazed to think that these women, who looked like a whole bunch of nuns, were also mothers. It was fun for me to be with them.”

Sister Marty serves as a chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital in Orange, “a good fit for me now,” she said. As a mother she taught in a Catholic elementary school for 25 years, starting when her four sons reached school age. After her husband died suddenly of cancer in 1982, she began to get “this nagging feeling that I was supposed to go into religious life, but I thought it was ridiculous.” The feeling persisted and she began to check into various orders, sought counsel, and prayed.

When Sister Marty told her sons that she had decided to enter, one said,“Gee, Mom, I was thinking last week that you'd make a good religious.”

Sister Marty is the youngest of 13 children, went to public schools in the East, and has attended daily Mass since seventh grade. Some have asked her if perhaps she had had a vocation that she had ignored when she was younger, but Sister said, “I had never been around nuns until I taught in parochial school. I really feel I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing now, even as I did what I was supposed to as a wife and mother before entering.”

The next meeting of Sister Moms, which currently has a mailing list of more than 100 religious representing 63 religious congregations, will be held Memorial Day Weekend 1999 in Tampa, Fla., followed by one in Sacramento, Calif., in 2001. (Martha Lepore)