THE SISTERS OF BON SECOURS WORK TOGETHER TO CREATE COMMUNITY
STORY BY Heather Kirk-Davidoff PHOTOGRAPHY BY Lisa Shires
The Sisters of Bon Secours lost their connection recently. The Wi-Fi wasn’t working, perhaps the result of the morning’s high winds. Those who needed a reminder of their duties for the bimonthly potluck were distressed to discover they couldn’t check online. Somehow, the meal came together.
Sister Bernadette Claps arrived early to set up the room, a common space in the center of the tidy row of townhomes on the Bon Secours campus off Marriottsville Road. She set out paper plates and cans of soda — who wants to wash dishes? Sister Mary Shimo brought salad and Sister Anne Maureen Doherty brought bread. Sister Pat Eck arranged crackers around baked Brie on the coffee table as Sister Mary Regina Flatley told everyone that she had topped her lemon yogurt pie with crushed candies instead of lemon zest as the recipe suggested. Sister Anne Lutz was out of town, so when Sister Elaine Davia bustled in with her vegetarian casserole, it was time to begin.
Appetizers and bits of news. New photos of nieces passed around and admired. Sister Bernie passed out a prayer the six women read together, each adding personal words of gratitude. Then came the shared meal, a bit of teasing and laughter. This is sisterhood.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1960s, when many of these women entered religious life, their days were rigidly structured. They worked long hours, mostly as nurses at Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, and returned exhausted to the home they shared with dozens of other Sisters. They ate meals in silence and turned in early. The emphasis was on obedience to their superiors, not relationships with each other.
The Sisters say they were sustained by the feeling that God had called them to this work. Most first sensed the call as young women, when they were 18 or 19 years old. Today, the community is much smaller than it once was, with only 27 Sisters in the United States. It has also become more diverse. Several women have entered formation later in life, after careers and, in some cases, marriages and children.
“This isn’t something you could do on a whim,” Sister Bernie explains. Formation, the period of study and discernment that precedes a formal commitment to the community, can take between seven and 10 years. “Without a sense of call, a life like this just wouldn’t make sense,” Sister Bernie laughs. “I mean, why else would anyone want to go through all of this?”
The Sisters commit to lives of poverty, chastity and obedience. “That used to mean just doing what you’re told,” explains Sister Bernie. Today, she says, it’s being “open to the voice of the Spirit.”
By the mid-70s, the Sisters of Bon Secours were in crisis. Many women were leaving religious life and those who remained considered dividing the order into a progressive group and a conservative group. After an extended period of spiritual discernment, the Sisters decided to continue as a united community.
“It just became clear,” Sister Elaine explains, “the things that held us together were more important than the things that divided us.”
These days, there’s not a lot of conflict. “We’ve had years of really having to work through hard stuff,” she says. For example, the nuns have assisted with the closing and opening of hospitals and clinics as health care has changed over the years. “Now we have the skills to consider different views and move forward,” Sister Elaine adds.
Such negotiating skills were put to the test when it came to redecorating their common room. “We got a group of women to agree on colors and style of furniture,” Sister Bernie remembers. And when it came time to arrange the new furniture in the room, everyone had an opinion and so the couch got moved and moved again. “I finally just left!” says Sister Mary. “I’d had it!”
Everyone laughs, remembering. “One thing that everyone says about us,” Mary continues, “is that we’re very human.”
“We have to make an effort,” says Sister Elaine. “We have to reach out. It used to be that silence was a barrier to a real sense of community. Now the barrier is busyness.”
Sister Mary Regina is retired from active ministry, but is still involved with the community’s daily rhythms of prayer, worship and mutual care. She’s taken charge of sorting and delivering the Sister’s mail. Her fellow Sisters look out for her, however. “One time I didn’t show up for book group and I didn’t answer the phone,” she recalls. “I was in the shower and I had my hearing aids out!” She continues, “I’d just gotten dressed when I heard someone coming in the front door. It was a bit of a shock until I realized it was Pat, coming in to check on me!”
Unlike most of the other Sisters, Bernie joined the Order later in life. She arrived in Marriotsville just eight years ago. “It was a little daunting,” she admits. “How do you break into a group with that much history together?” The Sisters, she says, gave her tasks within the community. “They allowed me to use my God-given gifts,” she says.
In February, the community welcomed two new Sisters who, everyone agrees, bring “a freshness” to their relationships. Even so, it can be a challenge to integrate newcomers into an existing community.
“I look after a couple of fish tanks,” says Sister Elaine. “When you add a new fish into the mix, it works best if you rearrange everything else in the tank at the same time. That way, every fish has to find a new place to settle down at night, not just the new ones.”
Heeding Sister Elaine’s advice, the Sisters decided to choose new parking spots.
Nearly every Sister has thought seriously about leaving at some point. Sister Elaine considered it during the order’s most tumultuous years. “I figured I’d leave for a while, let the rest of them sort everything out and then I’d come back.”
She had pretty much made up her mind when she sat in Mass one morning, looking at a prayer card with a picture of Jesus with his arms outstretched. “I felt he was saying to me, all of these difficulties don’t really make any difference. I knew then that my call was to be with these women.” *