One of the things that I had trouble understanding when I was researching and writing the history of the Sisters of Mercy Chicago Regional Community was community. It is not a single place, nor is there one way to express it. Since Vatican II, many sisters in active* religious communities do not live in one central convent, but in many smaller homes, apartments, and in the case of retired sisters in convents which also double nursing care facilities. Despite the varied locations, they are all a part of the same community–they have community without living together. As an outsider (a laywoman), this was something that I could not fully grasp. I got better at understanding it over time and with the help of the sisters with whom I spoke and interviewed, I learned the proper words to use to correctly identify what community is for them.
But what does it mean to the sisters who live it? That is something I could not, nor should not, fully comprehend because I am not a member of their religious community. That, I assume, comes through formation and lived experience. I still want to understand it. I felt that desire to know when I read I read this article in the National Catholic Reporter by Melissa Musick Nussbaum, “Colorado Wildfire Displaces Women Religious but Finds them Support, Sisterhood.”
In this account which details one community’s escape from the terrible wildfire in Colorado Springs, I am drawn to the courage and faith that the sisters interviewed express. Even more so is their humor, as they have had to make do in an old hospital. They have returned to old convent ways, including a shared laundry facility which require putting their names in their clothes (if they want to get them back). Speaking about her community’s charism and ministry, one sister reported:
It’s our Franciscan charism. We have partnering at our core. One is not lesser than nor greater than another. That’s what community is all about, that’s what it does: It lets us be partners, working together toward our goals.
As I read that, I know it still does not truly convey the meaning behind what community means. I can only suggest that there is an unspoken understanding between members of religious congregation of what this truly means to them. And there is the trouble that a historian like myself faces. How do I encapsulate that understanding and convey it to my readers? It is necessary to understand and appreciate the history of women religious. Not so that we can all marvel and praise women religious for their holiness and goodness (those “good sisters,” saints on earth), but so that we have a better understanding of the past, of gender, women’s, and religious history.
*By “active,” I mean not cloistered and sisters who take simple vows. “Simple vows” refer to the perpetual temporary vows that women religious take in non-cloistered religious congregations. Women who profess these vows are “sisters” whereas women who profess solemn vows and normally live within cloistered or enclosed communities are “nuns.”