Who was she? She wore a white habit, she was mischievous, funny, pretty and she could fly. That’s right, Sally Fields in the television show “The Flying Nun.” Until a year ago, Sally Fields’ portrayal of this character was pretty much the only picture that came to my mind if I were to think about nuns. Oh, and I must not forget Whoopi Goldberg as Sr. Mary Clarence in “Sister Act.” That character and movie certainly offered a fun impression of what life as a Catholic Sister might be like.
Why am I, a fifty-seven year-old male, thinking about the life of a Catholic nun right now? Because I have been living in a convent for the last eleven months. Formerly a life long Protestant, I converted to Catholicism in 2017, signed on with Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, DC and have been serving in Kingston, Jamaica as a lay missioner since. Whew, a whirlwind indeed.
At first, I wondered why Franciscan Mission Service, or God for that matter, would consider moving me into a convent. Contrary to what was happening, as a newcomer to Catholicism and mission service, the hope of possibly living in brotherhood with a group of Franciscan friars was one of the main things that drew me in. Now, I am glad to be a live-in brother to all the Franciscan Sisters of Allegheny in Jamaica at Immaculate Conception Convent. Truly, they are unbelievable.
Especially worthy of a detailed look is Sr. Maureen Clare. Sister is eighty three-years-old, and I have not seen her stop moving once since I arrived in Jamaica.
Picture this… On the night of February 12th, 2018 my plane landed at the Kingston airport. Sr. Maureen Clare was there with two of her female comrades to pick me up. Little did I know, the city streets in Kingston are no different from those in Manhattan, NY. They are crowded, narrow and full of pot holes. Drivers honk their horns like crazy, they cut close in front of each other and they even yell out their windows.
But not Sister! Like the calm in the middle of a tornado, she quietly moved us through the chaos that dark night without showing even one sign of reflexive annoyance. She drove at her own designated pace, chatted cordially and even pointed out Jamaica’s famous Devon House Ice Cream. Amazingly, she acted as if absolutely nothing crazy at all was going on outside our four doors. I later found out that this display of tolerance and self-control was only a slight indicator of who Sr. Maureen Clare is.
Through her life, Sr. Maureen Clare, like all the Sisters in her order, has served extensively in the field of education. She started out teaching kindergarten in her youth, and later became the Principle of Immaculate Conception High School for 28 years (the student population there today is 1700, girls only). Today, Sister sits on several school boards, and she serves as Chair of the Board at St. Francis Primary and Infant School, all in Kingston.
At the end of the 2018 winter school term, Sr. Maureen Clare helped head up a four day conference for over 250 of Kingston’s teachers and principles. She asked me to help through those four days. On day-one after we got the crowd seated at the dozens of beautifully decorated round tables overlooking the tropical gardens and pool outside the Convent’s Francis Hall where we were gathered, Sr. Maureen Clare proceeded to pick up the mic and welcome everyone. Like the “disciplinary legend” she is noted as in the island’s newspaper “Daily Observer,” Sister instructed everyone to turn their cell phones off and turn all their conference reading materials face down. “Now, you will pay attention better,” she said with no smile.
Jamaica is known for being “colorful and lively.” This description fits not only the common folk, but also all the teachers and principles at this particular conference. It was summer, school was out, and everyone was wound up and having fun in conversation. “Whoa,” I thought, “This crowd is full of PH.D.’s and sophistication. Did Sr. Maureen Clare actually just discipline them?” She did. And you know what happened? All the teachers and principles quickly and happily turned their cell phones off and reading materials face down, and they sat up quietly to listen.
A willing response to a well respected leader, that is what Sr. Maureen Clare’s audience was demonstrating. Impressed, I enjoyed a private chuckle. And as the conference hours passed, my fascination only grew.
After Sister led the group in a very meaningful opening prayer and reflection, she participated with three of her colleagues in presenting an all-out PowerPoint presentation. In doing so, she spoke a lot and led a number of group/learning exercises. At the end, she inconspicuously took a quick drink of water. And she proceeded to see to it that everyone at the conference received one of the lunch boxes that were waiting for them in the back.
Please remember, I am talking about an eighty three-year-old woman here. Or better said, an eighty three-year-old island rock, a cornerstone in Jamaica, who is still not only interested in, but capable of working hands-on for Jamaica! She can still discipline, teach and feed the multitudes and show no sign of fatigue. Often I wonder, Sister must be feeling fatigued on the inside. How could she not?
Whether or not my suspicion is true, Sr. Maureen Clare continues to head up her Back Door Ministry at the Convent on the last Saturday of every month. This ministry has been in place for over 20 years. Again, very large crowds of people show up for this event. In a controlled manner (controlled by Sister, of course), they line up under the mango tree at the back door of the Convent to collect and carry significant amounts of groceries, sometimes clothing, and even medications home. To assure that no one gets medications that he or she should not be getting, Sister knows each and every one of her visitors by name. If in any instance she is unsure, she has their names recorded and filed. She is that organized.
For the same people who come to her Back Door Ministry, every December Sr. Maureen Clare organizes and hosts a Christmas party. I assisted in that gathering this past Christmas. I do not know where on earth Sister got all her foods and supplies from, but we were able to present to every one of our guests a full sit-down meal with some famous Jamaican “pudding” for desert. And finally, just like many of us do in our homes on Christmas morning, we called out names one at a time and gave out dozens and dozens of beautiful large-sized gift bags. These happenings occurred, as you may expect by now, in an environment made festive with Christmas carols, a Christmas tree, lights, and sparkly gold tablecloths.
While living in Immaculate Conception Convent with the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany in Jamaica, I think God is revealing to me that Sr. Mary Clarence and The Flying Nun are not the only nuns who have super powers. Also, I can say that Sr. Maureen Clare is not the only one who I would like to emulate for the rest of my life.
I have witnessed Congregational Director (the modern day term for Reverend Mother) Sr. Mary Margaret from the ladies’ Motherhouse in Allegany, NY, for example, come to Jamaica to run a five day Congregational Assembly… Then, fly off to Brazil to run another one. I hear the echo of Sr. Colleen’s pans clanking in the Convent’s first floor kitchen every morning at 5:00 as she sets out to cook and organize breakfast for everybody. I observe Sr. Marita every day helping on the Convent grounds in the intense tropical heat assuring that the landscape and gardens remain flawless. And I have been on the receiving end of motherly concern offered by several of the Sisters more than once. With passion they tell me things like, “Don’t be on the streets at night alone, it’s dangerous,” and “I will never support the idea of you buying a bicycle, Jamaican driver’s are ruthless.” I love it. Mind you, I have three children and six grandchildren of my own! What is going on?
I will find out more answers to that question over the next few months. My stay here with my new, wonderful friends is to last for two years. All that I am learning from Sr. Maureen Clare and the other Sisters about serving the world and each other, I plan to take with me when I go home to America. If at that time God does will that I be placed with a group of Franciscan brothers—my original desire—I hope I will be satisfied. In Jamaica, the Sisters of Allegany do actually present like superheroes. And in doing so, they are raising my bar high!
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Tim Shelgren is a volunteer with Franciscan Mission Service and a CVN Serving with Sisters Contributor. This blog series is sponsored by our VOCARE Initiative, thanks to the support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.