The College of St. Elizabeth was the crown jewel of the Sisters of Charity ministries, both entities around for more than 100 years. The best and brightest of the women who entered religious life wound up as professors, deans, and the college president was a Sister of Charity until the first lay woman was brought in four years ago. The College and the Sisters have always been two separate organizational entities, but they are deeply intertwined in culture and in practice.
One of my friends who came to the reunion was in the convent for a year during our time there; she left religious life and finished with us in 1967. She wanted to look at the old Administration building, walk the ground floor corridor of the Motherhouse — which is in the same building — and continue to the Chapel. The nuns said night prayers in the Chapel after supper, walking single file every evening down the long corridor, their sturdy black tie shoes pounding what was then linoleum, their long black rosary beads jangling. If you happened to be on the first floor of the Admin building at that hour, having come down the long staircase from our student dining hall, it was a formidable sound and sight — terrifying, some might say. We’d shrink against the wall to let the phalanx go by, and hope not to be noticed.
The religious order is much diminished in numbers these days — no more than 250 Sisters remain, half of them getting skilled nursing care in the Villa, which is their retirement home. The rest are almost all over 65. I don’t know how many still live in the Motherhouse, but they are old women, gray haired and bent over walkers, and they are few. The long corridor is carpeted now; their is no echo of pounding feet. There is no line of Sisters on the way to prayer. The silence, and sense of emptiness in a building that once held so much, is profound.
I found myself thinking of the late Ronnie Gilbert throwing back her head and singing Good Night Irene. I imagine her striding down that hallway, leading all the souls who went before in a rousing chorus of song instead of evening prayer. There are lots of YouTube versions, but this one with Judy Collins is my favorite. I offer it in memory of them all.