I am angry because I just found out that my fifth-grade nun died this past April, and no one from the motherhouse had the interest or courtesy to inform me. Sister Regina Rose went to God at the age of 108 (yes, 108!), with 90 of those years in consecrated life (yes, 90!).
Sister Regina was a tall, stately woman, proud of her Slovak heritage, in a religious community predominantly Irish, even oppressingly so. My mother was a full-time school volunteer (once the nuns got you on their radar screen, there was no escape); she had to visit all forty-five classrooms each morning to pick up the attendance slips. One morning, Sister Grace Gabriel, the principal, said to my mother, “Anne, you look sad and distracted today” (it was highly unusual in those days for Sisters to address parents by their given names, but my mother and she had formed a very close relationship). My mother replied, tearfully, “Sister, the doctor just told me that I have to have a hysterectomy. I don’t know if the Church permits this, and I am also very scared” (that was major surgery in those days).
“First of all, the Church permits it because it’s for a good purpose. Secondly, don’t be nervous. Go talk to Sister Regina. She had the procedure last year; she’s fine, and I’m sure she’ll be happy to help you” (this was also extraordinary because nuns never talked about “stuff” like that). Sister Regina did indeed guide my mother through the whole process.
Sister Regina became my fifth-grade teacher. A few months into the year – with over seventy kids in the class – she declared to my mother: “I can tell you three things about Peter’s future: He will be a priest; he will be a teacher; he will be a writer.” That insight didn’t come from gazing into a crystal ball; it came from a loving dedication to her apostolate. I should note that two other classmates of mine also became priests.
We moved out of the city after fifth grade, but Sister and I kept in touch. She was thrilled when I entered the seminary in 1968, making me truly one of “her boys” (an affectionate term nuns often used for their students who became priests). That year – that annus horribilis – was also the year of her community’s general chapter when they doffed their habits, moved into apartments, and abandoned our schools in droves. Sister stayed the course. When she refused to take off her veil, she was sent for psychological counseling and was also told there was no position open for her in the community.
A dentist, who had generously taken care of our entire school, offered Sister a job in his office. “But I don’t want to wear lay clothes, Doctor.” “I don’t want you to, either. I think most of my patients would love to be greeted by a Sister to assuage their fears.” It was a truly happy arrangement.
Sister Regina Rose graced my First Mass and reception with her presence. When I asked her to stand up to be acknowledged for her prophecy fifteen years earlier, she demurred, causing me to say, “Sister, for a whole year I obeyed you. Now it’s your turn to obey me!” Sister got a most well-deserved standing ovation. It also resulted for many in attendance to reminisce about the wonderful Sisters from their student days.
I took Sister Regina to dinner for her ninety-fifth birthday. She was as sharp as a tack, reminding me of things I said and did, lo, those many years ago. Eventually, she had to repair to the community’s retirement home, which was actually no longer theirs for they had sold it to a Lutheran agency! Not having received her customary Christmas card in her beautiful Palmer method penmanship for a few years, I wondered if she was still among us. I called the facility and tactfully asked for Sister, not knowing exactly how to ask if someone were still alive.
“One moment, and I’ll get her!” “Hello,” came a chipper voice. “Sister Regina?” “Yes, who’s this?” “One of your former students.” “Father Peter!” “How are you, dear?” “Not bad for 106!”
I reminded her that I had taken her out for her ninety-fifth birthday, which brought this feisty retort, “Yeah, but where were you for 100 and 105?” Suitably chastened, I promised to repeat the outing for 110. Alas, that was not to be. She proceeded to decry the living conditions, especially the lack of a Catholic presence to the place. A woman who had given thousands upon thousands of children a Catholic education was consigned to a non-Catholic end. I am told that during the so-called pandemic, the Sisters did not have even Sunday Mass; I wonder if Sister had the consolation of the Last Sacraments. I wish I had known.
In some sense, Sister’s death was a blessing because now that Lutheran agency is bailing out of the business and the remaining nineteen nuns are being farmed out to homes of various religious communities.
I recount this story as a tribute to a woman who – like every one of the thirty-some Sisters who taught me – made me into the human being, the Catholic, the priest that I am.
I also share this saga as a sad tale of how true is the Latin adage, “Corruptio optimi, pessima” (The corruption of the best is the worst). A vibrant religious institute of more than 2000 women in my boyhood has been reduced to nothing because so many of them (especially their leaders) imbibed the “spirit of Vatican II,” which devolved further into the “spirit of the world.” Or, as the indomitable moral theologian, Monsignor William Smith, once put it so laconically, “The longest wake in history!”
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