Written with Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ
My mother and I had always been close.
Growing up as the oldest of her three daughters, Mother and I were a lot alike: efficient, organized, industrious. Her name, Ruth, seemed to encapsulate these traits.
Raising our family in the Midway district of St. Paul, Minn., mother was a stay-at-home mom who often managed without my father, a traveling salesman. She was my anchor, the center of my life. Every day I saw how she put us kids first and lived out her faith. We were high Episcopalians, and we never missed Sunday church.
In 1936 I began high school at Derham Hall, an all-girls college-prep school in St. Paul established by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. I was the only non-Catholic in a class of 26. During religion class my teacher would release me to practice piano.
The Sisters of St. Joseph remained my teachers when I went on to attend nearby St. Catherine College. They were smart, spirited and sensitive. Living on campus, I absorbed many Catholic rituals. What struck me most was the way the sisters and my Catholic classmates incorporated their faith into daily life, bringing it up naturally in conversation, weaving it into papers, slipping into Our Lady of Victory Chapel on campus for a few minutes of prayer. Catholicism touched every dimension of their lives. I could see that it brought them meaning and serenity.
During my junior year, I began to feel a terrible struggle: continue as an Episcopalian or convert to Catholicism. The inner conflict ate away at me. I didn’t know why, but I knew I was at a crucial juncture, that this was going to be an important decision in my life.
I read many books about the Catholic Church, and what really persuaded me was my study of apostolic succession. I wanted to be in the church founded by Jesus Christ. I spoke to my Episcopalian minister, who was kind and supportive, and to a Catholic priest, who seemed impressed by the depth of my research.
Finally, I slipped away to the chapel during a free period and prayed, “I’ve got to make a decision about this, Lord. I can’t keep going back and forth.” A peace washed over me, and I knew what I should do: become a Catholic.
I was baptized on the feast of John the Baptist and made my first Holy Communion on the feast of Corpus Christi. My conversion didn’t upset Mother. She was understanding, telling me about her own struggle with religion as a young woman.
A radical call
But something deeper was at work, at by senior year, when I began to contemplate a fellowship at St. Louis University for students interested in becoming medical social workers, I couldn’t ignore my interest in becoming a nun. I told my mom, sitting her down in my bedroom one evening. She just about had a fit. She was convinced I was being overly influenced by the nuns at St. Catherine’s. We had a tense conversation that ended with her sharp admonition, “I am not telling your father!”
I also confided in the principal of Derham Hall, a Sister of St. Joseph who suggested I pursue my education and give my calling a little time, since I was such a new convert. I took her advice and went on to enjoy two wonderful years at St. Louis U, living with seven other social workers. One was engaged to a medical school student, so we had an in with the medical school guys. What a boisterous social life we had!
Still, I maintained my prayer life, attending daily Mass whenever I could. In the back of my mind, I was planning to enter the convent as soon as the program ended, so I never let myself get too close to any young man. I implemented a self-imposed two-date limit. Once I overheard my girlfriends saying that I was ordinarily so down to earth, but I sure was fickle when it came to men!
My desire for religious life continually deepened, and by the end of the program, I had no doubts about my future. I knew I had to tell my family. I would be back home in St. Paul for Easter and chose to announce my plan then. My parents, sisters, grandparents and I had dinner about 3 p.m. I decided to let them enjoy the meal in peace and share the news during dessert.
“I have an announcement to make to all of you,” I’d said. “I’m going to enter the convent in the fall.”
They stared at me in stunned silence and then everyone fled the dining room except my youngest sister. It was a disaster.
My mom later composed herself enough to express her objections. She felt as though I would be throwing my life away by entering the convent. She believed I had such a promising future, and I’m sure she had visions of grandchildren. The fact that I was her firstborn made it harder, I think. Perhaps more of her hopes and dreams rested on my shoulders.
I was 23 when I entered the novitiate, and I didn’t pack anything from the house. I didn’t dare act as if life was changing. So while other novices arrived with a trunk of their belongings, I arrived with just the clothes on my back. The nuns had gotten everything ready for me, right down to socks and underwear.
The other novices were allowed to visit family once a month, but Sister Edwina, the Mistress of Novices, made me call home every Sunday morning. She didn’t want me to lose contact with my mother. But when I called, anytime Mother answered, she immediately handed the phone off to my sister. She refused to talk to me.
We had been so close. My decision to enter the convent was very, very hard on her.
Her silence saddened me, of course, but I was never mad at her. I realized she didn’t understand what religious life was, what it could entail. She probably saw my choice as a betrayal of her vehement advice. I knew her silent treatment was an act of love, however painful: She just wanted the best for me and she was convinced religious life wasn’t it.
The first time she saw me was at my father’s funeral, where I arrived in a postulant’s outfit, a super unattractive black jumper and veil. Mother ignored my lifestyle and new professed name, Sister Mary Madonna, telling people, “You remember Alberta, don’t you?”
Once I finished novitiate, I was allowed to go home once a year. Though my mom didn’t gush with affection, she made my favorite meals – chicken wings, mashed potatoes, ice cream. That was her language of love.
Eventually she began talking to me when I called home. A breakthrough came when I was 33 and started a social work program at the University of Minnesota hospital, part of a charge I’d been given by my community. I’d needed transportation to the U of M and a chance to change from my black habit, which we were required to wear outside, to my white habit, which we wore in the hospital. When I mentioned my dilemma to Mother, she said, “Well, I could come and pick you up.” So she did – and she’d even arranged for me to have a room in the nurse’s residence to change into my white habit.
Being able to perform that motherly act of service every Monday softened her heart. She was proud of the career I was forging as a sister. I went on to be CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis and in 1983 was appointed as Minnesota commissioner of health, the first women to hold the position. Mother even went to the library to look me up in the “Who’s Who.”
She could see that my life as a Sister of St. Joseph was rich and full, drawing me close to the Lord and giving me a powerful sense of purpose. When I see a need, I can address it and rally others.
On the occasion of my 25th anniversary as a sister, I received a card from my mother, fancy black cursive written on cream stationery. “I just want you to know that, at the age 0f 23, you knew better than I did what was good for you,” she wrote. It was an admission of her error and an affirmation of my wisdom, and it meant the world to me. A daughter never stops craving her mother’s approval.
My mother has since passed away, and at 90, I’m newly retired, but I am can still feel the warmth of her love and pride.