Written with Sister Rosalind Gefre, CSJ
I was 19 when my boyfriend drove me to the train station in our small North Dakota town, and I didn’t tell him where I was headed on that brisk December day, clutching a small bag containing a rosary, her childhood prayer book, a few dresses and a pair of shoes.
I was bound for a cloistered convent in St. Paul, Minn. I was going to become a nun.
Today, at age 84, I remember that heart-wrenching winter vividly, and I mark its passage by three feast days.
It was on Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, that my boyfriend Baltzer took me to the train station, giving me a peck on the cheek before driving away. The dark-haired young man had won me over with his deep faith and gentle ways. I was sure he was going to be my husband. I could envision a happy life with him, babies.
It was on Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation, that I officially entered the Sisters of St. Joseph’s community, a bundle of hopes and fears. In the open fields back home, I could see for miles: every sunrise engulfed me, every cloud floated overhead, every star pierced the midnight sky. But in the city, trees crowded in on me. I felt imprisoned. It was sort of like the end of world.
It was on Feb. 14, the Feast of St. Valentine, that I received a love letter and a box of chocolates from Baltzer. My superior, Sister Sara Claire, had already read it, and she handed it to me soberly. The sight of his Baltzer’s neat cursive and urgent plea to come home opened a floodgate of emotion. It all came back to me. I had to do lots of thinking. It was very hard to give him up, but I just knew my call by then. In my heart I felt that this was my home.
Growing up on a dairy farm outside Strasburg, N.D., the middle of 12 kids, faith had always been a cornerstone of life. I prayed as far back as I can remember, and I wanted to be a sister at a young age. I remember being out haying in the middle of a wheat field, only 8 or 9, and feeling struck by a profound thought: I’m just a little dot out here on all this land, but Jesus knows that I’m here. Imagine!
Our little farmhouse burst with noise and fun. I played pranks on my brothers, drizzling honey on their mouths when they slept. We rose at 5 am to milk 45 cows, working barefoot whenever the climate allowed, and in the evening we knelt down and prayed the rosary in the living room. I knew the joy of family life intimately; it was only natural to yearn for a family of my own. And Baltzer seemed like the perfect candidate for a husband – soft spoken and caring, very clean morally. I enjoyed our dates, which he ended with a quick peck on the cheek. He was a good dancer and a good listener. We never ran out of things to talk about. I knew we were going to get married.
Refusing a kiss
And yet, I began to feel a tug to sisterhood. It started mildly and grew stronger and stronger. The chance to belong entirely to God and devote myself to a life of service felt like a higher call. At the end of my last date with Baltzer, when he leaned in to give me a kiss, I turned away. “No, you can’t do that,” I said.
I could see the confusion in his eyes, but I had begun to see a different future for myself, one that didn’t involve him. It wasn’t too long before he took me to the train station and we parted ways.
Six decades later, I still marvel at the fact that I didn’t tell him where I was headed. I suppose I didn’t see the point; what was done was done.
His love letter did unleash a wave of nostalgia and affection. Ending our relationship was the hardest decision I’d ever made, and my new life in the cloistered convent wasn’t easy after I’d closed that door.
I hated cooking, which was my new responsibility, and I missed my family and our rural life. The hardest day was when I made my first vows. Oh my gosh, I thought. Here I am, in the convent for life!
That feeling of dread lasted for several weeks. But I just kept trusting God, and slowly it faded. He gave me so many graces.
Same groom, different bride
One day I received a letter from my younger sister Rosie asking for my permission to begin dating Baltzer. The prospect delighted me, and immediately I wrote back with my blessing. I couldn’t pick a better man for my sister! I was so happy to know that she would have a kind, faith-filled man at her side and that he wouldn’t be alone.
Honestly, I never felt an ounce of envy. I wasn’t able to attend their wedding – the convent was still cloistered at the time – but over the years it was a treat to go home and see the happy life they’d built together. Baltzer treated Rosie like a queen, making her whatever meal she requested, springing out of bed at night to care for a crying baby. They had four children, all of whom still practice the Catholic faith. Baltzer passed away a few years ago.
Knowing I made the right decision to pursue religious life was the best feeling. After struggling through the first year, I began to find my way. Soon I got into nursing, which I loved. I witnessed childbirth, which made me weep every time, and I established an esteemed massage school to bring the healing touch to people in pain.
I have always felt loved by my Heavenly Father. One of the greatest blessings of religious life is my availability to others. With my black veil and crucifix necklace, people recognize me as a Catholic sister. I field teary confessions and heartfelt appeals for prayer every day. I lay my hands on the stomachs of pregnant women and pray for those who have experienced miscarriage. I bless newlyweds and babies and widows.
And here’s the secret I’ve discovered: the more you know people, the more you love them. You see that not one person is without pain or flaw. You want to reach out to more people and you become more loving.
My love for people is a fountain of youth. At 84, I feel so alive.
I am so glad I chose the sisterhood! I would not exchange it for anything in the world.