The Way of Beauty A Tribute to the Church's 'Single Ladies'

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An essay entitled, "St. Teresa and the Single Ladies" recently appeared in the New York Times.  Its author, Jessa Crispin, was prompted to write it while touring Avila, Spain, the city famous for its first lady Teresa, the Carmelite nun, mystic, reformer, prolific writer, and Doctor of the Church. 

Like many non-Catholics and even those within the faith, Ms. Crispin both marvels and puzzles over the vocation of consecrated religious women whom she refers to as "single ladies." They are not only "the most socially engaged, working with the world's most vulnerable," she observes. Their creative output is also impressive, far more so than single and married women. 

What could possibly inspire women to become nuns? This question is at the heart of Ms. Crispin's essay.

A Response to the 'Jessa Crispins' of the World 

Having responded to a personal call from God, consecrated women find it difficult to explain the proximate source of their religious vocation; each one is born out of a certain aura of mystery. 

Consecrated women freely embrace a way of living that foregoes married love and family in preference to consecrated celibacy that chooses "the world for a wedding ring," to quote Jesuit poet and priest, Daniel Berrigan. Consecrated women also profess the vows of poverty and obedience.  The former essentially means that finances and other material goods become part of a common fund.  The latter means that assignments for mission are intended to build a better world, a more vibrant Church and a mature, fulfilled individual. 

By professing three vows, the consecrated woman is free to live the two great commandments completely: love of God and neighbor with no intermediary encumbrances.  How she carries this out is dependent on her natural gifts and acquired talents.

Today many deplore that dedicated and gifted women should be lost to a world where they might have exercised wider and more beneficial influence.  The truth however is that it is precisely the religious vocation with its structure that forms her in preparation for the Church's mission.  A life of service reaps countless rewards.

What follows below is a thumb-nail sketch of a few consecrated women dedicated to the service of others.   The unnamed thousands, living or deceased, are included in spirit.

Consecrated Life: Cloistered Orders

Women who live in enclosed monasteries or abbeys are nuns, to be precise. They take vows of stability to remain in one specific community, conversion to the monastic life, and obedience to the superior. Poverty and celibacy are included in these solemn promises. 

The main ministry of Benedictines is prayer-prayer for the world, for the Church, and for individuals in need.  Their six or seven hours of chanting the Divine Office, spread over the course of the day, begin when most people are fast asleep.  Rarely do the nuns leave the enclosure, but within it, the seeds of creativity blossom as in a garden of variegated and colorful flowers.  Speaking of flowers, St. Thérèse of Lisieux is probably the most famous Carmelite female saint, a Doctor of the Church and co-patron of the missions-this "The Little Flower of Jesus" who died in her mid-twenties.

Stanbrook Abbey

Originally founded in 1625 in France, the foundress of Stanbrook Abbey in England was Dame Gertrude More, the great-great-granddaughter of St. Thomas More. Dame Laurentia McLachlan, O.S.B., was abbess of Stanbrook between 1931 and 1953.  Through her rich but unassuming letters, this cultivated nun maintained remarkable friendships with men and women of every walk of life.  The agnostic Sydney Cockerell and the playwright George Bernard Shaw corresponded with her for many years. The belles lettres of Lady Abbess elicited from Shaw this comment to her: "Though you are an enclosed nun, you do not have an enclosed mind."  

Dame Laurentia McLachlan and her community pioneered the restoration of Gregorian chant in England, and she was a leading authority on music and medieval manuscripts.  Her work was recognized by Pius XI who bestowed on her the Bene Merenti medal for her contribution to Church music.

Stanbrook Abbey served as the model for Rumer Godden's novel, In This House of Brede, a fictionalized account of Benedictine monastic life in the twentieth century.   

Abbey of Regina Laudis

More in The Way of Beauty

The Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis are perhaps the best-known monastic community of cloistered nuns in this country.  Its foundress, Mother Benedict Duss, was a medical doctor in France before becoming a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre.  The movie, "Come to the Stable," is based on the historical facts that led her to Bethlehem, CT after World War II.  Later she discovered that General George S. Patton had liberated that Abbey from the Nazis.

Women who enter Regina Laudis Abbey are said to be accomplished in various disciplines which can support the monastic community from within the enclosure. Here only four nuns will be mentioned. The current Abbess, Dame Lucia Kuppens, holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale University.  Under her visionary leadership, the monastery is engaged in the New Horizons Renovations project that will increase the number of its buildings and renovate the old ones.  She oversees a vast land project and a burgeoning Monastic Intern program. 

