Sometimes a writer can shed light on a little understood facet of society or humanity, and through the prism of a story perhaps bring some new clarity and insight to the subject. That’s the task I set for myself with this story about a community of contemplative nuns who after a very long presence in my hometown of Omaha left for another city. Few people had even heard of much less knew anything about the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Their neighbors could only imagine what went on behind their semi-cloistered compound. In truth, the sisters for some time now have led rather community-oriented if not public lives thanks to relaxed restrictions. When I heard they were leaving the campus they occupied not far where I lived and once attended church and school, I decided to explore for myself who these women were, how they lived, and what they did. In doing the piece I met an extraordinary woman, Sr, Cecelia Porter, whose formidable spirit and gentle soul impressed me, and if I did my job right will impress you, too. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons and I am glad to share its bittersweet tale here.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
With the departure of the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd in November, Omaha lost an exceptional group of older women dedicated to a regimen of prayerful meditation, hard labor and good will. Due to advanced age, ill health and depleted ranks, this once large Catholic community of nuns has moved to the Good Shepherd provincial colony in St. Paul, Minn. While the sisters are gone, the legacy of their amazing grace endures.
The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is an international congregation founded in 19th century France by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier. The contemplatives, a branch of the Good Shepherd order serving marginalized women and children, maintained a presence in Omaha much of the past century. Originally called Sister Magdalens and, later, Sisters of the Cross, their first home here was on South 40th Street. They moved in 1969 to the former Poor Clare Sisters convent at 29th and Hamilton. When the huge old building became untenable a new convent was erected at 3321 Fontenelle Blvd.. Occupied in 1989, the new site was home to the contemplatives until last November. It is now for sale.
Consistent with the good shepherd mission, the sisters pray for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed or anyone else needing spiritual intercession. They accept prayer requests by phone and mail. All who call on them find refuge in their gentle house of hearts. From the quiet of their tree-shaded Omaha sanctuary, complete with chapel and dining hall, the sisters provided solace and support to countless petitioners. It is a mission they continue today from their bucolic St. Paul retreat.
Despite being an enclosed community, the sisters lead lives fully engaged with, not removed from, the world. Indeed, since Vatican II eased restrictions on religious orders in the 1960s, the sisters have enjoyed greater freedom. No longer a classically cloistered community bound by strict monastic codes of silence and isolation, the sisters have used the more relaxed rules to extend their grace to ever more souls. That has meant getting involved in the lives of persons pleading for help, including “adopting” families in distress and distributing food to the hungry.
Sister Barbara Beasley, RGS, an apostolic Good Shepherd leader in St. Paul, said, “If the contemplatives are really doing their job, which is all about spirituality, then they are connected with everything that’s going on. And that’s exactly the truth about these women. The proof of their contemplative life is that they are not turned inwards on themselves. They are the least turned-in people you can imagine. Their interests are outward. Before news of a crisis hits the paper they already know it because somebody has called up asking them to pray about it. They’re truly centered people. They know what they’re about. They know their calling is to pray for ministries, to pray for needs, to pray for everything. They are alert and responsive to what’s happening.” She said while there is no plan to do so, a small group of contemplatives could one day again be assigned here.
The oldest and longest professed member of the former Omaha community, 89-year-old Sister Cecelia Porter, CGS, finds people from all walks of life confiding in them. “They tell us many things. They talk on the phone for hours, especially people living alone. You’d be surprised who it is too. You can be rich and still be lonely. Sometimes it’s hard to listen. We have one sister, Edith (Hesser), who listens and listens and listens to every kind of problem under the sun and everyone just loves her for that,” she said. “One talent God has given me is to pray with others, and to pray with them in a way that they feel they are included in the making of the prayer. If I know your problems I can pray for you so deeply. I can pray almost out of your own hope. People tell me they feel encouraged and helped by that.”
A measure of the impact the sisters made here was the stream of friends and patrons stopping by the convent to say farewell and thanks in the days prior to the move. Denise Maryanski of Papillion spoke for many in describing the sisters’ amazing grace. “Nothing I do in my life, even raising four children, would be as hard as the work they’ve done and the dedication they’ve shown in their life,” she said. “These women are totally pure in spirit. It is perfection. They are as close to being saints on earth as anyone we have met. They just don’t seem to have ugly days. They deal with whatever they’re handed and they deal with it with this joyful spirit and heart. When you’re with them, you just smile. You can’t help it. Even in their darkest hours, dealing with life-threatening illnesses, the joy is still there. They accept the challenges God gives them. You never hear them say, ‘Why me?’ When life looks really ugly to me I think, ‘What would Sister Clare (Filipowicz) do? What would Sister Edith do?’ They’ve enriched our life and been an inspiration.”
