When Mary Margaret Gefre’s boyfriend drove her to the train station in their small North Dakota town, the 19-year-old farm girl didn’t tell him where she 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.
She was bound for a cloistered convent in St. Paul, Minn. She was going to become a nun.
Today, at age 84, she marks the passage of that heart-wrenching winter by three feast days.
It was on Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, that her boyfriend Baltzer took her to the train station, giving her a peck on the cheek before driving away. The dark-haired young man had won her over with his deep faith and gentle ways. “I was sure he was going to be my husband,” she told me. “I could envision a happy life with him, babies.”
It was on Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation, that Mary Margaret officially entered the Sisters of St. Joseph’s community, a bundle of hopes and fears. In the open fields back home, she could see for miles: every sunrise engulfed her, every cloud floated overhead, every star pierced the midnight sky. But in the city, trees crowded in on her. “I felt imprisoned,” she said. “It was sort of like the end of world.”
It was on Feb. 14, the feast of St. Valentine, that Mary Margaret received a love letter from Baltzer. Her superior, Sister Sara Claire, had already read it and handed it to Mary Margaret soberly. The sight of his 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.”
To modern ears, this may sound like a tragedy, but Mary Margaret – who for 65 years now has been Sister Rosalind – describes it as a happily ever after that keeps getting sweeter. Her life has been wildly, richly full: working as a nurse and witnessing childbirth, establishing an esteemed massage school to bring the healing touch to people in pain, fielding teary confessions and appeals for prayer at every turn.
She is a short, wrinkled woman with stardust in her eyes and a mile of joy coiled in her body, compelling her to hug repairmen in the elevator and hold your hand as you walk to lunch. “I am so glad I chose the sisterhood!” she said. “I would not exchange it for anything in the world.”
I believe her.
Many sisters have told me that religious life enabled them to do more than they ever could’ve hoped, opening up new avenues and awakening new desires. For 20-something women facing big decisions, sisters have surprising wisdom to offer. They’ve been there, they get it. And for those of us who feel frustrated by times when the urgent-but-not-important manages to trump the important-but-not-urgent, as Stephen Covey puts it, sisters model an integration – daily actions that perfectly correspond with their dearest values. Walking the walk, seldom needing to talk the talk.
Their profound impact is being recognized this March through Women’s History Month. National Catholic Sisters Week is a worthy addition to a month that celebrates movers and shakers, sisters who lead by serving, who show up with great faith and open hearts, seeing God in each stranger on the street. I can’t imagine our country, our church or my life without them.