BY JULIE IRWIN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Like many Catholic girls, a young Bea Keller once entertained thoughts of becoming a nun. And like many, she went on to marry and raise children instead.
Sister Louise Zaplitny holds pictures of her sons, Mark and Fred.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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But unlike most, she also ended up -- seven children and one annulment later -- as a nun. Today Sister Bea Keller visits with her 12 grandchildren at the Sister of Charity Motherhouse in Nazareth, Ky., headquarters of the order she joined in 1991.
"As my marriage ended, I sought consolation and support from God and the church, and then the thought of religious life came," said Sister Keller, 58, a parish nurse coordinator. "I didn't even think it was possible."
She and dozens of other women who found out it is possible are gathering this weekend at Moye Retreat Center in Melbourne, Ky., for the first-ever Sister-Moms Conference. Forty-six women from as far as California, Florida, Texas, Connecticut and Minnesota, representing at least 21 different religious communities, will participate. That's about half of the roughly 90 North American nuns who organizers know are also mothers.
They are meeting to discuss the challenges and opportunities that they alone face: Where do they spend holidays -- with their children or their community? How do they make the transition from lives of independence to living with other women? And what sorts of mother-of-the-bride gowns are appropriate for their children's weddings?
Although the phenomenon of sister-moms is rare, it has roots deep in the history of the Catholic church and has become increasingly popular in the last decade or two. Modern sister-moms can rattle off the Catholic saints who served as both mothers and women religious, including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint and a widowed mother of five, who founded the Sisters of Charity in 1812; St. Louise de Marillac, a widow and mother of one son, who worked with St. Vincent de Paul and founded the Daughters of Charity in 1633; and St. Frances of Rome, a mother of three who founded the Collatines order in 1425 after her husband's death.
Many of today's sister-moms are divorced rather than widowed, although they must obtain annulments before they can enter an order. They mirror a trend of people entering religious life at an older age; a recent study for the U.S. Catholic Conference found the mean age of women religious preparing for final vows was 39.3. And like single women who enter the church after years in the work force, sister-moms have unique stories to share.
Louise Zaplitny was an accountant and mother of two when her husband Steven died in 1991. Unhappy with her profession and grieving her husband's death, she undertook several spiritual programs, the second a nine-month retreat directed by a priest.
"He said, "You can discern whether you want to stay single, get married or enter religious life.' And I thought, he's crazy. I never knew I could consider it at this age, after being married and having children," said Sister Zaplitny, who entered the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati in 1993.
As the idea began to germinate she talked with her older sister, who also is a nun, and with formerly married women who had entered religious life.
"I got the sense they really felt fulfilled in this life and it hadn't interfered with their life as a mom," said Sister Zaplitny, 52, who works as a hospital chaplain at Mercy Hospital Anderson and at an adult-empowerment agency. "That was really important to me. I wanted my kids (who are 27 and 29) to feel like they still had a mother."
But those maternal duties are precisely what worries some people about the increasing number of sister-moms. Sister Cathy Bertrand, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago, talks to vocation directors around the country who, she says, have justified concerns about mothers entering religious orders.
"When push comes to shove the affected ties that are there are with their children, and they should be," Sister Bertrand said, citing potential conflicts between the duties of religious life and the obligations to children, even those who have reached adulthood. Additionally, "by the time you are in your late 40s and up, to move from a life of independence to a life of interdependence is incredibly challenging," she said. "There are situations where it definitely has worked and worked well, but there are a lot of factors to be considered."
Formation directors and the sister-moms themselves find the obstacles along the way: members in the community who find the addition of a mother disruptive, the canonical requirements such as annulment in cases of divorce, questions about a new member's hopes and expectations. Even the spirituality of a sister-mom, formed by her decades of experiences, is different than that of other candidates.
"It's a little difficult to form a woman of 50. We come with our own history, we come with our own spirituality," Sister Keller said. "It's a case of not forming us but blending us -- blending what they have and blending what we have."
This weekend's conference has been a 12-year dream of Sister Keller. Speaker-free, it will consist mostly of prayer and small-group sessions, with lots of free time for talking. There are hopes of regional groups and a newsletter to follow.
"I'm anxious for this weekend because I know five (sister-moms) in my community and I only know three others," Sister Zaplitny said. "This is an opportunity for me to communicate with other sister-moms ... (to ask), are we all doing this the same way? Are we all struggling the same way?"