As divorced Catholics-turned-Episcopalians, Denise Maryanski and her husband Tony cherish the unconditional love extended them and trace the success of their home construction business to the prayers granted them. “You don’t have to show your Catholic badge at the door. They’re not at all judgmental,” she said. “We know they’ve taken care of us too. Stressful things have happened in our family and in our business over the last two years and all we had to do was pick up the phone and say we were having some issue in our lives and they were right there praying for us. We attribute all our blessings to them.”
There is no limit to what the sisters pray for. “We consider ourselves responsible for the entire world, prayerwise, and we are very thoughtful to that,” Sister Porter said. “That’s one thing about contemplation — it widens the mind so much. We make our prayer fruitful by having an intention, a motive and a thought in mind. It can be a disaster, a tragedy or an accident or it can be people looking for better jobs or better marriages or better health. All of it is a matter for prayer. Whether we know the people or not, we put some spiritual power in their lives that wouldn’t otherwise be there. You never know for sure what your prayer does, but people do call and say, ‘Thanks, it happened.’”
Even with the world as their focus, there are special prayer causes. For example, Sister Porter prays for governmental leaders. And, as a group, they pray for their fellow religious. Sister Eileen Schiltz, RGS, an Omaha counselor who often attended Sunday mass with the contemplatives, said, “At mass they always remember all of our Good Shepherd sisters and ministers all over the world.”
For years, Rev. Lee Lubbers, SJ, of Creighton University, took turns with other Jesuits saying mass at the convent and has relied on the sisters’ mediation for various Jesuit-related endeavors. “It was important for me to count on their prayers for the non-profit educational satellite network (SCOLA) I started in 1981. I kind of count them as the founders of that whole operation, which has become a big network worldwide. I keep them praying for every development. I count on their support constantly,” he said. Typical of the sisters’ caring, he added, was their desire to visit SCOLA and minister to its staff, which they did every year. For him and others the sisters represented a comforting presence where “the important things in the universe were in touch at least, someplace, all the time.”
Rev. Lee Lubbers
In her work counseling abused women and children, Sister Schiltz often calls and asks the contemplatives to pray for her clients and senses a genuine interest in their plight. “I have never been let down. They always ask how the woman or child they’re praying for is doing.” She said the sisters have even taken under their wing children whose parents are imprisoned or deceased — sharing mass and meals with them. She said the sisters have not only provided a prayer-line, but a lifeline to those in need. “I wish I could find a donor for an 800 number so people could call them up in St. Paul and still have their prayers answered in Omaha.”
In a culture like ours, where tangible results are held sacred, something as ephemeral as prayer may seem like wishful fancy to a cynic. For Sister Porter, it is an article of faith. “You can’t see it. You can’t prove anything. The only thing you can live by is faith. But the things we can’t see are so real. Look at your radio or TV. Their reception is based on signals and waves. You can’t see those things, but do you doubt they exist? Or oxygen. You can’t see it, but by golly if you didn’t have it you sure would miss it. Just like those things, you’ve got to have faith your prayers will be heard. I believe with all my heart it can and does happen.”
In a loud, hectic world muddled with distractions, finding the time and space for quiet reflection can be a challenge. It is all a matter of intent and focus. Likewise, being contemplative is more than taking a vow or mouthing words. It means embodying one’s faith and spirit through expressions, thoughts and deeds. “Your entire life has to have a contemplative stance in order to produce any real contemplative fruit, because your mind does not snap like that from one thing to another, usually,” Sister Porter explained, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “You can wear the habit and say all kinds of prayers and do all this stuff and not change your character one bit. To me, it’s more of a thing of opinions and dispositions and actions and priorities. You have to have the depth to know you don’t live here just to wear a habit. It’s how deep you think. How deep you live.”
Sister Schiltz feels these women remind us what our spiritual life can be. “I think they’re a symbol. We need those symbols of contemplative life more than ever now because we’re so rushed and hurried. A lot of people long for that because the world is so chaotic. The contemplatives show it can be done. But it’s hard to live. It’s a gift that God calls you to. Some choose to answer it and some don’t. Maybe we can’t do it ourselves, but it’s something we can strive for in our own way.”
