Making Waves in Kansas
Toting a small hoe and pruning sheers, Sister Agatha Grosdidier crept her way along the flower beds straddling the massive stone Ursuline convent in Paola, Kansas, bending to paw the earth and clip a useless twig. She was lean and large boned with a broad, handsome face. A plain black head covering that fell back to the nape of her neck--a veil--was the only outward sign that she was a nun. The profusion of roses, irises, tulips, jonquils, wild sweet Williams, poppies, bluebells, and tiger lilies, among others, was her doing. Her love of tending flowers dated back to her childhood spent on a Kansas farm. It was a passion that she later saw as helping her to nurture children in the classroom.
When she wasn't digging in the dirt, Sister Grosdidier answered the convent phone or sewed aprons. In 1995, she was ninety-five years old, the eldest of the sisters. For nearly seventy-five of those years, she had been an Ursuline sister in Paola, a farming town forty miles south of Kansas City. Her chronology coincided remarkably with the history of the sisters' community. She was born five years after the Paola community's founding by thirteen nuns and three postulants, or trainees, and had lived to celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 1995.
Sister Grosdidier was the kind of sturdy survivor who attracts accolades such as "remarkable" or "awesome." She was astonishingly robust, with a sparkle still dancing in her eyes. Her health had been so resilient that an insurance man, noting that no claims had been filed under her name, called the convent to ask if Sister Agatha was still alive. She loved tacos, spicy foods, and chocolate milk shakes. Lighthearted and quiet, she adored her flowers and her sisters, and her sisters adored her. She was special, but she did not see herself that way; rather she was a sister among sisters doing the ordinary things. It had been for her the best life she could imagine.
Longevity and constancy had been hallmarks of Ursulines for nearly five hundred years. St. Angela Merici (1474-1540) began the community in sixteenth-century Italy, forsaking riches to feed the poor. She took the name of the order from the ancient German saint Ursula. Two centuries later, in 1727, the Ursulines became the first order to reach North America when French nuns from Rouen planted a convent in New Orleans seventy-five years before the city became absorbed into the United States. The Ursuline migration to Kansas had been by way of Louisville and St. Louis. Over that inclusive span of history, the sisters had endured waves of plenty and scarcity in both numbers and resources. Various branches had waxed and waned. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Ursulines still carried a distinct heritage but generally fit the profile of most other orders. Their story has become the familiar story of scores of communities from Sinsinawa Dominicans to Sisters of Mercy to Blessed Sacrament nuns. The circumstances differ, as do the particulars of their community arrangements, but they are much more alike than dissimilar. Sister Grosdidier and her fellow Paola Ursulines, therefore, reflected a much wider picture of the recent struggles and triumphs of American nuns in the mid-1990s.
Sister Grosdidier joined the Paola sisters in 1924 when they numbered more than fifty. She had shopped around before making a decision. The Ursulines won her allegiance because, unlike the nearby Benedictines, they had somewhat less stringent rules. They allowed sisters to go home if a parent died, for example; the Benedictines did not.
The majestic stone 1920s convent where she had moved as an excited young postulant had evolved into a three-story hub-and-spoke structure. At the ground-floor center stood a hand-carved solid walnut statue of Angela Merici bringing a basket of bread to peasants in a field.
Over the decades, the Ursulines had become a fixture in the Archdiocese of Kansas City and, like so many orders, an absolute necessity. Sister Grosdidier stepped into line to do her duty: she taught the children, instilling in them as best she could the Catholic faith. The Archdiocese of Kansas City had relied upon the Ursulines to do this work with special competence; the sisters were renowned for their energetic and spirited teaching. Even now with the order in steady decline, half a dozen sisters served as principals of archdiocesan schools and several others were teaching in them.
From the beginning, the community had been, in practice, under the authority of the archdiocese rather than under the direct rule of the Vatican (whether an order was "diocesan" or "pontifical" has many complex implications in terms of Church politics. Most orders prefer to be overseen by the Vatican so as to avoid meddling from local bishops closer to the scene). The Ursulines had therefore always allied themselves closely to the archdiocese.
