Why Theresa Lalanos Became a Nun

Why Theresa Lalanos Became a Nun

By: Erin (Walsh) Gibbons

(Originally published in The Catholic Digest, October 2002)

Author’s Note:

When I interviewed Sister Miriam and the other nuns in her convent, what surprised me most was their candor. I didn’t think Sister Hannah would admit to having a hard time walking by a good-looking man, or Sister Miriam would open up about her strained relationship with her father. But I’ve since found that most people will be remarkably honest if you get outside of your own comfort zone and just ask the question.

Writing this story also taught me the power of detail. Some of it’s simply doing the legwork – being there at 4:30 a.m. for morning prayers so you can make note of the flickering candle and one of the nuns blowing her nose. But it’s also gathering enough anecdotes and color through the interview process so that – even when you can’t observe something firsthand, or it happened in the past – you have the authority to tell your subject’s story as if you were there, without having to attribute every sentence. I think that makes the difference between a straightforward newspaper article and a piece of literary journalism.

- Erin Gibbons

The houses on Robert Drive are still asleep. It’s 4:58 on a Friday morning, and the sun won’t start rising for another hour. For now, the neighborhood is dark and silent. Only a single window on the street glows with dim light. Behind the thin curtains, inside the old, plain brick house, a different kind of morning routine is already beginning.

Sister Miriam Palanos, cheeks still flushed with sleep, is the first to enter the small room that is a chapel. She takes her place on the kneeler in the back left corner and, eyes turned downward, awaits the others. Sister M. Jacinta Fecteau and Sister M. Veronica McDermott file in a few minutes after 5 a.m. and kneel quietly. Sister M. Hannah Minor, blowing her nose, is the last to arrive. Everything in the room is simple, including the women themselves. They are all dressed alike, with long gray habits and black veils hiding their hair. As the clock ticks methodically, the women face an altar covered with white cloth. On it sits a small candle, flickering wildly and sending spirals of smoke dancing toward the ceiling. Suddenly, Sister M. Jacinta speaks.

“In-the-name-of-the-Fath-er,” she says, a rhythm in her high-pitched voice that pierces the silence. “And-of-the-Son, and-of-the-Ho-ly-Spir-it,” the other three women answer in unison.

The house is a modern-day convent, and Sister Miriam and the other women who live there are Franciscan nuns. After morning prayers, they walk a few blocks to St. Matthew’s Catholic grammar school in Champaign, where they work. Sister Miriam teaches science, math and religion. At age 31, she has been in the order of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George for nine years.

With the average age of American nuns now 69, young nuns like her are increasingly rare. Although there were 180,000 nuns in this country in 1965, by 2001 the number had decreased to just 80,000. Some people point to the vows of celibacy, others to parents no longer encouraging their children to enter vocations, still others to the Church’s patriarchal hierarchy that may be turning away feminist-minded women. But whatever the reason, the graying of the convent is very much a reality.

What, then, makes a young woman such as Sister Miriam choose to enter the convent in spite of the trend? How, in an age of excess and extravagance, can she willingly live in poverty? How, in an age when more than half of married couples get divorced and commitment is measured in days rather than lifetimes, can she devote her life to Jesus, someone she can’t even physically touch? And how, in an age of quick fixes, instant gratification and Hollywood’s promises of romantic fairytale endings, can she find fulfillment in a quiet life of sacrifice?

“There are real things I’ve given up that are enjoyable to me,” Sister Miriam says. “But I don’t mind because I know I have someone in my life, Jesus, who is my husband. This is what he’s asking of me, and there have been many blessings because of it.”

Sister Miriam was religious even as a child, but she wasn’t always sure about her vocation. She was baptized Theresa Palanos in 1971 and grew up in a Catholic family in northern California. Her father was religious in the church-every-Sunday sense, but Theresa was influenced more by her mother’s deep spirituality. When she was a little girl, she would wake up early in the morning before school and run to find her mom, who would always be in her rocking chair, praying.

“What do you want to talk to Jesus about?” she’d ask Theresa as she climbed into her lap.

Theresa always thought of Jesus the way He’s shown in pictures – tall, with brown hair and a beard. As she got older, she began lying in bed at night and praying silently, talking to Him about whatever she wanted. She attended a Protestant grade school (because of the location) that emphasized this kind of informal prayer, and it wasn’t until she went to a Catholic high school that she even learned what a rosary was. She couldn’t get used to such standard, repetitive prayers at first, so she tried to put herself into the mystery of baby Jesus. Sometimes she would picture the Blessed Mother putting the baby in her arms, saying, Here, do you want to hold Him? And eventually the Hail Mary became background music rather than a rote prayer. Although most Catholics receive the sacrament of confirmation in the eighth grade, Theresa waited until she was a junior in high school, when she was sure about her faith. It was one of the most meaningful changes of her entire life, something that was hers.