Ultimately, a contemplative life is a calling. Sister Porter heeded the call as a young woman. “I didn’t resist it. I was looking forward to more of the deep mystery of spiritual life.” But the story of how she came to follow her calling, like the stories of her fellow nuns, is probably not what you would expect. Born Thelma Porter in 1910 Portland, she grew up in Seattle. Her family, she said, practiced no particular faith and were in fact hostile to Catholicism. Her mother died when she was young and her stern father raised her and her two brothers alone. Despite her father’s opposition, she had Catholic schoolgirl friends and came under the influence of local Good Shepherd nuns, whose flowing white habits made them appear “angels.”
At 16, she left home to fend for herself. She only completed a couple years of high school before going to work. By 19, she decided to become a Catholic. Even though she admits she had a rather naive idea of the commitment she was making, she decided to not only take up the forbidden faith but become a nun as well. When she told her father, he disowned her. In her youthful arrogance, she defiantly turned away from him too. They never saw each other again. She also became alienated from her brothers and extended family. The separation hurt.
“As years went by I knew I hadn’t done the right thing. I could have handled it differently. It caused me much suffering and much bitterness. I felt it was my own fault. I was pretty unhappy about that part of my life.”
It was only as she matured she came to terms with what happened. By then, however, her father was dead, the bad feelings between them left unresolved. Amidst the sweeping changes of Vatican II, when many religious reexamined their vows and dropped out, Sister Porter too had an awakening that helped her overcome the doubt and acrimony and rededicate herself to her vocation.
“At that time I rethought my whole life and I came to the conclusion this life has got to be a better one if I live it right because I feel drawn to it. It must be what I’m meant to do.I dropped all the bitterness I had about my family. I realized you can’t undo what you’ve done when you’re young, no matter how much you regret it. The Lord sent me so much satisfaction with my life as soon as I let that go.”
She flourished amid the new freedom Vatican II and modern feminism ushered in. “I just really sort of blossomed in so many ways. I made a lot of new friends. I began to paint. I began to do things and go places. I got elected to the order’s leadership council and went to Europe. I met Good Shepherd sisters aiding women all over the world. It gave me an experience of belonging to the entire world. It also made me realize so many women are not treated equally and are just used in so many ways.”
She believes the ensuing large exodus from religious life was not all bad, but instead a necessary, if painful, purge. “The truth is it needed to be done. There were lots of people in religion because mama wanted a priest and papa wanted a nun. If you kept the routine, that’s all that was required, really. It wasn’t a deep spiritual thing like it should have been.” She speaks from personal experience, having come to religious life with starry-eyed ideals that were soon dispelled. “I didn’t know how to be a Catholic much less how to be a nun. The reason I became a nun was because I thought, erroneously, living a contemplative life would be a religious equivalent to a studious life. That I would write and read and meditate and be untouchable by other things. It was a rather romantic, mystical notion. I never realized we had to work, we had to eat, we had to pay bills. I was the bookkeeper the last 30 years, so I’m very conscious there’s more to life than prayer.”
Besides her faith, music has been her refuge. A trained pianist and organist, she accompanied the sisters’ singing of the psalms since entering the order in 1936. She spent the first 30-some years of religious life in Denver and after the convent there closed in 1969 she moved to Omaha, where she remained active right up until the community’s departure. Her vocation has been both rewarding and trying. As she can attest, a contemplative cannot be an idler. It is a life of rigorous devotion and discipline. Little time is wasted. Scant thought given to personal needs. Orders must be obeyed. Sacrifices made. Slackers need not apply. An unbending routine of required daily prayers and assigned chores fill the hours. The routine used to be even tougher. Rising well before dawn, sisters followed a taxing prayer and work schedule. Until just a few weeks before their move, the Omaha sisters supported themselves working as seamstresses for clothing and fabric manufacturers and making altar breads for churches.
“Because we’re considered a relaxed community now, our day starts at 6 a.m. But when we were younger we got up at 4:30. In the old days the thinking went if you had any spare time you were not doing something worthwhile. You were supposed to be doing some kind of labor at all times. You were expected to just keep going, even if you were sick, until you couldn’t go another step. The harder you were on yourself, the better. That was the way religious life was. And, boy, it was hard,” Sister Porter said. “But after Vatican II we began to live more like the world lives. We didn’t have to work quite so hard. Our life was divided between work and prayer and leisure, but leisure was the thing that always suffered. Personally, as far this new thinking is concerned, I’m right with it. Why treat your body like that? And the fact I’m here at my age, and in good health, tells me it works.”
