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Nuns and ex-nuns reconnect in Baden

Friday, May 23, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This weekend 75 women will return to the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, some for the first time since they removed their long, black habits and left the convent years ago in a cloak of secrecy.

At the reunion of Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden yesterday are, standing, Sister Patricia Phillips, left, and Sister Anne Celine Mutscheller, with two former sisters, Virginia Flaherty, seated left, and Harriet Blender Coe. (Jeannette Blosel, Post-Gazette)

They will come from as far as Hawaii to reconnect with a community that they were once drawn to, that influenced their lives forever, but that they ultimately left behind.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden have not held a reunion since 1976, when they were among the first of a now growing number of women's religious orders to do so.

In 1976, it was an attempt to heal the bitterness over changes, secret departures and broken friendships. This time the purpose is to celebrate the time the women had together and what they have done since their paths diverged.

Tomorrow will be a day to catch up with one another -- the brochure bills it "relax, rejuvenate, reconnect." On Sunday there will be a prayer service and brunch, to which husbands and children are invited.

Harriet Blender Coe, an office manager from Center Township, will bring her husband to the final liturgy and brunch so he can see and experience the community to which she once planned to give her life.

She never regretted her three years with the order. "It gave me a lot of grounding," she said.

She entered in 1962 after graduating high school at 17. Forty-nine girls entered with her. Novices were so numerous then that sisters of that era call the group they entered with "our crowd."

When Coe was in eighth grade her pastor had invited her to enroll in a prep school for future sisters at the St. Joseph motherhouse. She stayed one year, then transferred to a public high school. When she graduated without a career plan, another priest encouraged her to consider the sisters. She returned to Baden.

"It's the life and the peace that you find here, the people you connect with," she said of what drew her. "There is a spirit here."

But in a strict and silent pre-Vatican II convent, her bubbly personality spilled past the limits. Some rules made no sense. Why were sisters in a community forbidden to communicate with one another? Why were sisters with no aptitude for teaching automatically sent into the classroom?

Had she remained a few years longer until the reforms following Vatican II changed "Mother Superior" into "the moderator," she thinks she might have stayed.

"But I was full of life and had a real hard time not being able to talk to people," she said.

As her three-year novitiate ended, a priest invited her to leave. He didn't explain why. It was his job to screen novices before they took their vows, so that there was some assurance the women were there for the right reasons. Perhaps he sensed something she could not articulate.

"I had doubts about making vows. I was not mature enough at the time to make those decisions," she said.

Sister Patricia Phillips is one who stayed, but she knows the pain of watching others move out. Up to 30 women a year did so in the 1970s.

She was drawn to the order by one of her grade school teachers at the former St. Catherine School in Beechview. In her joyful love for God and for her students, she was everything a sister should be. "Something about her made you say I want to be like her," Sister Patricia said.

Four girls from her class entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1959. Two have left. She mourned the relationships lost, and suffered from the secrecy that surrounded the early years of departure.

Until the mid-1970s, "you didn't even know they were thinking about [leaving]. You found out afterward. They would meet with the superior and then go on retreat. Then all of a sudden there was a decision, and they were gone," she said.

Departures now are less common and more open.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a national umbrella group for Catholic women's orders, doesn't have statistics on reunions, but believes they have become increasingly common.

"I think for some it's an effort to reach out for healing for those who feel they were hurt in some way. For others it's just for social purposes and to let them know that we appreciate the service that they gave to the congregation for so many years. We are welcoming communities and we enjoy their presence among us," said Sister Suzanne Delaney, executive assistant at the conference.

Reunions are less common among men's orders and almost unheard of for diocesan priests.

"We've had some reunions, but I don't think there is a big demand for this among former Jesuits. They tend to leave, get married and get on with their lives -- although some of them continue to be involved in Jesuit ministries and have plenty of contact with us that way," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit magazine.

Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America, surveyed men who left diocesan priesthood in the 1970s and the 1990s for his book "The First Five Years of Priesthood." While those who left in the mass exodus of the 1970s formed support groups, the more recent departures just trickled away, he said.

"No one keeps track of them. Once they leave, they are out. No one pays attention to them. They are not too happy about it," he said.

By the time Virginia Flaherty left Baden in 1989, it was no longer done in secrecy. The sisters gathered for a farewell ritual to express their sense of loss and to affirm their long relationship.

She had joined almost by accident in 1961. She didn't know the sisters and had felt no pull to religious life. But a friend had gone to Baden and invited her on a retreat.

"I really liked the spirit, the goodness here and decided that was what I wanted to do," she said.

For 28 years she taught school, adult religious education and worked as a parish minister in the Bronx, N.Y. Yet she suspected she was in the wrong place. She didn't believe some of the things she was expected to teach.

"For a long time I had a restlessness about being here, being a sister. I liked the people and didn't want to lose the relationships. I didn't want to be here, but I didn't want to leave," she said.

Twenty-five years after sisters take their first vows they make a recommitment.

"I knew I couldn't do it," she said.

She stayed in touch and didn't go far. Her job is one she might have held had she remained a sister: director of family services at Holy Family Institute.

Coe also kept the door open. She sometimes brought her three children to the sisters' annual Harvest Festival. When her "crowd" celebrated its 40th anniversary, she came to the party.

Some former sisters have become "associates" of the sisters, joining more than 100 other Catholics, married and single, who pledge to help carry out the mission and values of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

When former sisters meet, "You share things with each other that you don't share with anyone else. There's a hunger for that level of connection that you have in the community," Flaherty said.

Former sisters seeking information on the reunion can contact Sister Patricia at p_phillips@access995.com or call 724-775-8238. Information is on the Web at www.stjoseph-baden.org/BadenGathering.asp

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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