“My faith was always important to me, and I figured God had a plan for me,” she says. “I just never thought it would be a vocation.”

Theresa just couldn’t picture herself as a nun. She thought of nuns as old, boring and stiff. How could anyone normal want to be a nun? No, Theresa dreamed about getting married and having six kids of her own, maybe a Christina or a Michelle. She would have a two-story house with a white picket fence in California, right by the mountains. And of course, her wedding dress would be beautiful – long and all white, with a veil.

Theresa attended a small Catholic college, mostly to find a husband. She dated a few boys. She and her friend Joelle would walk by the vocation fairs on campus and wonder who would actually go to those things. But then a strange thing happened: People began seeing a vocation in her. During her freshman year, on the way to see a movie with a group of friends, a boy who was interested in her said, “So, I heard you were going to be a nun.”

“Excuse me?” Theresa said, shocked.

“Yeah, that’s what they’re all saying.”

They’re all saying? Theresa was upset. How was she supposed to meet Mr. Right if that’s what people were saying? Others approached her, too: the priest at her family’s parish, a Polish woman in her summer prayer group, Father Gus at school. Theresa couldn’t understand it – she didn’t see herself as an especially pious person. But slowly, the idea became less crazy. Theresa got to know a few young sisters at her college and realized that they were a lot like her – fun-loving, athletic, down to earth. They were normal, not at all like stereotypical nuns.

Then at the beginning of her sophomore year, when she was praying in the school chapel, an image of Jesus came to her. He told her He would let her know when He wanted her to start thinking about a vocation. When Theresa left the chapel, she had a sense of peace. She was young and didn’t need to worry about a lifetime commitment yet. That summer at mass, she got another sign. As the priest passed by her, carrying the Eucharistic hosts down the aisle for communion, she heard God say in her heart, No man will satisfy you but me. That was the answer to Theresa’s endless questioning. This is what she was made for. The next fall, she started actively looking into different religious communities.

Theresa’s mom supported her decision, but her dad just couldn’t understand it. Two days before she was supposed to leave for the convent, they went hiking in the mountains. Paul Palanos was a reserved man of few words, and most of the day passed in silence. On the car ride home, however, he finally spoke his mind. It was fine to be religious, but Theresa was going overboard. She had been brainwashed. Did she realize what she was giving up? That she would only see her family once every three years? He felt like he was losing a daughter.

“It would be easier for me if you committed suicide,” he told her.

They didn’t speak for two years.

Theresa entered the convent in Alton, Ill., and prepared for the sisterhood for the next seven years. Before making her final vows, however, she went through a dark time, a time of doubt. Had she imagined those signs from God? Had she just been on a two-year emotional hype? Was this really what she wanted? But she realized that now it was time for her to accept it all on faith, without dramatic signs from the heavens. Beyond the calling and the vows, it was about a person – Jesus – and her relationship with Him. Both of her parents flew out for the ceremony. Although things had warmed up a little between Theresa and her dad, they hadn’t had much contact in the seven years she’d been in the convent. He sat on the edge of the pew by the aisle, and when Theresa walked by, he touched her arm in support.
Theresa chose Miriam, Hebrew for Mary, as her religious name. Instead of accepting a ring from the convent, as is the tradition, she took her mother’s simple, 14-karat gold wedding band. To her, it symbolized her mom’s commitment to a marriage that had had both joys and sorrows. That’s what religious life would be for her, and she wanted the ring to remind her to be committed through the good and the bad.

Today, all 16 women who took final vows with Sister Miriam are still in the order – quite an unusual feat. There’s usually at least one in each group to leave. In this modern world, religious life certainly isn’t for everyone. All Catholic nuns take lifetime vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, and some communities are more conservative than others. Sister Miriam’s is one of them. Although many communities abandoned their habits and veils after Vatican II liberalized Catholic doctrine in 1963, hers held on to the tradition. Except during sleep, the nuns wear their habits no matter what they’re doing, whether it be playing tennis or going to the library. They can have occasional guests at the house, but they aren’t allowed to go out to socialize individually because it supposedly pulls a woman away from community life. They have to ask Sister M. Jacinta, the Superior of their house, for permission to watch any TV show other than the news. They can’t wear makeup, even to cover up the occasional pimple. But they’re nuns, not saints.

“There are different times when each vow has been a struggle,” Sister Miriam acknowledges.

Sometimes it’s poverty. Because of the expense of airfare, Sister Miriam can visit her parents in California for only two weeks every three years. It’s hard not being able to see them more often. She doesn’t want anything extravagant or excessive, but once in awhile she can’t help wishing she had some things that were her own. Sister M. Hannah agrees.

“You miss weird things – going to get a soda, wearing blue jeans, owning a cat, walking by a store and saying, ‘That’s really cute,’” she says. “I love music, so sometimes when I’m in a car, it’s hard not to turn on the radio to listen to Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull.”

