Claire Heininger | Thursday, April 8, 2004
Sister M. Campion likes to describe change using body language. Sitting in the Archives and Records office at Bertrand Hall, home to the Sisters of Holy Cross at Saint Mary’s College, the 84-year-old nun becomes instantly animated at the mention of the topic.”I have this idea about change. When somebody adjusts to change, they think, ‘Oh I don’t like that idea’ – you know, a gut feeling,” she said as she grabbed her stomach and gave a mock wince.”A lot of people have that idea at first. And then as they think about it, ‘Hmm, not a bad idea, if I do that I can do this and this and this,'” she continued, her pale fingers darting across her lap and flailing excitedly through the air.”And after awhile, the idea goes up here,” she said, pointing to her head. “And it’s in your whole body.” She sat back and smiled.”They say, ‘If you don’t change, you die,'” she added a minute later. “Well, it’s the truth.” Campion has seen a lot of change during her time at Saint Mary’s and is hopeful that – unlike many of her fellow sisters – the 161-year-old order will not die out. While the Sisters of Holy Cross numbered about 1,700 worldwide in the early 1960s, there are currently only 525 fully professed nuns and 70 in formation serving today. Many are in their 80s and 90s and 17 died in 2003. At Saint Mary’s, 198 sisters are in residence, 92 of whom are retired.Youth is a rare find within the order, especially in the United States. While the numbers of newer sisters in international branches are on the rise, only one temporarily incorporated sister, one novice, one candidate and four pre-candidates currently live in America. To fight this trend, Saint Mary’s will open a house of discernment on April 14. Called Mary’s Solitude, it will provide a place for those who are first considering joining the order to test the waters of commitment. Drastic change The drop-off in religious vocations increased dramatically after the second Vatican Council – a time, Campion remembers, when many sisters were caught off guard by a rapidly changing Church. “Of those who questioned it, partly I think they didn’t have a vocation to start with, partly they didn’t wait long enough [before deciding to leave the order,]” she said. “Some really couldn’t take the changes, but for some I thought that that was just an excuse.”Those nuns who stayed on through the turmoil found a very different religious life. Most visibly, the sisters no longer wore the habit – a welcome change for Campion, who said she had been so conscientious that “when I first got it, some of my worst dreams were that I wasn’t wearing it.” A less visible, but more harmful change came with the realization that the sisters’ unique role was no longer so defined. “There are so many more things a woman can do now in the church, that she doesn’t have to [be a nun],” Campion said. “[This] is why we had so many sisters in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, because a woman’s life was relatively restricted.”The vast majority of Catholic women, she added, now choose to be involved in lay ministry or other areas of the church instead of making the complete commitment the religious life requires.Those who do make that commitment today are increasingly called to international ministry. The Sisters of the Holy Cross now minister in eight countries on four continents around the world, focusing their efforts in schools, hospitals, and social service agencies. Their contemporary goals of justice, nonviolence and gender equality reflect the concerns of this global sphere – and a need to, as the order’s mission statement dictates, “reflect on the signs of the times.”An aging communityAs Sister Campion chats candidly about how times have changed back at Saint Mary’s, describing the sisters’ experiences with pre- and post-Vatican II Holy Week liturgy, it is hard to ignore subtle references to the reality of an aging community. Sisters who used to stand still during the entire three-hour passion liturgy are now told to sit, she said. For those who are bedridden and cannot attend services at all, Easter Sunday Mass is shown on closed-circuit television. “Some people just don’t have the energy, some people can’t walk, some come down in wheelchairs, some have problems hearing,” she said. “And some come down just for things like Holy Week.”Those who cannot care for themselves reside in Saint Mary’s Convent, also known among the sisters as the “infirmary.” Alzheimer’s patients live in the Queen of Peace, a smaller division on the convent’s top floor. Patches of lighter brick are visible along the rows of windows, revealing the room expansion and addition of private bathrooms that has taken place to accommodate the sisters’ dropping numbers and growing needs. As she charts a path through the wide, pastel-colored hallways of the infirmary, Sister Julie McGuire – still mobile and sharp of mind more than 45 years after joining the order in 1957 – compares the remodeled convent to a shopping mall that needs “You are here” signs to guide the older members.”You can walk miles in here and never go outside,” she said. The wheelchairs and walkers clustered in the maze, however, show that walking is a dwindling luxury. Family memoriesTucked away on the fifth floor of the building is the history room – home to what McGuire called, with a wink, “family memories.”The room traces the development of the order, beginning with the four sisters sent from LeMans, France to northern Indiana in 1843 by Basil Moreau, founder of the Holy Cross congregations of priests, brothers and sisters. It continues through the sisters’ current ministries in such countries as Brazil, Uganda and Bangladesh. Exhibits fill the space, illustrating everything from the accomplishments of each of the order’s Mother Superiors to the rosary beads sisters used during World War II, worn from black to brown from sisters’ fingers rubbing them in prayer.The displays on the evolution of the habit cause McGuire to linger awhile longer than she does at the other exhibits. Pointing to pictures of the fluted cap, McGuire said she remembers wearing it inside out to avoid “blisters on your ears,” and hearing complaints of “a lot of burned fingers” from the older sisters who used the hot wires of the fluting machine to make their own caps.As she leaves the room, McGuire points to a small, inconspicuous box just outside the doorway, containing small cellophane chips that any passerby can move from one compartment to another to pray for all of the sisters who have died. “There are two thousand, two hundred and – I don’t know, lots and lots,” McGuire said as she transferred a chip, depositing another soul into the box.A renovated Church, a revised religious lifeThe Church of Loretto, McGuire’s next destination, is a perfect example of many sisters’ uneasiness with change. Remodeled in 1993, the church today is nearly unrecognizable from the original. Gone are the routine pews and the elevated altar that McGuire said “could be deadly” in a dress and high heels. Gone is the dark-wooded statue of Jesus that always made her think of a “big brown bear.” Gone are the niches, the brass-sheathed confessionals and the steel girders of the 1950s. Gone are the choir loft and the balcony that shook when the organ that used to be “strung together with string, wire, spit and chewing gum” played. “We were forbidden from seeing what was going on,” McGuire recalled. “When I stepped in, I thought, ‘Oh, my.'”Most of the girls despised it.”The gleaming Georgia marble floor still bears scratched indents of where the pews stood, but Loretto – with its modern chair-style seating, octagonal altar, imposing white pillars and 24-hour flowing baptismal font – is far from the same place.”We can have meetings here now,” McGuire said. “It’s a more usable space. You can’t do that with pews.”From conducting more relaxed Holy Week services in this revamped church to extending the reach of their ministries to Africa, Latin America and Asia, the sisters’ activities today would have been hard to imagine back when Campion and her peers joined the order in the 1950s. “Thomas Wolfe wrote the book, ‘You Can’t Go Home Again,'” Campion said. “Well, I never read it, but I just know that you can’t. “You can’t go back. Even if you do go back, it’s not the same.”As she closes her eyes to the maps of Tanzania and Bangladesh that hang on her office walls, glancing quickly at the bit of dried braided palm from last year’s Palm Sunday that sits atop her computer, she remembers strained conversations that arose following the second Vatican Council.”My mother used to say to me, ‘What you’ve chosen, your life is easy,'” Campion said. “And I’d say ‘Mother, if it’s so easy, how come you didn’t join?'”Smiling, Campion closes her eyes again, her body content with change and her heart content with commitment.