Mother Margaret Georgina Patton, O.S.B., a trained horticultural therapist, cares for the Abbey gardens.  She is the granddaughter of General George S. Patton (mentioned above), best known for his leadership of the Third Army in France and Germany following the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

The former Hollywood actress Dolores Hart, now Mother Dolores Hart, maintains ties with Hollywood and is a voting member of the Oscar nominating committee. She directs the Abbey's open-air theater and arts program. When the actress Patricia Neal died in 2010 as a new convert to the Catholic faith, she was buried on the grounds of Regina Laudis.  A lifelong friend of Mother Dolores Hart, she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Abbey's theater and arts program.

Mother Jerome Von Nagel Mussayassul, O.S.B. was known before her marriage as Baroness Melanie Von Nagel.  She married a Muslim, Kahlil Mussayassul, and after his death, she became a convert to Catholicism and a cloistered but extern Benedictine nun.  She devoted her life to scholarship, writing, and translating in the spirit of her namesake, Saint Jerome. She died in 2006 at ninety-eight.

At Regina Laudis, Gregorian chant is sung daily at the Divine Office. The nuns convey its power to communicate the presence of God as no other music does.  

Consecrated Life: the Active Institutes

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Consecrated women who conduct ministries in external social venues like schools, hospitals, foreign missions, retreat houses, and homes for unmarried and abused pregnant women are referred to as sisters. Daily prayer and other religious exercises are integrated with their ministry, and one is done for the sake of the other.   Thousands of women religious are dedicated to others in ways known only to the beneficiaries of their love.

Often the foundational Rule of a religious institute specifies its mission as with the Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa. No one who has read about them or worked for a time with them can fail to be moved by their remarkable dedication to the destitute poor.  Human logic defies explaining how these women can take men, women, and children left to die in the gutter and with tender compassion, prepare them for a peaceful and dignified death. What is done for these least ones is done for and to Jesus Christ.

Women enter a monastery or convent with their own unique narratives and gifts. The journalist Kate O'Beirne, a graduate of Good Counsel College, notes that the early appearance of female leadership in this country was assumed by consecrated women who served as college presidents.

Sister Madeleva, C.S.C., internationally-known poet and educator, was president of St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN for twenty-seven years. Her circle of friends included Edith Wharton, C.S. Lewis, and Joyce Kilmer.  As a college educator, Sister Madeleva deplored the piecemeal education of sisters and initiated efforts to establish higher degrees in theology at Catholic institutions across the nation. Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J. was the first female theologian to join the faculty of theology at The Catholic University of America.

Sister Luke Tobin, S.L., a leader among her own sisters, was one of a few women invited to the Second Vatican Council as an auditor and planner of the sessions.  

Mother Georgia Stevens, R.S.C.J., a convert to the Catholic faith, erected the Pius X School of Liturgical Music at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, Purchase, NY (renamed Manhattanville College). With the collaboration of Mrs. Justine B. Ward and others, she was dedicated to the refinement of the Church's liturgical music, especially Gregorian chant.  Mother Josephine Morgan, R.S.C.J. taught music at Manhattanville and headed the committee that published the Pius X Hymnal.

Under the leadership of Mother Alfons Schmid, O.S.F. the School Sisters of St. Francis have established a strong tradition in music and art at Alverno College, Milwaukee, WI.

Sister Helena Steffensmeier, O.S.F. was an accomplished artist and teacher at Alverno College working in diverse media:  wood, stone, fiber, oil, clay, and watercolor. She remained active until she lost her vision in 1993.  

Sister Theophane Hytrek, O.S.F. was an internationally-known organist and composer whose leadership in music extended beyond the School of Music at Alverno College which she transformed into the finest in this country.

Social Justice

Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. has dedicated her life to death row ministry and to abolishing the death penalty altogether.  In the movie, "Dead Men Walking," Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Helen, won an Oscar for her portrayal of this Sister of St. Joseph. 


Consecrated women would be the first to say that they did not choose their vocation. Rather, it is they who have been chosen by God. The consecrated women in this country have been the backbone of the American Catholic Church and even beyond, a fact that is frequently overlooked or diminished.  Without them, their hard work, ingenuity and determination, without their trust in Providence and fidelity to their vocation, the daily activities of the American Catholic Church would screech to a halt. 

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