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A nun’s lot

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Why is it, then, that the union of a person with God can be met with such resistance? Traditionally a lifestyle choice to be proud of, these days it seems that those who want a religious life often face more obstacles from their families than one might expect.
Breige Lavery, a 48-year-old from Ardboe, Co. Tyrone, had to convince her family that she was doing the right thing. Her vocation gradually took hold over several years and now she’s a novice with the Sister of Mercy order of nuns.
“I waited until I was well into the process before I told my family,” she said over the phone from Texas recently. “One of my brothers asked me what had taken so long, but my twin sister was very shocked.”
Her twin sister, Maeve, who lives in Ireland with her husband and children, remembered how Lavery broke the news to her. “It was Halloween night,” she said. “She rang and told me to sit down. I thought it was something healthwise, so I was nervous.” When she heard Lavery’s intention to enter a convent, she was shocked. “I thought of her going around in a big black habit and living in a big house,” she said.
Like many people, Maeve’s experience of nuns was limited to her convent school days and the teachers she had there. “I know a bit more about it now,” she said. “I went to stay with Breige in New York and met some of the sisters in the community house. The have real lives with real problems. She won’t be hidden away from the world.”
Despite her alleviated fears, Maeve still finds herself justifying her sister’s decision to people. “Customers come into our chip shop and ask how Breige is. I tell them that she is a nun but always tell them that a nun’s life is different now, that a lot has changed,” she said.
Many of the changes have been associated with Vatican II. The habits nuns wore became less severe and, in some cases, were eliminated altogether. The way women lived out their vocation involved more choice than ever before with a shift from contemplative life in a convent to an apostolic life in the community. The latter involves a more normalized life where the work nuns do is considered as important as devotion to prayer.
One book that may do much to dispel the myth and mystery surrounding religious life is Wall Street Journal reporter John J. Fialka’s “Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America.” It is an exhaustive and comprehensive study of the 400 communities of nuns in America, with a particular focus though on the Sisters of Mercy order, which was founded in Ireland.
Fialka calls the nuns “America’s first feminists” and notes how little is written about them in official church histories, despite the fact that they built an estimated 800 hospitals and more than 10,000 private schools.
The book describes women arriving at the convent of the Dominican sisters of St. Cecilia. “These are families bringing daughters to enter religious life, a bittersweet experience,” I sys. “Many parents are sad, puzzled by the attraction of a seemingly anachronistic career. Some strongly oppose, even fear this mysterious world. The ‘postulants’ — newcomers to religious life — arrive physically and emotionally drained from teary goodbyes.”
Lavery didn’t grow up with a desire to be a sister. She moved to New York on a student visa in 1978 and eventually settled in the city with a job as a paralegal in a law firm. At age 35, she moved to the Credit Lyonnais bank, where she spent seven years.
By her own admission, Lavery had a full life with boyfriends and relationships. She also had a love of charitable work and spent most weekends helping out a priest in Queens. It was through the priest’s secretary that she finally came into contact with the Sisters of Mercy.
“I was invited to a Sean O’Casey play and realized that most of the group were nuns,” she said. “They were great company, so we stayed in touch.”
Lavery got particularly friendly with a Sr. Kathleen, and together they discussed religion for hours. “I don’t know where my questions came from, but I wanted to learn all about her work and the life she led,” she recalled.
With an interest in learning more, Lavery became an associate. That involves supporting the sisters in their charitable work without making a religious commitment. She was increasingly cautious about the new world she was entering. “I didn’t tell friends, as it was something I had to protect,” she said. “I was afraid of being discouraged.”

Testing suitability
Lavery had become increasingly disheartened with her daily job. “My work in the bank had nothing to do with real life,” she said. “It was the opposite of what I was trying to achieve in the community.”
Aware of the fact that she could do charitable work as a layperson, Lavery had long held a desire to develop her spiritual side. She felt drawn to be part of religious life and community.
The next few steps Lavery took were gradual. She joined a faith-sharing group, where, through discussions with likeminded people, she started to explore her beliefs. She also began to have regular meetings with a spiritual director. Eventually, she admitted to herself that she had a blossoming vocation. She underwent a battery of psychological tests, necessary to test suitability for community life. She then moved to a community house in Queens for a one-month trial. It went well.
In August 2000, Lavery entered the community as a postulant. It is a two-year candidate period during which women live with the other sisters but keep their day job. At this point, she decided to tell her family and friends. “I knew they would be surprised and understood that,” she said.
Her father was in his 80s. He was unsure about her decision, noting that his sister had gone to Australia as a nun and he had not seen her for more than 50 years. His associations with religious life, then, were negative ones.
One of her best friends was equally slow to cheer her on. Lavery and Noreen Fleming have been friends since 1985, when they met at a camogie club. “She told me to have a glass of scotch and a cigarette,” Fleming said. “When she broke the news about wanting to join the order of the Sisters of Mercy, I just spat the scotch across the table and started choking.”
Fleming asked her friend about Sean, someone Lavery had been spending a lot of time with. Sean’s identity was revealed as Sr. Sean, Lavery’s spiritual advisor. “It took me months to accept it,” Fleming said. “I kept telling her about all the Kerrymen she would be missing. Breige is very determined, though. She knows her own mind.”
These days, Lavery is based in Laredo, Texas. “I take things day by day,” she said. “Even if this does not work out in the long run, it has been a wonderful experience.”
A fear of the unknown seems to fuel many of the reservations about entering religious life for candidates and their families alike. However, far from being coerced into a habit and hidden away, the process of becoming a nun is a long and open one, where discussion and exploration of feelings are as welcome as prayer.
Twice a month, Lavery attends an intercommunity program where 30 novices meet, talk and mix socially. There are 15 men and 15 women who are all at various stages of entering a community and they share their experiences.
Statistics gathered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this year would seem to illustrate a decline in the number of vocations. In 2002, the total number of nuns stood at 78,094. This year, the total is 75,500.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that Lavery waited until she was in her 40s before she started to investigate the possibility of religious life.
Lavery’s sister Maeve said that shock is a normal reaction. “In Ireland, we still have the wrong idea about what life as a nun is like,” she said. “The nuns should publicize their changes, they should tell people that they are different now.”
Sr. Deanna Sabetta, a vocational director for the archdiocese of New York, is a believer in spreading the word. “We work with a priest and do educational awareness programs. We spend the day in a high school and talk to young people,” she said. “It is to sew the seed and show that a vocation to religious life is a viable lifestyle these days.”
According to Sabetta, it is more usual for women to discover a vocation later in life nowadays. “Major life decisions are made much later,” she said. “In any case, all of us have a vocation to religious life. How we live that out is part of the process I help with: as a married person, as single, as a priest, deacon or nun.”
She is aware of the negative connotations families can initially attach to life in a religious community. “Lack of family support is a hindrance. They often have other ambitions for their children,” she said.

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