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Sister Betty, left, and Sister Joanne are pictured in their south Minneapolis home. Photo Courtesy Brandon Ferdig
Sister Betty, left, and Sister Joanne are pictured in their south Minneapolis home. Photo Courtesy Brandon Ferdig

The people in my neighborhood: The sisters

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news Bemidji, 56619

Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

One afternoon I was coming home from a walk when I passed an older woman trying to put a sign in her front yard. She was having a little difficulty trying to find the right spot to notify drivers where not to park in front of her property. So I helped her find a good place and introduced myself. As did she.

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Joanne, a senior citizen, had a thin face with glasses. I hadn't seen many seniors nearby and wondered if she'd lived here a while, perhaps raised her kids here a generation or two back.

She shared that she's been here since 1994, moving from her order in Little Falls.

Order?

Yes -- Joanne is Sister Joanne.

Just four houses down from mine, in this neighborhood decorated with graffiti, was a home for nuns. This didn't align with my idea of how and where nuns were supposed to be. Growing up Lutheran, I knew nothing about them except what the media had taught me. Surprise, surprise, that wasn't always accurate and certainly wasn't adequate. This re-education has been the theme of getting to know Sister Joanne and her housemate, Sister Betty. And from this introduction we set a date for me to come back and interview them.

One another nice winter afternoon, I walked up their porch and Sister Joanne welcomed me inside. Like when we first met, she was in her casual, senior attire. Where was the black gown thingy with the squared headpiece and white cloth around the face -- that which they call a habit?

None to be worn by these nuns.

The 100-year-old property radiated its era and glowed with age. It was spacious, comfortable and solid. Beams across the ceiling reminded me of a farm-style home where I used to live.

We sat down in the living room. Sister Joanne began by sharing how nuns came to live in this house in south Minneapolis.

It started in 1984 with the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. FSLF is a sisterhood, or order, of nuns. There are many such sisterhoods in the area; for example, the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul and the Benedictine Sisterhood of St. Joseph, Minn. These orders are a way to "retain diversity in unity," Sister Joanne explained. It's so easy to lump nuns all together, but not surprisingly, when you take a closer look, some orders are stricter, some change with the times, some even differ on some theological points.

Continuing the story, two sisters from the FSLF had just returned from Venezuela and wanted to continue the exposure of life outside of small-town Little Falls. So in 1984, FSLF purchased this property and five sisters came down to live in what was then a pretty seedy neighborhood. But the sisters endured, even embraced the rawness of it. And what started as a residence for nuns has been transformed into a place called "Sabbath House."

Sabbath House functions as an urban respite for anyone wanting a break from the stresses of life. It's a day-getaway offering gardening, quiet space, healthy meals; a chance to "recharge," as they say in their brochure.

This seemed like a pretty good gig for these nuns, as far as I was concerned. My stereotype had them in convents or at soup kitchens or orphanages. You know, Mother Teresa-type stuff.

The distance from stereotype to reality was quite the leap.

And the gap just kept widening.

Maybe 20 minutes after Sister Joanne and I started to chat, we were joined by her housemate, Sister Betty, another senior who wears a prestigious smile. Once she sat down, we started to chat about their careers. Sister Joanne had been in health care and was a nurse. I used to volunteer at the University of Minnesota Hospital, and the nurses I recalled in their cartoonish scrubs didn't mix with my image of nuns. But if this was a challenge to my imagination, Sister Betty really let me have it when sharing that she's an attorney!

I contended that nuns being professionals didn't seem to fit. But Joanne bridged the gap, retorting that nuns have been professional educators for ages. She, herself, was taught by sisters back in elementary school.

Sister Joanne was born in Bluffton, Minn., outside of Little Falls. She remembers when her mother was under the stress of being nine months pregnant. Then one day, Mom went to the hospital where the nuns were and came home with baby in arms, almost magically at peace. "I want to do that," Sister Joanne remembers thinking at the time.

When she was older, she attended Little Falls High School. I wondered aloud if her desire to be a nun wavered as she became an adult.

"No," she responded.

I asked about boys. As a teenager, she said, she went to dances and dated. At 17, she had been seeing a young man for a year. He was a year older and the relationship was coming to a T. Joanne had to break it off. "He felt bad," she said.

Sister Joanne recalled all this openly, but with a noticeable hint of bashfulness.

I had to ask again, "When in the midst of the relationship, you never thought about putting aside your plans for becoming nun?"

"No."

"So you dated this boy knowing you'd have to break it off."

"Yes," she responded curtly.

After high school, Sister Joanne completed her novitiate -- two years of study for becoming a sister. While there, she changed her name and her wardrobe, and cemented her lifestyle to serve others through the inspiration of Jesus Christ. Today, though, the FSLF no longer has their sisters wear habits or change their names. Those symbolic gestures were dropped in the late 1960s, so Sister Joanne retained her birth name.

She went on to practice nursing in Little Falls, the University of Kentucky and Latin America.

"It felt right," she said, looking back and trying to help me understand why one would decide this life of service and celibacy over a more conventional one.

Betty added, "Marriage, too, is a calling that can't be explained." And like marriage, being a nun isn't an easy path. Only six of the 19 women in Sister Betty's class made it through to sisterhood. And in today's world, "you can't go out with just a good heart," said Sister Betty. The needy need more than food and the three R's. Sometimes they need a pharmacist; sometimes they need a lawyer.

A law office seems a world apart from the dirt floors and no electricity of, say, rural India, but there are needy people in either setting. But though I knew nuns to be in impoverished areas, I didn't see them in dangerous ones, or living among the residents as they do here on my block. I had assumed their angelic nature to distance itself from the secular and sinful. That was bogus. It's not just the poor, humble, meek folks these sisters seek to aid. And Sister Betty made their comfort with this abundantly clear when I referred to how the neighborhood had cleaned up over the years, and she piped up, "It's gotten boring!"

Then the two sisters shared a few stories of hearing gunshots regularly and watching drug deals and former Gov. Arne Carlson calling in the National Guard.

Sisters Joanne and Betty revealed my false and limited assumptions. But also, they brought to light the tendency I think we often commit: categorizing people. Guilty of this, I separated nuns from myself and everyone else and so failed to see they have much more in common than they do that which distinguishes. Because of that, I failed to appreciate the very human challenges they have faced: choices about family and romance, schooling and career, discipline and commitment. In short, I took for granted how amazing these women truly are.

Maybe it's no coincidence that in the last 20 years, my neighborhood has cleaned up a lot.

BRANDON FERDIG, who grew up in Blackduck and now lives in Minneapolis, blogs at www.newplateaus.areavoices.com. Email him at brandon@newplateaus.com.

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