Twenty years after taking final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--in the aftermath of World War II--Sister Grosdidier was happily teaching typing and other commercial skills to high school students. The community had swollen to nearly one hundred. Like those in every order, the Ursulines were women living on their own, having to raise their own funds to pay their own bills. The diocese paid sisters a token amount to teach (far below prevailing teacher salaries) but otherwise bore no responsibility for the sisters' financial welfare. The combined stipends from many nuns working as teachers made subsistence possible, although when the number of teachers declined there was a serious shortfall. In addition, in the early decades of the twentieth century the sisters owned two hundred acres on which they planted corn and vegetables and herded cattle to supply the convent kitchen. On another section of the spread, oil wells pumped a shallow pool of low-grade petroleum. Since then, the unprofitable wells have been capped and large chunks of the property sold off to a Wal-Mart and to the developers of a strip mall to pay the bills for retired sisters such as Sister Grosdidier. Thirty-four acres were donated for a special education center for mentally disabled children.
The nerve center for the Paola Ursulines' industry and creativity, the mother-house convent, is medieval and monastic, hollow and ghostly. The halls, prongs radiating from the center, are mysteriously dark, spare, and tomblike. A cozy chapel, where the sisters gather each day for Mass celebrated by a priest who serves as their official chaplain, features a marble altar, Austrian stained-glass windows, and a 1974 modernist mural titled St. Ursula and the Ursulines of Paola
, which had stirred some debate.
By contrast, the public rooms, where family and guests are received and social events staged, are filled with light and creature comforts. Two parlors serve as elegant galleries for outsized paintings of bishops who were counted among the founders of the community. Two busts symbolize the sisters' commitments: one of Pope Benedict XV, representing the Church; the other, William Shakespeare, who stands for their dedication to learning.
The most stunning contrast to the convent's darkness is the mellow pastel "wicker room." It is chockablock with the kind of furniture that gives the room its name, high-back chairs, sofas, footrests, and rockers, some bearing a blue embroidered U on the seat pad, not unlike the sitting room of a Titanic-like ocean liner from the early decades of the century. It is a space where girls from the adjoining Ursuline Academy, which closed a quarter century ago, had danced with and romanced their male guests at receptions and proms. Scattered throughout the social rooms, glass cases display collectors' items. One shows bells of porcelain, glass, brass, and silver; another features crosses from all over the world, many of them encrusted with gems. The most unusual case contains five hundred toy mice.
Such displays were, of course, for the benefit of the stream of outsiders who gained limited access to the convent during the years when the community flourished. Paola was a healthy branch of the Ursuline tree for many decades, though it never grew to the size of some branches in more populated areas.
In its centennial year, 1995, a total of forty-five nuns belonged to the community. Nobody, young or otherwise, was preparing to join. Three years later, the number had dropped to thirty-six, all but two of the departures through death. The average age was in the sixties. The last to enter, in 1980, was Sister Karen Klaffenbach, at age thirty-six, but she died tragically in her forties five years after my visit. A young woman who entered at the same time soon left.
In the dining room, Sister Grosdidier and the remaining nuns took their simple meals cafeteria-style. Some wore pantsuits, others dresses with or without a veil, still others tops and pants; two very old nuns appeared in full, modified habit. Their numbers included an authority on American ballet who had recently retired from the faculty of Loyola University of New Orleans, a massage therapist who still practiced in Paola, and a former high school principal. Meals were among the remaining rituals. The noontime meal, for example, began promptly at twelve o'clock and food was collected and consumed with hushed dispatch. Dirty dishes were unloaded from the trays to the stainless-steel counters to bring matters to a close.
The customs of the dining room conveyed the values of mutual respect, simplicity, routine, and devotion to community that continue to characterize Ursuline tradition. The sisters remained powerfully drawn to the example of St. Angela. More than a wooden statue of one who has receded into the mists of history, the saint is a constant reference point, a continuing source of inspiration, very much among them still.
The order to which St. Angela had given rise was anchored in the mainstream of American sister communities, neither as liberal as some nor as conservative as others. While there was little talk of women's ordination or reading of feminist literature, there was, at the same time, much personal autonomy and little expected conformity. Mass was conducted by traditional standards, though somewhat unusually, the prayers were rendered in inclusive language. The sisters' work was still located mostly in Church institutions, but those who were still able to work had more choices.
But the order had already weathered big changes. The Ursuline community that Sister Grosdidier entered in 1924 was a far cry from what the founder had intended. St. Angela's aim was to serve the poor by avoiding the Church's insistence that nuns be shut away in cloisters. She therefore sought a new way of religious life that spurned the wearing of habits, the taking of vows, and living in cloistered community. She created a distinct kind of sisterhood that was free to move about to do its work. It became a model for hundreds of communities that straddled the line between strict adherence to a cloistered regimen and an ad hoc arrangement that combined service to the world with enclosed religious discipline. This type of serving community came to dominate religious life in the United States during the great nineteenth-century Catholic immigration. But gaining acceptance for it from the Church hierarchy was difficult, as the early Ursuline experience showed.
