For a long time I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it, I couldn’t accept it, I rebelled against it. Who would ever choose to live their live that way? A life of complete servitude, a life that strips you of your individuality, a life solely based in hardship and hard work – it made absolutely no sense to me. No woman in her right mind would leave her family and home at the age of 16 and enter a convent. No woman in her right mine would vow to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. No woman in her right mind would dress up in a wedding gown march down the aisle and pledge her life not to a man but to the Lord. Why would any woman do this? It just made no sense to me… that is until a few days ago…
This past weekend I spent a few days in my hometown of Chicago attending the 75th jubilee of my aunt Sister Teresita Miksas. My aunt was celebrating 75 years of being a nun in the religious order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir. Seventy-five years of anything is in itself a milestone but 75 years of being a nun is an remarkable achievement. I definitely wanted to be there for her. I fully understood the significance of it. But I was conflicted. Being there would almost certainly take me back to a place and time in my life that was not very happy, to memories that I did not want to revisit and to a time that I would sooner forget than relive – that being my high school years. But I ultimately knew that this was not about me. I owed it to her to take this journey. She deserved it. She earned it. And surprisingly enough, it was through this journey that I began to understand.
Growing up I struggled accepting the traditional roles women were expected to play. I never saw myself being fulfilled as a housewife. I didn’t relish the idea of being expected to cook and clean for a man. If you want a chef and a housekeeper just hire one. I wanted to be independent, self sufficient not reliant on anyone or anything for my well being or happiness. Because I felt that way I resented women that I perceived to be the opposite. And so when I began to understand the concept of life as a nun I rebelled against it. Thinking back now I’m not sure whether my feelings were that of anger or sadness, maybe a combination of both. But the idea of being a nun, being taught by nuns, being influenced by nuns especially in my most formative years was distasteful to me. I guess I never thought these woman had a foot in reality. I viewed them as uninformed and out of touch. And when I was finally out from under their influence I went wild. I was free from feeling my development had been stifled, believing I was ill prepared to function in the real world. I was determined never to look back or focus on what I believed to be years of indoctrination in a lifestyle I could not accept. I was finally rid of the influences that were trying to make me into something I was not.
But now I realize nothing could be further from the truth. After my experience this past weekend I know it was all part of a process, a journey that has thankfully taken me full circle. My experience made me realize that although you can never go home again there are valuable lessons to learn from trying. This past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to learn about these women, their history, their achievements and their current struggles. It is a story of leadership against the odds, servitude, accomplishment and loss. It is a story that needs to be told.
The order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir was founded by Mother Maria Kaupas in 1907. Born Casimira Kaupas, she emigrated to the United States at the age of 17 to work as a housekeeper for her brother the Reverend Anthony Kaupas. In her late twenties she founded the congregation of The Sisters of Saint Casimir and in 1911, at the age of 31, her order established the motherhouse that I recently visited (at the age of 31 I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up). The Sisters began to staff schools in Lithuanian parishes in Chicago. By 1928 they were teaching in parishes across the United States and also began their health care ministry with the opening of Holy Cross Hospital.
All these monumental accomplishments occurred at a time in our society when women were not afforded the same privileges we have today. The original wing of the Motherhouse was built in 1911, nine years before women even had the right to vote. Holy Cross Hospital was built in 1928, thirty-five years before women were afforded the right to equal pay for equal work and forty-one years before women were allowed to attend prestigious universities such as Harvard and Princeton. Mother Maria Kaupas formed a ministry, engaged countless other women to follow God’s calling, built schools, staffed hospitals and provided thousands of immigrant children and families the education and health care they were lacking all the while combatting a society that believed women were not equal to men. When you think about it, she was an entrepreneur with leadership skills that rival those of a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg. This was not a woman who was uninformed and out of touch. She was driven by a personal mission of establishing a faith based ministry to benefit those in need. And she succeeded brilliantly.
All weekend long I was immersed in the epic history of the Sisters of Saint Casimir. Initially times were hard and the rules were stringent. The nuns wore habits that showed the outside world only their faces below the eyebrows and their hands. I remember as a kid wondering if they even had hair on their heads. Early on (before the dress code became more relaxed in the 1960’s) they were required every day – summer or winter – to wear long underwear, two underskirts, and a camisole type garment all underneath a wool floor length tunic with long sleeves and adorned at the waist by a rosary cinch. A bib made of hard white material went around their necks and down their chests. On their heads they wore a wimple that covered their hair and concealed their necks topped off with a headdress that consisted of a veil and a hard white forehead crown that appeared to rest on their eyebrows. Since the tunics were wool they could not be cleaned regularly so in those days a nun had to wash her myriad of undergarments frequently so as not to offend others with her body odor. The garments were stifling and the crown on the veils chaffed their foreheads. As one Sister so aptly put it, “If you could survive the days of wearing those habits you knew you were truly a nun!” Today their dress is more secular, simple and understated. You know they’re nuns but you can also see them as human beings.
I was afforded the opportunity to take a tour of their Motherhouse, a place that I had never seen before. In the old wing (a new wing was added in the 1970’s) is the room of their founder Mother Maria Kaupas. Kept as a living memorial to her, it still contains her furniture, typewriter and even the bed she died in. In the corner stands a bust of her image fashioned after a death mask that she agreed to have done when she was still alive. In 1996 the Vatican agreed to proceed with the beatification process of Mother Maria (the process that can result in sainthood) and in 1999 her remains were removed from Saint Casimir’s cemetery and placed in a white marble sarcophagus in the Motherhouse chapel.
