Heavenly trip brings sisters home after more than 50 years
Fighting off the inevitable drowsiness that comes with endless stretches of highway, Sisters Mary Dolorosa and Mary Marcella stayed awake during the car trip from Salt Lake City to Eudora.
On their first trip home more than 50 years, the native Eudorans didn't want to miss one cloud, one rock or one tumbleweed.
"I feel like Rip van Winkle waking up to find everything has changed," Marcella said.
When the two left Eudora in 1949, the population was barely more than 700, and K-10 was a narrow, two lane highway, unlike the wide four and six lane roads on which they traveled home.
"It's just amazing," said Dolorosa. "I just couldn't believe how the world has changed. When you're out in the world you don't think about it."
Marcella and Dolorosa are sisters in more than one sense. The twins, who dressed alike as children and attended school together, have spent the majority of their lives cloistered in a Carmelite monastery in St. Louis and have scarcely spent any time apart since joining the order.
Because the Carmel is a hermetic society, the sisters have seen their family only when they come to St. Louis to visit them or through pictures and video tapes. That's why their homecoming is such a special one.
"They were just kids when we left, or our age," Marcella said about fellow parishioners at an open house at Holy Family Catholic Church Oct. 28. "That's 51 years. That's a long time."
When Marcella and Dolorosa left in 1949, their church was the old Holy Family, several blocks away, but they knew they wanted to be nurses and nuns.
"We didn't know how we could combine them," Dolorosa said.
After years of schooling and time spent working as nurses, Dolorosa entered the Carmel first, followed by her sister when space at the monastery opened.
"I had a real test of my vocation when I got the news that my daddy had a tractor accident," Dolorosa said.
When she heard the news shortly after joining the order, Dolorosa remembers laying prostrate in front of the blessed sacrament, asking God to take her life instead of the life of her father, who saved her as a child after she almost electrocuted herself on the cord from an iron.
Dolorosa's Superior gave her permission to go home but if she did, she couldn't come back.
"You give up everything," she said.
Yet the two have followed the Carmel's rules for more than 50 years, dedicating themselves to prayer.
"Rather than being active in the world, it's their mission to pray for the world," said the Rev. Ray Burger of Holy Family. "They usually do not come out into the community or to their homes. Their visit is a really unusual visit."
Because they had to return to St. Louis after a stint in Salt Lake City, the two had permission to visit Eudora as one of their sisters, Alberta Pyle, and her husband, Tom, drove them home.
Attending a reception in their honor and watching their grand-nephew and alma mater's football game are a diversion from their day-to-day life of work and prayer. After half a century, the sisters can recite their schedule by heart, even knowing about how many minutes it takes to say this prayer or that chant.
From when the bell rings after evening prayer until it rings again after morning prayer, the sisters observe strict silence. Throughout the rest of the day, talk has limited topics, such as work.
"Some people are more talkative than others, and it's easy to break it if you're inclined," Marcella said. "If you cooperate with God's grace, God helps you keep the rules. That's your way of life."
Meals are similarly silent, except for a liturgical reading, unless it's a special feast day.
"Boy, do they make use of it," Dolorosa said.
The rest of the day is spent working, on arts or crafts projects, meditating or praying for different purposes, like for the dying or for souls in purgatory.
"You pray for everyone in the world, no matter what religion," Marcella said, comparing Carmelite nuns to legislators representing constituents. "That's why we keep silence so we can help unify our hearts and minds with Christ."
Dolorosa said they usurp the right to judge.
"You know you're doing God's will at every moment of the dayand you're at perfect peace."
The sisters wake each morning at about 5:20, dressing in the dark without mirrors, which symbolizes vanity. For breakfast they eat a roll, without butter, and during the fasting season, from September to Easter, they stand at breakfast and eat a limited diet for dinner.
They wear only sandals for shoes and simple brown, black and white clothing, the style of which can differ depending on whether they're involved in communion or other activities. Marcella and Dolorosa have no possessions of their own. Inheritances and other incomes go directly to the Carmel.
"The only things you can claim are your toothbrush and your sins," Marcella said.
Despite the seemingly-humble circumstances, Marcella and Dolorosa have no complaints.
"We call ourselves God's spoiled children," Marcella said. "We have everything we need, and what we don't need we share with others."
Living the stringent life with 21 other nuns isn't always easy, and that's why Marcella tells people it takes three bones to be a good nun: a prayer bone, a backbone and a funny bone.
Judging by the jokes and riddles the sisters recited at the open house and playfully tweaking each other on the nose, their funny bones have developed well.
"Because we live so close to each other in Carmel, you rub shoulders all the time," Dolorosa said. "You have to be a good-humored person."
For the sisters, isolation doesn't take on a negative connotation at all. Dolorosa said people on the outside are the ones suffering, not the nuns. It seems silly to ask, then, if Marcella and Dolorosa will have a hard time leaving family, friends and Eudora again and returning to a cloistered life at the Carmel.
With a sublime smile on her face, Dolorosa said, "It's a little bit of heaven."