One of the first things Sister Jeannine Curley, RSM, does every morning is settle into a comfortable chair in the corner of her bedroom and open a thick, leather-bound copy of “Morning and Evening Prayer of the Sisters of Mercy.”
|Sister Jeannine Curley, RSM, is one of six Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Nashville who live on their own and work or volunteer in the community. After living in a convent or with a small group of Sisters for decades, she has lived alone for the last 16 years, which gives her more flexibility and allows her to be closer to her volunteer commitments. She and the other Sisters who live alone still maintain close contact with their community through daily prayer and regular meetings and social activities. Photo by Theresa Laurence
When she says these prayers, she feels connected to her local Sisters of Mercy community, as well as the network of thousands of Sisters worldwide, who say the same prayers at the same time every day. “That unites me with all of them,” Sister Jeannine said.
Even though she is retired and lives alone, Sister Jeannine insists that she is not lonely or cut off from the people and places that are vital to her. “I’ve got a lot of communities,” she said. The Sisters of Mercy is one, as are St. Ann Parish, where she usually attends Mass, and Room In The Inn, and Alive Hospice, where she volunteers every week. She also stays in close touch with her large extended family in Nashville. “It seems like I’ve got something every day,” says Sister Jeannine, ever the extrovert.
Sister Jeannine is one of six Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Nashville who live on their own and work or volunteer in the community. Like all Sisters who professed their vows decades ago, she previously lived in a convent, which was the Sisters’ default way of life for so long.
But that idea started to shift after the Second Vatican Council, when religious orders were encouraged to rediscover the original charisms of their founders and seek out new ways to engage with the world.
|Sister Jeannine sorts the mail at Room in the Inn every week. She also volunteers at Alive Hospice on a regular basis. Photo by Theresa Laurence
When the Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831, most women’s religious orders still lived cloistered in their convents, seldom interacting with the public. But Mother Catherine wanted something different for her new order, a combination of prayer and a life of active ministry.
Before the Sisters of Mercy formed in Dublin, it was unusual to see women religious walking through town, looking for those in need, visiting the sick and poor people in their homes. So the Sisters of Mercy became known as the “walking nuns,” and today they continue that tradition of meeting people in need wherever they are.
“Part of Vatican II was to go back to your roots,” Sister Jeannine said, and for the Sisters of Mercy, that meant more Sisters living in the communities where they serve, instead of behind convent walls. It’s also more practical for them to be close to their ministries so they don’t spend so much time commuting. “It’s just logical to me,” Sister Jeannine said of living in her own apartment, a short drive from St. Ann, the main office of Alive Hospice, and the Room In The Inn headquarters.
Sister Maria Edwards, RSM, a pastoral associate, RCIA director and licensed counselor at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Hendersonville, was one of the first Sisters to move out of the convent and into an apartment with a small group of Sisters in the 1970s. “It was a big deal back then,” she said. But now, “it’s a necessity for people to be closer to work.”
When Sister Maria and a few other Sisters first rented two side-by-side apartments near the old Mercy convent in Hillsboro Village, she found it beneficial to have a smaller group to live, work and pray with together. They turned one of the apartment living rooms into a chapel, and would invite a priest to come over once a week to say Mass and have dinner. They would also attend Mass together at different churches around town.
Living alone or in a small group, Sister Maria said, “you’re not as tied down to a schedule” as in the convent. One of the only Sisters of Mercy who is still employed by a parish in the diocese, Sister Maria stays busy with her job, where she’s worked for the last 35 years. “I still enjoy working. I’d rather work than not,” she said. When she’s not at Our Lady of the Lake, Sister Maria spends time in her apartment with her cat Snoopy, reading and writing. She also hosts friends in her home or meets up with members of the parish community for dinner. Even though she just celebrated her 74th birthday, “I’m very busy,” she said.
“I enjoy life as a Sister of Mercy and I might as well do as much as I can while I can,” she said.
“With no bell or set schedule it can be harder to make yourself do things,” agreed Sister Jeannine, “but I think there’s a benefit to that too.” She can choose when and where to attend Mass, whether or not to cook, how to manage her own household, and when to have visitors without checking with anyone else. Sister Jeannine watches her great-nephew at least once a week, and regularly hosts other family members in her apartment.
Even though Sister Jeannine, Sister Maria and a handful of other Nashville-based Sisters of Mercy live on their own, they are still bound to keep in touch and be in relationship with the rest of their community, pray in union with the other Sisters, attend meetings, and be accountable in everything they do, as well as live simply and be of service when called upon. “We talk to each other all the time,” Sister Jeannine said.
|Sister Suzanne Stalm, RSM, celebrated the golden jubilee of her profession of vows in the Sisters of Mercy on Saturday, July 25, at the Mercy Convent in Nashville. She received a hug of congratulations from a fellow Mercy sister after the golden jubilee Mass. Sister Suzanne is one of six Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Nashville who live alone and work or volunteer in the community. These Sisters remain connected to each other and their community through prayer, regular meetings and social activities. Photo by Andy Telli
All the local Sisters of Mercy get together regularly at the Mercy Convent at Pennington Bend, which serves as a retirement home for elderly Sisters and a retreat center. They recently celebrated Sister Suzanne Stalm’s golden jubilee there together. Sister Jeannine also serves on the Spirituality and Life Committee for the convent, and is looking forward to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Sisters of Mercy presence in Nashville, and the founding of St. Bernard Academy next year.
After teaching in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville for 47 years, and living in community for most of that time, Sister Jeannine was ready to live on her own when she moved back to Nashville in 1999.When she retired, Sister Jeannine knew it was time to move on from teaching. Now, she sorts the mail every week for the nearly 1,000 homeless men and women who have their correspondence sent to Room In the Inn at 705 Drexel Street. “I’m happy to do this, because I know people rely on this,” she said.
At her other weekly volunteer gig, Sister Jeannine answers the phone and provides administrative support at Alive Hospice. Both commitments offer her a chance to live out the vow of service that every Sister of Mercy takes. “I love what I’m doing now, performing works of mercy for the sick and homeless,” she said.
Editor’s note: The Tennessee Register is offering regular coverage of the Year of Consecrated Life throughout 2015, until the year officially ends on Feb. 2, 2016. The Year was launched by Pope Francis to help the laity learn more about religious life and to encourage renewal among members of consecrated life.