So long as St. Angela remained alive, her concept of the Ursuline difference held together and the community was free to follow its own lights. When she died, however, Church officials stepped in, forcing the sisters to take vows, to put on habits, and to be cloistered. Her experiment had ended; her example lived on. Ursulines had become a fixture in Catholicism, among the most prominent of religious orders.
The decrees of Vatican II spurred the order to yet another turning point, requiring the sisters to revise their constitution to reform both their living patterns and the way community decisions were made. By the late sixties and early seventies, the Ursulines were faithfully fulfilling their assignments and they, like hundreds of other orders, had taken sharp turns.
Confusion and conflict accompanied these shifts. Sisters dropped out, some to marry, others disenchanted or drawn to other vocations opening to women. The year 1968 marked the greatest exodus. Strange twists of fate illustrated the volatility. A sister living at a diocesan high school, for example, said she fell in love with a police officer when he rushed to her high school convent to investigate a break-in. The couple soon married. The nun who had done the most to pioneer the new habit in 1964 suddenly left. In a stiff blow to the community's identity, Ursuline Academy, which had taught girls since 1898, closed in 1971 because of a shortage of teaching sisters and money. The order's two-year junior college had folded long before.
In writing a new constitution with the prompting of Vatican II, the sisters had, collectively, completely revamped the way the order was run. The kind of single-handed authority wielded by Paola's legendary superior, Mother M. Charles McGrath, came to an end. In its place, a system of power sharing gave an executive committee and the community as a whole decisive control over most matters. The obligatory prayer and worship schedule was dropped. Sisters no longer simply took work assignments defined by the superior; they could negotiate or propose their own work situations. Greater flexibility was granted in where a sister lived.
While the movement toward democracy found much favor among the sisters, the job of translating the theory into practice, in the midst of so much other tension and confusion, proved difficult. That task fell to Raymond Dieckman, a slight, soft-spoken nun who, when I visited in 1995, still preferred a simple black veil with a vest and skirt and, in the absence of an obligation, rose at 4 a.m. to pray. Raised in Kansas City, she entered the convent with seven others in 1952 (two of whom remained in the community) and was educated at Creighton University. In an unusual twist, her father (whose letters to her had been read by sisters in authority as part of the normal practice of the old days) spent the last years of his life at the convent, driving sisters to and fro and doing odd jobs.
In 1974, at age thirty-six, Sister Dieckman became the youngest superior ever elected by the Paola Ursulines. After two four-year terms, she returned to the ministry she holds dearest, chaplain to a hospice. Her experience as superior was difficult, she said, because there were no guidelines for how to lead in the new era. Nuns had always been dependent on the superior for nearly everything. Permission was required to do anything of significance and full obedience was expected. When the rules changed the lines of authority became murky. There was insecurity on both sides.
"I spent a lot of time trying to decide what my role of superior was," Sister Dieckman said. "Even the sisters didn't know where to go to get a final word. What was I supposed to be as a superior when all these other matters of decision were being parceled out to others? Should they get approval or not? What were they supposed to be talking to me about? Sisters were coming to me full of struggle." Out of the view of other sisters, she met with the archbishop for advice. Amid all the tension and perplexity, she said, some sisters felt their religious world had caved in on them and wondered if the community might fall apart.
The congregation didn't collapse, she noted, but neither could it return to the past or write a script for the future. Though she was no outspoken feminist, she believed the women's movement had prevented the sisters from looking backward by inoculating them against the "positions of servitude" to which they had been relegated. "We were always cheap labor," Sister Dieckman said. "The Church has to realize it has to meet our needs."
The Church had shown little intention of serving their needs. To the contrary, Rome had for nearly three decades fought to keep convent change within strict boundaries it believed appropriate, far short of the aspirations and expectations held by many sisters.
Without any sisters, of course, the point about subservience would be moot. If the clock ran out on Paola, any alternative would meet a dead end. Little wonder that destiny haunted the mind of the community at the time of my visit. How long could they keep the magnificent fortress of a convent, this monument to the glory days? How would the big medical bills get paid? Who would care for the old ones?
Excerpted from Double Crossed by Kenneth Briggs. Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth Briggs. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.