She feels past hardships likely contributed to the health crisis that beset several members of her community last fall. With the weakest unable to work (some were transferred months earlier to the St. Paul infirmary), the aging nuns, their ranks already depleted by illness or death, lacked the necessary vigor and numbers to maintain the Omaha facility. It was the final straw that broke the convent’s back.
“Four of them could hardly walk they were so old and tired. They were to the end of their strength. They simply couldn’t go on anymore. It’s just my opinion, but their life was probably too hard when they were younger. We were going to hang on here another two years, but things fell apart so fast we had to act.”
Leaving Omaha has been a strain on the sisters, all of whom are in their 70s and 80s and own deep-rooted ties to the area. Of their relocation, Sister Porter said, “You have no idea of the trauma it really was. I’m only now beginning to be quite accepting of what’s happened. I just need to forget it. I think I will. I always know I’ll have a lot of friends there who love me.” And there is the camaraderie among her sisters of the cloth. “The loyalty among us is something you can’t believe.”
The people they served so faithfully through the years remain close to their hearts. She said she and her fellow sisters appreciate the outpouring of support Omahans showed through donations of time, talent and treasure, whether landscaping the convent’s grounds or supplying the religious enclave with food or helping maintain financial records. More often than not, she said, these Good Samaritans became dear friends. She firmly believes such relationships marked the Holy Spirit in action.
“God has blessed us in so many ways with so many friends. Everything we ever needed seemed to show up before too long. Food and books and just about everything you can think of. In that way we got to know so many people. All of those people came to us by God sending them,” she said. “Somehow, our friendships with others seem to be founded more on deeper things in life. It often begins with us praying for them, and somehow the bonds just develop into something very personal.”
John Hoich was introduced to the sisters 11 years when, as owner of his own landscape and lawn sprinkler business, he gave them a bid on a sprinkler system. Hoich, a single lapsed Catholic at the time, soon found his life transformed.
“When the sisters got done with me I told them I’d knock the sprinkler system down to cost if they prayed for me. I installed the system at cost and, boy, did they ever keep their end of the bargain. They pretty much adopted me at that point and I just fell in love with them. I started bringing trees out and planting them. I donated money. Every time I’d come they’d sit me down and feed me. They constantly ministered to me too. They prayed for me. They prayed I’d get married to a Catholic woman and have a family, and three years ago I married Denise and two years ago we had healthy twin boys. I really believe Denise came into my life and my business grew due because of them. They’re powerful, powerful ladies.”
The sisters got to know Hoich’s wife and boys and even attended a pig roast he held on an acreage he owns. Along the way, Hoich, orphaned at a young age and raised in foster homes, gained a renewed appreciation for his faith and for the goodness of others. “They reminded me to keep my priorities straight. To keep God first, family second and business third,” he said, “They taught me the spirit of giving and caring. They walk and talk their belief, yet they’re down to earth.”
Friends like Hoich say the sisters may be gone but will not be forgotten. Letters and phone calls have already been exchanged. Visits have been made or are being planned. “We’ll keep in touch. This chain will not be broken. It is that much an integral part of our lives. They are our extended family,” Denise Maryanski said.
As for Sister Porter, she’ll be turning 90 soon but far prefers embracing the here and now to wallowing in the past. “Time doesn’t hang heavy on my hands and I don’t look back. I’ve had so much in front of me all my life I’ve never had a minute when I didn’t have something to do and there’s still a lot of things I want to do.” In February she goes to Atlanta for meetings of her order. In July she’s taking a month’s sabbatical in her birthplace of Portland. She is content with where her chosen path has taken her. “I made sacrifices for this life. I could have had a better education. I could have married and had a family. But I think I’ve done something extra special. My life has been worth something.”
- Lord, hear our prayer: Benedictine sisters cope with tragedy (beliefnet.com)
- Nuns embrace technology to help the needy (telegraph.co.uk)
- Janet Haag: What Is Prayer? A Conversation with Sister Joan Chittister (huffingtonpost.com)
- Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message that Repression in Cuba is Lifting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Two Year Anniversary of ContemplativeChristians.com (contemplativechristians.com)