SISTER STORY: Sister Mary Ann O'Ryan
By the end of my first day in school, I decided that I wanted to be a sister like my first-grade teacher. I was the oldest of a big happy family, which was loving, devout, busy, bustling, and noisy. First grade was quiet, orderly, filled with interesting things to learn and read, and taught by the most marvelous Dominican, Sr. James Martin. She was young, lively, positive, enthusiastic, and filled with delightful stories that she told us (if we had been good all day and worked hard) about her patron saint, Martin de Porres. This was the life for me!
When my family moved, I attended a parish school where I was taught by Benedictine sisters whom I came to love as well, especially Sr. Theodore, Sr. Anthony, and Sr. Mary James. I was one of those who stayed after school and cleaned the chalkboards; the summer of eighth grade I was one of two girls fortunate to be chosen to wash all the windows in the convent! I saw the sisters in casual moments, and I especially liked how much fun they had, talking and laughing together.
In high school, I was taught by Franciscan sisters, yet another wonderful group of sisters, especially Sr. Margaret, Sr. Ann, Sr. Josephine, and Sr. Thomasine. They, too, were joyful and kind. By my junior year, I was faced with two dilemmas. Was I choosing religious life just to go to college so I could become a teacher? I talked this over with Sr. Thomasine. She told me that I was certain to get an academic scholarship to college. I don’t know now if it would have been such a sure thing. Still, at that moment I believed her, and immediately thought to myself, but I want to be a sister!
My other dilemma was which community to ask to join: my high school Franciscans or my grade school Benedictines? At the high school we students occasionally met lovely older sisters who spoke to us in a foreign language, probably Slovenian. I decided to join the Benedictines since all of the sisters I had known at the parish grade school spoke English! Little did I know then how German the Benedictines were with several German phrases and prayers still in common use. There were also a substantial number of older Slovenian sisters whom I came to know and love as well.
Our high school principal had an interview with each graduating senior to discuss our future plans (there was no career or college counseling in those days; many graduates married right out of high school). When I told Sr. Alvernia that I was joining the Benedictines, it turned out that she had been a postulant in the same Benedictine community many years earlier (see Slovenian connection above), and she asked if I knew that the Benedictines prayed the long Office. I didn’t know what the Office was, let alone the long Office, even though we had prayed the Little Office of the Blessed Mother for special occasions in high school. Nonetheless, I blithely assured Sr. Alvernia that yes, I was fine with the long Office. After a rocky start (I cannot sing, although I love to do so), I grew to love the long Office, which nowadays we pray in shorter segments.
On our first day in the Benedictine novitiate one of the more artistically inclined postulants, who was clearly more spiritually mature than I, had written beautifully on the chalkboard: “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.” I was taken aback because I thought I had made the choice, and here it had been God all along.
"I was taken aback because I thought I had made the choice, and here it had been God all along."
-Sister Mary Ann