The chapel is undoubtedly the cornerstone of the Motherhouse. Although they call it a chapel, it truly is a mini-basilica with an enormous altar featuring massive marble statues. Two side altars abut the main altar. Numerous breathtaking stained glass windows adorn the walls. And in the back behind Mother Maria’s sarcophagus is an exquisite tile mural featuring an image of her. Most churches built today cannot even come close to replicating the splendor of this chapel’s architecture and artistry. It would simply be too cost prohibitive.
The old wing housed a library, a small chapel, and an ornate rotunda at its core with a circular wooden staircase and massive wall statues depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Standing near the rotunda stairs you can almost hear the faint laughter of the children who once climbed them or the footsteps of the postulants who ran down them only to be caught by a bemused Mother Maria. Stain glass windows adorn the entrance doors, a mini museum adjacent to the rotunda contains personal artifacts of Mother Maria, an old phonograph used to teach the Sisters the English language and a pictorial history of the many Sisters who served the order and those who have passed away.
There was also a large auditorium with a stage that is now used for special functions. On the back wall of the stage is a mural painted by Sister M. Mercedes. Completed in 1973 it depicts the history of the Sisters of Saint Casimir from their roots in Lithuania to their ministry in the United States. I stood there in awe of it. The artistry, attention to detail, the use of color and light. It was amazing. I felt the need to touch it and to revel in the work of a great artist. In its heyday, the Motherhouse walls were adorned with many pieces of her artwork, some currently valued at approximately $3,000 each. A gifted artist who shared her talents not only to provide joy but also to pay homage to the rich history of the women in this holy order. I was rendered speechless.
So on and on the stories went. Women who were accomplished artists, musicians, educators, health care providers all dedicated to a higher calling and the common good. The fruits of their labors permeate the buildings and grounds. Their past is palpable throughout – you sense it, you feel it – but unfortunately it’s now accompanied by an ever present deafening silence of a lifestyle that has slowly become a way of the past. Walking down the halls you see a vast array of empty sleeping rooms, an infirmary on the fourth floor completely shut down with furniture removed and walls stripped, the library dismantled with its contents shipped to a university in Lithuania – room upon empty room echoing the sounds of a rich past and an uncertain future. And slowly you begin to realize the heartbreaking reality that things will never be what they use to be.
The order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir was established at a time when social services were the exception and not the norm. During those bygone days, if religious orders did not provide these types of services they simply did not exist. Today these services can be provided without having to make the same sacrifices the Sisters made. People can easily live a secular lifestyle and still serve the common good. Unfortunately these societal changes created tragic results. Systematically convents have been shutting down, private schools are being sold and hospitals are being privatized. No longer do people want to make such huge personal sacrifices in order to serve. No longer are women aspiring to a religious life in numbers that can sustain these historic communities. Such is the plight of the Sisters of Saint Casimir.
Currently the order is looking to sell the Motherhouse and grounds. A two block square piece of property on the Southwest Side of Chicago, it served as the center for the work of these women for over one hundred years. The grounds are immaculately manicured, the building stands as a testament to their history – the only home that those remaining have ever known. They expected to live there. They expected to die there. But it has just become too expensive to own and operate.
I know in my heart of hearts that Mother Maria, being the business woman that she was, would say this must be done. In reality it has to be done. But what struck me was the grief these women were experiencing during this change process. At first I didn’t get it. It’s just business. I understand having to make a business decision. It’s the way of the world. But after spending a weekend with them, I began to see them in a totally different light. And through that process came respect and admiration for who they are, what they have accomplished and what they are losing.
As I walked the grounds of the property I could not help but be overcome with sadness. I stood at the grotto that existed when my aunt was young. I held a picture of her taken several decades earlier at that very same grotto standing behind a kneeler between her mother and father. I touched the top of the same kneeler that my grandmother and grandfather touched. I felt them. I felt their joy of having a daughter who entered the religious life. I felt their presence and the presence of so many others who sought peace and solace on those grounds. I cried for them and for all who would be losing that special place. And it was there that I finally came to understand and appreciate the history and the ministry of the Sisters of Saint Casimir.
Now systematically they are all being moved to a continuum of care facility on the South Side of Chicago. Only the able bodied remain at the Motherhouse to continue the process of phasing it out. The others will have wonderful accommodations and great care but it will never be the same. As I stood on the grounds I couldn’t help thinking what will become of Mother Maria’s sarcophagus? What will become of the grounds? What will become of the grotto? What will become of Sister Mercede’s mural? What will become of that gorgeous chapel? And I know these questions are running through the minds of each and every one of them. They are questions still remaining to be answered.
But although there are still so many unanswered questions one truth is and will always remain constant. No one will ever be able to strip from them the incredible legacy that they, along with Mother Maria, built. It will remain forever in the hearts, minds and souls of all they touched. It will remain in my heart, mind and soul for as long as I live. Finally I understand…
And so, after 75 years of being a nun, I say to my aunt and to all of these wonderful women – thank you and may God bless you. Be brave. Stand tall and be proud! It has been a life well spent.