Monday, June 03, 2002

Six siblings, six sisters in service

By Ray Schaefer
Enquirer contributor

        VILLA HILLS — In the middle of the Great Depression, God called six girls on rollerskates in Latonia.

        Like other Covington kids in the 1930s, the six Wolking sisters skated, played marbles, hiked and raised pigeons, all the while, listening to their mother talk about saintly nuns.

        “She wanted to go to the convent, but fell in love with a grocery boy,” Sister Teresa Wolking said.

        The six sisters listened to their mother.

        The only children of Charles and Antoinette Wolking, all six went to the convent. Altogether, they've given a total of 338 years of their lives to God and have never regretted the decision.

        Together, Mary Anne, Teresa, Amelia, Charles, and Consolata — have been Benedictine nuns for more than 50 years each. Five all live at St. Walburg Monastery on the Villa Madonna Academy campus.

        The sixth, the late Sister Mercedes Wolking, died Jan. 21.


Rich lives

        “There's no such thing as retirement in the convent,” Sister Teresa said. “ I wanted to be a nun so I could go to heaven. We live in the presence of God.”

        In fact, they are so busy working and praying, it's a good day if they can spend 10 minutes together. Sister Consolata is in the monastery's infirmary.

        “Sundays, we're lucky if we have an hour-and-a-half,” Sister Teresa said. “We think we had a rich life.”

        And none of the sisters ever thought of doing anything else with their lives. They see what they do as the highest calling.

        “I see God in our prayers, in our work and the people I teach and work with,” Sister Teresa says.

        The way Sister Teresa figures it, her mom influencing them was the next best thing to becoming a nun herself.

        “She went to St. Walburg School when it was on 12th Street in Covington,” Sister Amelia says. “The way she talked about those nuns; she just loved them.”

        The Wolking sisters are unusual only because there were six of them instead of two or three. It was common in large Catholic families to encourage one or more siblings to enter the church. But six Sisters from one family was an impressive figure, even in the 1930s.

        Sister Carole Shinnick, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of Silver Spring, Md., says parental attitudes toward religion influenced the children.

        “A lot of small cities were centered around religion, especially for women,” at the time the Wolkings were receiving their calls to the religious life, Sister Shinnick says.

        By the time the Wolking girls were ready for their novena, a nine-day ritual in which they were to pray for something special, the idea of becoming nuns was firmly ingrained.

        Sister Mary Anne was the first to join the Order of St. Benedict at St. Walburg, although Sister Teresa playfully claims she was first to desire becoming to a nun.

        Sister Amelia remembers a remade rhyme from her days at the St. Ann Church in Covington.

        “The girls used to pray, "Good Saint Ann, send me a man',” Sister Amelia recalls. “I prayed, "Good Saint Ann, make me a nun'.”

        For Sister Mary Anne, it was her first-grade teacher, Sister Jeanne Pieper, who influenced her.

        “She was so understanding,” Sister Mary Anne says.The Mother Superior gave each sister her new name when she was invested as a nun.

        For Sisters Mary Anne, Teresa, Amelia, Mercedes and Consolata, the O.S.B. was their first and only choice. Sister Charles, however, thought about the Carmelite order first before settling upon O.S.B.

        But “This was during the Depression,” Sister Charles said. “Carmelites required a dowry.”

        Sister Consolata said her decision to be a nun had nothing to do with what her sisters did — she wrote a composition in second grade expressing such a desire.

        “It was something you wanted to do,” Sister Consolata said. “I think it's the Holy Spirit calling you.”

        Being a nun was not cheap. Sister Amelia said it cost about $100 in the '30s to pay for and make the serge wool and Irish linen veil, pleated coif and head band that make up the traditional nun's habit.

        In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII said nuns could take off the habit to as Sister Teresa put it, “join the real world” by wearing regular clothes. Sister Amelia, however, still wears her two habits.

        “I thought I should wear them out and not waste them,” Sister Amelia said.


A nun's routine

        To Sister Amelia, the best part of being a nun is exercising many talents. She runs the Madonna Manor laundry facility, works in the Villa Madonna Academy grade school cafeteria and is housekeeper at Villa Madonna Center.

        “I can do what I can when I can,” Sister Amelia said.

        The daily routine the sisters follow is the same, whether they wear the habit or not.

        It is not for someone who likes to sleep late. The sisters wake at 5:15 a.m. and have morning prayers at 6:15 a.m. before breakfast at 7:15 a.m.

        They work from 8 a.m. to noon and then have noon prayers. A scant half-hour for lunch and back work work until 5:15 p.m., with evening prayers at 5:15 p.m. Evening prayers begin at 7 p.m. with free time after that until lights-out at 10 p.m.

        Sometimes the sisters play cards or watch television, other times it's a walk around the Villa Madonna campus, with spectacular views of Dearborn County, Ind. and Hamilton County, Ohio as well as parts of Northern Kentucky on a clear day.

        St. Walburg is named after St. Walburga (710-779), an English nun who took care of early Benedictine nuns and later became abbess of a monastery at Heidenheim, Germany.

        The O.S.B. came to St. Mary's, Pa. from Eichstatt, Germany in 1859. St. Walburg Monastery opened on 12th Street in Covington in 1903 and moved to its present location at 2500 Amsterdam Road in 1937.

        Each O.S.B. order is autonomous.

        “It's the beauty and the peace,” Sister Charles said of the campus. “You feel the presence of God.”


Praying over the world

        Current events — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America's battle against terrorism, sex scandals involving Catholic priests molesting young boys — worry the sisters.

        “We pray about (Israel) every day,” Sister Teresa said. “We know God's got His finger in every pie.”

        Sister Amelia doesn't see any stigma attached to her ministry. She criticizes the media for “making a campaign” of the priests, but thinks the priests should face the same penalties as anyone else.

        “These children's lives are traumatized,” she said. “I feel (priests) should be treated like any other citizen. I'd just treat the victims with great sympathy.”

        One more thing concerns the sisters nationwide: finding young women to take over for them. Sister Shinnick said what the Wolkings did is less likely to happen today.

        “I don't think families are as big,” Sister Shinnick said. “Kids grow up in a town a few years and leave.”

        Sister Charles said several nuns go to schools to talk about their ministry, but Sister Teresa said they battle long odds.

        “When (girls) get out in the field and get a touch of money in a country that uses five-sixths of the world's resources,” Sister Teresa said, “it's hard to make a commitment.”

        But the commitment to praying and serving is something the Wolking sisters have never regretted making. And in staying at St. Walburg, they think they have found their home — here and hereafter.

        “This is heaven,” Sister Teresa said. “This is where (the angel) Gabriel will blow his horn.”


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