What a joyful day the sisters at Mount St. Scholastica had last Sunday! And a most unusual one!
To be able to celebrate 225 years in the Lord’s service is quite an occasion for rejoicing. Of course, that’s the total of the 75 years of monastic life of Sister Cyprian Vondras, Sister Mary Ethel Burley, and Sister Gertrude Nagel combined.
Whatever figure you focus on, however, it is still a rarity.
Sister Cyprian, who is 98 years old, was raised in Chicago, where she had been a domestic worker before she came to the monastery. Sister Mary Ethel, at 94, is an Iowa native and was a school teacher and administrator through a long career. Sister Gertrude, 96, was a teacher and artist from Oklahoma. All made their vows as Benedictines in 1944 and all have been faithful to their lives of prayer, community and service for an extraordinarily long life.
In the gospel for Mass that day, Luke 9:51-62, we heard Jesus make the call, “Follow me,” three times. It is important to notice that, earlier in the narrative, the reading states that He was on his way to Jerusalem, a journey that would end with his suffering and death.
Jesus knew that following him would be no easy task. All three of the persons to whom he says, “Follow me,” immediately bring up a condition. Though these are not unreasonable, they are still conditions and following him had to be unconditional, which Jesus tries to tell them through his responses.
To the first, he warns that “the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” His response to the second who wants to go and bury the dead is somewhat harsher: “Let the dead bury the dead.”
And finally, to the last person, Jesus makes even clearer that to be His disciples, one must follow unconditionally, even giving up something as natural as family. He answers him with “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks to what he left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
This was certainly an appropriate reading as we celebrated three sisters who unconditionally answered Jesus’ call of “Follow me.” They have lived St. Benedict’s call to “prefer nothing to the love of God.” Each one gave of her own gifts, whether it was teaching, art work, embroidering, or serving the community’s needs.
Some of these roles they had in common. All three started out as teachers. All continued to minister in other ways after they returned to the monastery. All weathered well the changes that came after Vatican II, despite their having been settled for years in the old order of monastery life. And they all suffer now the pains that advanced age brings.
So it is that we can celebrate these three sisters, who not only answered Christ’s call to follow him in monastic life, but also are women who offered no conditions and remained loyal to their promise for 75 years. It would be impossible to count the number of people they influenced, or the examples of Christian womanhood they provided to many, or the hours they spent serving others in the community, or the joy they brought to those with whom they lived. They are examples of the promise with which Benedict closed his preface to the Rule: “...we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”
Their long years have been a blessing for which we are immensely grateful. Now we rejoice with them and for them and we pray that God will reward them abundantly as only God can do.