70 is the new 50: why Catholic sisters age so well

Written with Sister Andrea Dixon, SC

Reflected in my mirror is the face of a woman nearly seven decades old. She has short, salt-and-pepper hair and wrinkles around her smile. I laugh with her, because, on me, 70 looks pretty vibrant. As I approach this milestone birthday, I don’t think of myself as aging, I think of myself as living.

And what a life it’s been so far.

Last year I celebrated my 50th anniversary of entering the Sisters of Charity in New York. I was 19 then, transplanted from an island in the Bahamas. I joined the sisters expecting to spend my life teaching, as they had taught me, but God’s plan took me from the schools into several ministries and today, I am a practicing psychotherapist. My ministries have been a constant education about the compassionate God, the human condition and the resiliency of the human spirit.

Religious life has opened up a world I never would have known if I had walked a different path. There are a lot of surprises that go along with becoming a sister. I’ve had advantages that have enabled me to know and discover more about myself, to learn and grow and experience a loving God in the context of community and to minister as a Sister of Charity. These are all special gifts. Being a sister gave me the freedom to grasp the hand of God and go wherever I was led.

The year I began in religious life was turbulent year all over the world. In Rome Vatican II was in session, the Civil Rights Movement and later Peace Movements went on outside our closed environment during those first years of formation. I learned to love the routine of our day with set times of for prayer, meals, chores, study and leisure, yet these movements all had a tremendous impact on my life as a sister and a young Black woman.

The rhythm of the convent was helpful as I transitioned not only to life as a sister, but also life in New York. I was this sheltered island girl who had never traveled before, being dipped into this vast place that was so large and so dark. I longed to see the bright sun and to know how God’s plan for my life would unfold.

I remember being very young when I first heard the call to religious life, but through the years it has grown, nourished and purified. To be a sister might begin as a one-time decision, but becoming a sister is a choice that I make again and again as I grow in my relationship with God and the community.

After college, I lived in the convent and taught elementary school and worked in the parish in East Harlem for 16 years. Many of the families in this neighborhood community were dealing with poverty, crime and substance abuse. A number a families were separated by a spouse or loved one in jail, and I wanted to find a way to help them. I took courses in social work and then began to counsel women whose partners were incarcerated. Another sister and I launched a program in the New York City jails and New York State prisons where we provided counseling and court advocacy to incarcerated women and offered services for their children. Later my focus shifted to specialized trauma work with women who were victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, incest and other violent crimes.

My ministry throughout the years has given me so much. I live in constant gratitude. I have heard the stories and been witness to the degree of depravity that one person can exercise over another, and I have heard stories and been witness to the compassion that we as human beings can have for each other. My ministry with people in the margins is both a blessing and a sadness. I continue to be sustained by my faith and by what I call my “God place” – where I find goodness, light and hope. Being quiet and still is key to nurturing the recognition of God in all things. I love solitude – walking on the beach, staring at the sky, listening for bird songs. I take time to smell dying leaves and read poetry. As a religious woman, I can do all this and more.

The freedom this life offers me is an absence of preoccupation with the declining changes in my 69-year-old body. Since my early days as a Sister of Charity, our primary focus was on deepening our inner lives. Even as our religious garb changed from a habit to simple dress of the day, I dress with a certain professional modesty.

I don’t plan to dye my graying hair – I have earned every gray hair!

Aging for a woman religious is more the acknowledgment that our joints are creaky and less flexible. I try to look at it as a part of the maturation process. We mature; we don’t grow old. My knees may ache at times, but you know what? I can bend them!

I see age 70 as moving to the next level of growth. I may be less agile, but I have certainly gained wisdom and experience.

About Christina Capecchi

Christina Capecchi is an award-winning journalist from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She is the author of the nationally syndicated column “Twenty Something,” which appears in more than 50 Catholic newspapers across the country. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, America, The Chicago Tribune, The Star Tribune and The Pioneer Press. She also provides contracted editing and writing services. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor’s from Mount Mercy University.