Retired nuns forced to spend holiday in a new home

(Cristina Fletes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

NORMANDY, Mo. (AP) – Last year Sister Pauline Bilbrough first heard the news: The convent was going to have to close.

Immaculate Heart Convent sits on 10 acres that’s been owned by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd since 1874.

The order’s property in Normandy is where, in the early 1880s, Sister Mary Jerome was so upset over poor mail service that she passed herself off as a man and worked as Normandy’s postmaster in disguise. It’s where the sisters have run homes for troubled children, helped women with addiction and cared for the sick who had nowhere else to go. It’s where a group of Vietnamese nuns lived as refugees during the Vietnam War, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

And until recently, about two dozen retired Sisters of the Good Shepherd nuns lived in the convent, celebrating a surprising number of 100th birthdays, gathering in a semi-circle of easy chairs to watch the nightly news, and praying the rosary every day.

The retired nuns have made their own memories within the convent’s pastel walls. They have tutored struggling children from nearby St. Ann Catholic School. They’ve celebrated holidays and held parties _ such as the time one of the sisters sang a surprisingly good karaoke rendition of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” They dubbed the wild turkey that took up residence outside and pecks at visitors’ cars as the convent “guard turkey.”

But despite the memories and rich history here, it was time for the sisters to move on. The convent is aging. Pipes have been bursting, and major repairs are needed. The facility no longer seemed to be an adequate home for the rising medical needs of some of the nuns.

So the retired sisters prepared to move to Mason Pointe, a retirement community in Town and Country that agreed to renovate a floor and build a new chapel so the nuns could stay together.

The Normandy property houses a few other parts of the order — contemplative sisters, international nuns in the U.S. to learn English, and the regional offices — but the land may soon be up for sale, according to the sisters.

It would be a significant loss to the city, Normandy Mayor Patrick Green said.

For years, the city billed itself as the “Little Rome of the West,” once home to a concentration of Catholic institutions unmatched in the area. At one time there were at least six different religious orders in the city and a college once called the “West Point for nuns.”

Many of the historic Catholic buildings are now owned by the University of Missouri-St. Louis or were turned over to secular groups. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd are among the last religious orders remaining.

“The nuns always brought a sense of calm and have given service to the community,” Green said. “You see even teenagers have this sense of respect when they see them on the sidewalk. So we really don’t want them to disappear.”

The adjustment is just as hard for the sisters.

“I’m trying to keep it together,” said local leader Sister Pauline Bilbrough on her last day living in Immaculate Heart. “But this is our home.”

It was packing day and the convent was bustling: Volunteers and a few of the 200 or so active Sisters of the Good Shepherd from around the country were there to help each of the retired sisters pack their small rooms.

In one, Sister Michael Maguire, 89, who the sisters call the only “FBI” or “Foreign Born Irish” nun left at Immaculate Heart, is wearing a cream cable-knit sweater and black veil as she stacks books and zips around in her new electric wheelchair.

“Are you going all the way to Ireland in that thing, sister?” one of the health aides asks as Maguire zooms down the hall.

Maguire came to the U.S. when she was 18 and entered the convent in Los Angeles three years later, about 1950. She spent her life working in homes for children, families and troubled teens.

Around the corner, a visiting sister pushes one of the nuns who has dementia through the halls in a wheelchair: “I want her to see that it’s not just her. That everyone is packing. That they’re all going together,” the visiting nun says.

They pass focused volunteers working to load enough religious books to fill a small library into rows of boxes and walk by the room of Sister Josephine Fritz, who will turn 100. Fritz still tells stories about her mission in Saipan working disaster response after a typhoon.

Marie Moore, the only resident at Immaculate Heart who is not a nun, is also at work packing.

Moore and her mother worked for the sisters beginning in 1965. She helped in the infirmary, cleaned the chapel and chipped in in the kitchens while her mother was a receptionist and bookkeeper. When her mother took ill, the sisters took her mother in at Immaculate Heart until she died in 1999. About seven years later, Moore was considering going into a retirement community herself after more than 40 years working for the order.

