|Bestselling author Ann Patchett, left, is pictured with her friend and former St. Bernard Academy teacher Sister Nena de Matteo, RSM, in Patchett’s independent bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books.|
It’s lunchtime at a busy Nashville deli. An elderly lady, a regular here, snags a table with her middle-aged lunch date. They are an inconspicuous pair, and considering their nearly 30-year age difference, probably look like mother and daughter to anyone who glances their way.
Most restaurant patrons likely have no idea that the “mother,” dressed in casual street clothes, is, in fact, a nun and the “daughter” was her one-time student, now a critically acclaimed bestselling author.
The pair, Sister Nena De Matteo, RSM, and Ann Patchett, author of the highly anticipated new novel “Commonwealth” and owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, share a deep friendship, which traces its roots back to St. Bernard Academy, where Sister Nena taught young Ann Patchett to read and write.
The Sisters of Mercy, who founded St. Bernard Academy in Nashville in 1866, “were really important role models,” Patchett said. Spending 12 years as a St. Bernard student, Patchett witnessed how the Mercy Sisters’ spirituality was intertwined with service, and how they shared an unwavering commitment to their vocation.
“Nuns are the ultimate career women, in a sense,” Patchett said. Forsaking the traditional path of marriage and family, the Sisters followed a call from God to join with like-minded women and dedicate their lives to educating children, caring for the sick, and serving others. Often, “their families didn’t want them to do it, but they said, ‘we’re going to do it anyway,’” Patchett said.
That was true for Sister Nena, a one-time star athlete at St. Bernard Academy, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Her father thought she was making a mistake for entering the convent, rather than getting married and having children. But, she said, “I’ve never regretted one second” of life as a Sister of Mercy.
“I have thousands of children,” she said over lunch, lost in thought for a moment about the students, her children, she taught during her 34 years at St. Bernard. “I dedicated my life to children,” said Sister Nena.
When she entered the convent, “I knew right away I wanted to teach.” And even more important than teaching her students to love reading, “I wanted little kids to be happy with themselves.” Long after her retirement, Sister Nena continues to babysit and tutor children in her Green Hills apartment complex.
When Patchett first landed in Sister Nena’s class, she had recently moved to Tennessee from California and was, by her own admission, not a standout pupil. She wasn’t reading complete sentences until third grade. But Sister Nena stuck with her, “badgering” her with flashcards during recess and pushing her write her letters over and over again until everything started to click.
Patchett “always knew” she knew she wanted to be a writer, and wanted to dedicate her whole self to writing, just as Sister Nena and her fellow Sisters of Mercy wholly dedicated themselves to teaching. “I’ve never had any regrets,” Patchett said. “When I was younger everyone told me I was wrong, but I never wavered.”
The Sisters of Mercy, Patchett said, “were women who had done something unusual, non-traditional and brave.” Following their example, she did the same by completely committing herself to the vocation of writing. “I didn’t want to get married and have children. I wanted to write.”
The author of seven novels and three books of nonfiction, Patchett has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. In November 2011, she opened Parnassus Books, and has since become the de-facto spokesperson for independent booksellers in the U.S. In 2012, she was named by Time magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
Patchett begins a 30-city book tour this month to promote her new novel “Commonwealth,” a multi-generational family saga.
Patchett may have legions of adoring fans across the country, but at home in Nashville, she remains totally grounded in the routines of daily life. She reads and writes at home, visits Parnassus with her dog Sparky in tow, makes dinner while listening to audiobooks, spends time with her husband Karl, hangs out with friends like Sister Nena.
Patchett wants to be clear that she does not simply admire Sister Nena as a favorite former teacher and kind of revered mother-figure. “We are really close friends,” she says, “like best friends.”
When Sister Nena was moving into her own apartment years ago, Patchett was there packing boxes in the car and helping her organize her new home. These days, the two have regular lunch dates that include good conversation and lots of laughs.
“I could talk to her about anything that was bothering me,” Sister Nena said of Patchett. “Ann takes care of me,” she added. Patchett brings her food, cold medicine, advance copies of her latest book. “I have a lot of questions for her about this one,” Sister Nena said of “Commonwealth.” “I’m reading it slowly.”
The two were not always so close. They were out of touch for about 30 years, when one day, out of the blue, Sister Nena called Patchett for help. She was semi-retired and helping out at the now-shuttered St. Vincent de Paul School and needed money for school supplies. She knew that her former student had become a successful author, and might be willing to help.
The first time Sister Nena called, Patchett sent her a check; after the second call, Patchett took her shopping at Target, where they loaded up on paper and pens for the students, hand lotion and Lifesavers for the teachers. “She’s so generous, but in a quiet way,” Sister Nena said of Patchett.
After they reconnected, their friendship “evolved very slowly,” Patchett said. Two of Sister Nena’s closest friends died, and she and Patchett began spending more time together, tentatively growing closer.
“So ferocious is my love for Sister Nena that I can scarcely understand if myself, but I try,” Patchett wrote in an essay, “The Mercies,” published in Granta magazine in 2011, reflecting on her relationship with Sister Nena. “Hers is the brand of Catholicism I remember from my childhood, a religion of good works and very little discussion. … I think she is everything I have ever loved about our religion distilled down to fit into one person, everything about the faith that is both selfless and responsible.”
Rooted in the core values of spirituality, community, service, and social justice, the Sisters of Mercy are continually inspired by their founder Sister Catherine McAuley to be among the people, meeting those in need wherever they are.
“It’s about how you live your faith,” Patchett said. The Sisters of Mercy “just do the good work.”
“That’s right,” Sister Nena said. “You don’t hesitate, you just do it.”