The room was light and lovely and very white. There were two pane windows everywhere, white curtains that looked ready to flutter with a breeze. Each narrow bed had white sheets, a white pillow and a white coverlet, carefully folded at the top, invitingly cool and clean looking. I wondered what it had been like to step close to the bed and pull the white curtain closed, listen to the metal rings slide on the metal rods and then to be enclosed in the white, to get ready for bed and then to pray for the last waking time that day.
“There are little dorms like this all over the building. I was in 8th grade when I came and there were about fifty high school girls here along with all the sisters.” It had been a long time since 8th grade for the sister who was talking to us. She was the tour guide for the dorm area of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi campus that we were visiting today as part of our city’s Doors Open Milwaukee.
Doors Open Milwaukee provides free public access to historic buildings, many of which don’t otherwise allow visitors to roam and wander. Backstage at the opera, inside City Hall’s clock tower, churches, water treatment plants, the shipping docks, bridge controls, and countless churches. We went to our city’s fire museum and then to the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Both were wonderfully worth our time but it’s the Sisters that have stuck with me today.
The sister in the dorm told us that some sisters slept in cells, a convent term for a very small bedroom. Some of the cells had windows and others did not, some with light, others not. We went downstairs to look. “She came in 8th grade,” my husband said to me. Yes, she came in 8th grade and she stayed, apparently to this day that had her welcoming people to her history, her white hair tightly permed, loose blouse and sensible pants. She wore a name tag that said Sr. Barbara.
In the hallways, there were binders on pedestals. The binders told the stories of the sisters in the order. Each sister had two pages of photos along with her vitals – date of birth, date of profession and date of death. A small narrative told her story. Some taught, some sewed, some were artists. They had lives of accomplishment and community.
Most of the sisters in the books had been born in the early 1900’s. 1910, 1918, 1929. They had had very long lives. They had all worked. Some of them had careers. A few were leaders. At the end of their lives, they had short hair and peaceful faces. They lived still where they had started in 8th grade. And I wondered about them.
All my life I’ve thought of nuns as gentle captives. I’ve felt sorry for them because their lives seemed constricted and controlled. By Rome, by custom, by prayer, by a perception that they were deprived of normal life – marriage and family. I thought this even though I’ve known some powerful sisters, presidents of colleges, heads of hospitals, community organizers, hell-raisers.
But the women depicted in the books, the art they’d created that hung on the walls, the sunny poise of Sr. Barbara, none of that jibed with my belief in their captivity. They weren’t captive. They were with their sisters, living in a community of women and doing all manner of things that their lay counterparts envied. Working, leading, belonging, making a mark, leaving a legacy.
I admired them. The sisters in the books and Sr. Barbara. It had to take a lot to pull that curtain closed at night and be alone in those white sheets and feel right about the day that was and the day to come. Strong people did that, not captives.
I think that would be called a Doors Open moment.