“The sisters said: `No, you’re family,”’ Moore said. “And I’ve been with them here ever since.”

Moore has lived either in the convent or across the street since 1969.

“I’ve seen a lot of sisters come and go _ a lot of funerals here,” she said. “But things have to move on and move forward, though that is not easy.”

A few days later, Sister Rosalinda Sobremisana directs movers as the last items in her room are being loaded into trucks.

Sobremisana grew up in the Philippines, where she studied to be a nurse. She entered Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent in 1960 and was a novice nun in Los Angeles because at the time the Philippines did not have a convent for young women considering taking their vows.

She returned to the Philippines and worked as a nurse for years before she was called back to the U.S., soon after the current Immaculate Heart Convent opened in 1969 on the Good Shepherd land in Normandy. She helped set up the medicine room and was a nurse to the sisters.

“I remember caring for the sisters then,” she said. “I would say, `When I am old I want to be like this one or like that one,’ but now I am here and see you don’t get to pick how you grow old.”

The movers picked up a favorite pink recliner in her room.

“Bye, chair,” she said with a wave. “See you there.”

When the room was almost cleared, she noticed the crucifix left on the wall and reached to pull it down.

“Can’t forget this,” she said.

Crews at Mason Pointe were just as busy rushing to finish the chapel in time for the sisters’ arrival.

Beyond creating a floor where the nuns could all live together regardless of their level of care, the retirement community agreed to build the chapel and will install stained glass moved from the Normandy convent.

On a recent afternoon before the move, an envoy from the Archdiocese of St. Louis arrived to make sure the place was appropriate to hold Mass.

Nearby, the community is creating a wall commemorating the interfaith history of the place: Beginning in 1907 the land was home to the Orthodox Jewish Old Folks Home and for a century served as a nonprofit retirement facility for Jewish people.

Eventually, the property was sold and, after a few owners, is now operated by Lutheran Senior Services, a Protestant nonprofit the Sisters of the Good Shepherd will pay to care for the retired nuns.

“We are thrilled to have the sisters,” Mason Pointe executive director Drew Redman said. “They spent their lifetimes serving others, so we want to serve them now.”

It was 2:30 a.m. on moving day when Sister Pauline got the news that Sister Laetitia Hughes had taken a turn for the worse.

Sister Pauline and a few other nuns got up and gathered around her bed, repeating prayers for the dying.

Two hours later, Sister Laetitia passed, and more of the nuns gathered around her bed and said the rosary.

“We’re all thinking she decided to make a different move today,” Sister Pauline said.

A few hours later, the first group of sisters was loaded onto two buses and headed to Mason Pointe.

Sister Sarah Tolento was guided to her new room, where the TV was already on and set to the Catholic channel.

“Oh heavens, what am I going to do with all this space?” she said, looking around a room that is at least two times bigger than her space in Immaculate Heart.

By the next week, the nuns were almost all unpacked and gathered to decorate the Christmas tree in their new home.

They were getting used to the “luxurious” rooms and new staff but were still trying to figure out how to get complicated televisions to just show the news.

They sat in a semi-circle and sipped red punch, ate candies and unwrapped ornaments as choral Christmas music played.

Sister Pauline had the nuns’ Christmas wishlist tucked by her side: One wants a notepad and pencil. Another requested cashew nuts. One nun simply requested “whatever was being given out.”

“One of the sisters asked for Polident for her dentures,” Sister Pauline said, laughing. “I said, `No, that doesn’t need to be a Christmas gift, don’t worry, we’ll get ou that.”’

The local leader said that the first Christmas out of the convent would be bittersweet, but they were comforted by being able to all stay together.

“It’ll be the first Christmas in a new home,” she said.

By ERIN HEFFERNAN, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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