Sisters reflect on changes in consecrated life

Vows of consecrated life still difficult for lay people to understand, two say

APPLETON — When Sr. Betty Reinders reflects on 59 years as a School Sister of St. Francis, she remembers her early days at the Milwaukee motherhouse and the focus placed on joy.

“As postulants, we did dishes,” she recalled. “As we did, we had to sing ‘Thank God, I’m Franciscan.’ In the song there was something about joy. As you grow into the order, you’ll know what that means.”

Sr. Betty Reinders, left, and Sr. Mary Rose Menting stand by a welcome banner at the parish where the two School Sisters of Sr. Francis have served for the past 38 years: St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton. (Patricia Kasten | The Compass)

Sr. Mary Rose Menting, a School Sister of St. Francis for 70 years, echoed that feeling of joy: “For me, it’s freedom: the freedom to live this life, to live out this life, like St. Francis. Everything in his life was perfect joy and to live out my religious life in the spirit of St. Francis would be to joyfully commit myself to the life that I have chosen. I guess that freedom is important to being a Franciscan.”

For the past 38 years, these two women have served at St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton: Sr. Betty as pastoral associate and Sr. Mary Rose having handled adult education, RCIA, liturgy planning, bereavement ministry and other assorted pastoral work. Both also minister to the sick.

“If somebody is sick and needs us after 9 p.m., I can do that,” Sr. Mary Rose said. “I am free to do that.”

It wasn’t always that way for consecrated religious. Sr. Betty remembers how, on entering religious life, she had to lie on the floor of the chapel under a black cloth. This symbolized leaving the world. It was all part of making the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that identify those in consecrated life.

The change was clearcut. For example, the School Sisters at the time Sr. Betty joined served as teachers and nurses.

“I asked to be a nurse in our community,” she said. “The answer was, ‘No, you have to teach because we need more teachers.”

Sr. Mary Rose said that the way vows were lived out at the time emphasized a life of trust and also linked them to their religious community’s history

“Our own foundresses were driven out of Germany (in 1874),” she said. “They came over here and started with nothing. Their trust was in God. The whole idea is that, if this is God’s work, it will work. If it doesn’t, well, then I must not be doing it right or not doing the right thing.”

With that trust, Sr. Betty and Sr. Mary Rose found themselves teaching together in a small school in the La Crosse Diocese in the 1960s. It was still a time of few possessions for women religious. The two remember having to ask the pastor to borrow money and his car to go buy groceries.

While expressed differently today, the vows of consecrated life are still difficult for lay people to understand.

Admitting to borrowing this analogy from St. Thomas More’s pastor emeritus, Fr. Gerald Falk, Sr. Betty compared her vows to those of marriage: “When you get married you say, ‘I do.’ And so it’s like I have said ‘I do’ to poverty — which means we are free to be poor so I can help others to live a simple life. Consecrated life is an ‘I do,’ but of a different nature than what the ‘I do’ of marriage is. It’s just another way to live life and it’s the way I have chosen and I am happy with it.”

Sr. Mary Rose agreed. “I choose to live out the Gospel message in a vowed life, with my vows as the guide for my life. … Each day is special because I have committed my whole life to this. I’ve committed my whole being, everything in my life I have given to the Lord.”

Just as married couples face challenges, so do those in consecrated life. In the early years, the vow of obedience seemed strict.

Part of a year-long series on men and women religious.

“I can remember the idea of being cut off,” Sr. Betty said. “My folks wanted to show me the new Christmas tree they had, a silver one. We could stop at our house, and I could look at it from the outside, but not go in. My dad used to say, ‘How come you can go out to eat with people from the parish, but you can’t go out to eat with us?’ We gave up family.”

Vatican II ended that for their community. “When the changes came, it seemed so much more sensible,” Sr. Betty said. “My life is not about living … in this little cubbyhole.”

Sr. Mary Rose has found people wondering how she can live a vow of chastity: giving up marriage, children and grandchildren. She tells them, “I am free to love many more people because I have this vow. I free myself. Because of my relationship with the Lord, I can free myself to reach out to many, many people. I don’t have a commitment to a certain person or people. I have the freedom to reach out to many more because of my vows.”

The way their entire religious community lives the vow of poverty appealed to Sr. Betty from the start. She had originally been in another religious order, but had become ill and been sent home before she made her vows. Once she recovered, she attended Marquette University and then decided to visit prospective orders in Milwaukee.

“I chose our order,” she said, “because it was very simple. They didn’t have fancy stuff. I can still remember the plain table and the plain chairs.”

Both women clearly value the Franciscan life. Sr. Mary Rose grew up on a farm in Phlox and she freely admits she was “a tom boy” who “loved farm work far more than housework.” School Sisters of St. Francis taught at St. Joseph School there and the whole idea of Francis appealed to her. “St. Francis loved the birds and the animals. I loved nature and I thought of that, too. … I wanted to be a Franciscan sister.”

Sr. Betty said that she grew into the Franciscans’ care for nature. “I didn’t come to that until, well, just lately. Saving the earth and ecology; I see things that fit into being a Franciscan, things that are good to do for the earth. It’s a good fit — being a Franciscan — for me.”

They also cite their order’s care for the earth and the community around, especially in Milwaukee. At the end of the month, Sr. Betty and Sr. Mary Rose will retire to their community’s motherhouse on Layton Boulevard. There they hope to be active in the “Layton Boulevard West Neighborhood,” founded by their community in 1995. It’s a neighborhood community — now with many members — that focuses on safety, community pride and ethnic diversity. The School Sisters started what is now a much broader effort by hosting ice cream socials.

Sr. Betty thinks it’s just what St. Francis would do.