By Kathy Berken
When 85-year-old St. Joseph Sister Mary Beneva Schulte went out for her daily walk on the morning of July 30, little did she know that a truck would hit her as she stepped into a busy intersection and that she would die later that afternoon. At 85, she had still lived independently but simply after moving with the rest of the retired nuns last December into the new senior living complex next to their old convent. She was the first to tell me that Carondelet Village was not for her. “It’s not a convent,” she said once. “It’s too fancy. We don’t need all this.”
Their gorgeous new facility for older adults in St. Paul, Minn., is co-owned and operated by Presbyterian Homes and Services and also welcomes lay people. But Sr. Mary Beneva wasn’t the only Sister who thought their new residence conflicted with their vow of poverty. They had grown accustomed to the modest and often austere convent life of their younger years. Some lived in makeshift bedrooms or closets in the schools or hospitals where they worked. Friends said they deserved to live at “the Village” as reward for years of service. Most, like Sr. Mary Beneva, knew innately that the rewards of service are not material.
A few weeks before she died, we sat in the Bistro at the Village — built for the broader Twin Cities community — and she repeated her refrain about simplicity and vocation. Then it struck me. The Sisters did have a mission there, and it was not to adjust to the comfortable environment. It was to carry their spirit as well as their memories there. And I don’t mean just living the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) mission of “moving always towards the love of God and love of neighbor without distinction,” critical as it is. I mean the unmistakable but invisible, palpable, sensual, whole-body experience of peace you get when you step foot in one of their old buildings where they spent lifetimes in prayer and movement towards the love of God and neighbor without distinction.
As I told Sr. Mary Beneva about the welcome calm I felt the first moment I walked through the doors of Bethany Convent in 2009, where I was invited to live while I was in grad school next door at St. Catherine University, she listened. As I described the same feeling that washed over me when I walked from Bethany through the Provincial House where she had a small room and into their stately four-story novitiate, used now for retreats and conferences, she smiled.
Like a fish unaware of the ocean, Sr. Mary Beneva did not feel this spirit the same way I did when I first entered their high-ceilinged chapel where she worshipped every morning and where her last visit would be her funeral Mass. I leaned closer. “I am absolutely convinced that your purpose here is significant. I think your entire community brings the CSJ spirit into this new place so future generations who come here will feel it and be fed like I was at Bethany. That’s your purpose. I just know it.” She smiled and nodded. “I suppose so,” she whispered.
After Sr. Mary Beneva died, her close friend Sister Helena Sheridan said, “Our space will be available for others when we are gone but our spirit will still be there.” Yes.
In “Bread for the Journey,” Father Henri Nouwen says that we are to follow Christ’s example. “As faithful witnesses of Jesus we have to trust that our lives too will be fruitful, even though we cannot see their fruit. The fruit of our lives may be visible only to those who live after us.”
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)