Sister Miriam misses lying out to get a suntan. Sister M. Veronica had trouble parting with her shoe collection. But where individual expression is taken away in one area, it tends to manifest in another. So while habits and veils are standard, shoes – although they have to be black – allow for a little creative flair. The nuns also have fun showing their personal style with watches and pajamas.

But other times, they struggle with obeying the rules passed down from the church hierarchy. Their vow of obedience means they must work wherever their community decides and in whatever capacity. Sister Miriam was first sent to teach high school in New Jersey and was then called to St. Matthew’s three years later, where she had to wait for a teaching position to open up at the grammar school. It was hard for her to give up her independence at the beginning, and there are still times when she is asked to do something she doesn’t think is right for her. But ultimately, she and the other nuns see the church hierarchy as a necessary means for God’s will to be passed down to his servants. And although many women – including many nuns – have been alienated by the church’s refusal to even hear debate on the issue of female ordination to the priesthood, Sister Miriam doesn’t question it.

“It’s not that women couldn’t do it, it’s just not what God is calling them to do,” she says. “Jesus didn’t go by the standards of his time, but when he chose his apostles, he chose men to reflect his image.”

And then there’s celibacy. Don’t the nuns feel like they’re missing out on something?

“Sometimes it’s really hard to walk by a good-looking man,” Sister Hannah says with a laugh. “You have to tell yourself, ‘Just keep walking!’”

It all depends on how you’re wired, Sister Miriam explains. For her, sex isn’t a huge temptation. Sometimes she does feel like she is missing out on physical companionship – someone she can actually touch, someone who is committed to her. But she knows that chastity is an essential part of her relationship with Jesus.

“To be committed to this person, Jesus, I have to have these vows,” she says. “How can I be committed and love Him if I’m not chaste, if there are other men in my life?”

Sister Miriam sees all of these sacrifices more clearly than she did nine years ago. Then, as soon as something got difficult, she would start to doubt her calling and wonder if this was the life God wanted for her. But now, she knows that things happen. If she butts heads with another sister or disagrees with an order she’s given, it doesn’t take away from her commitment. That’s just life. It’s only through such conflicts that she will learn to forgive and grow as a human being. Besides, she’s a nun, not a saint.

And there are many good times to overshadow the hardships. There is friendship with her fellow nuns. Sharing common values and a life of commitment with the other sisters has helped Sister Miriam build the closest friendships she’s ever had, with a depth she never could’ve imagined. And there is laughter. Sister Miriam and Sister M. Hannah, who went to the same college and are now best friends, have a similarly sarcastic sense of humor, and like to tease each other. Sister M. Hannah, who grew up on the East Coast, makes fun of Sister Miriam for being from California and has also been known to break out the old childhood cheer, “U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi. You UGLY!” Sister Miriam retaliates by imitating Sister M. Hannah’s pronunciation of words like horrible – “harrible” – and teases her for dozing off during morning prayers. There are little indulgences as well – trips to Blockbuster once a month (“Anna and the King” was last month’s selection), a snowball fight after the first big snowfall of the winter, gift certificates to fast food joints and restaurants from some of the parents at school.

But more than that is the fulfillment that comes from touching people’s lives. Since she doesn’t have children of her own, Sister Miriam has more time to devote to her students at school. And she’s found that by simply wearing a habit, she has been able to help people she wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise. They tell her about abusive husbands, losing touch with the church. They ask her to pray for them. “Every single time I go to an airport, I’ve had someone pour his heart out to me,” she says. “People just seem to seek me out.”

There have been other blessings, too. For her 31st birthday, her father sent her a card with a personal message inside: “Dear Toots, It’s time! I’ve changed my outlook and have come to appreciate and respect your life choice. And I am proud of you.”

“The sacrifices have brought my father to be a different person than what he was,” Sister Miriam says. “I’ve watched my brother change and come to his faith. I’ve watched so many beautiful things happen in my family and my religious community that I can say the sacrifice was worth it.”

Yet sacrifice, joy, commitment – these aren’t things Sister Miriam thinks about every day. For the most part, she just goes about her routine of praying, teaching and spending time with the other sisters. On school nights, after prayers, she usually passes the evening grading papers or reading a novel alone in her room. It, too, is simple: a desk and a nightstand, a bed with a cream-colored down comforter and light-blue jersey sheets that Sister Miriam got to pick out herself, a small closet that holds everything she owns. On one wall is a picture that Sister Miriam drew herself, before she made her final vows. It is a picture of her, wearing the wedding dress she imagined as a child and reaching out to take Jesus’ hand. Making this image concrete is what got her through that time of doubt. Sometimes even now, when she finds herself doubting, questioning, she looks at it and is reassured. Sometimes she still likes to think of Jesus like she did as a child, to see that kind face that makes the person she can’t touch a little more human, more tangible. But Sister Miriam’s doubts are rare now. Her faith is more mature and unwavering than it was when she drew the picture.

The change didn’t come immediately. It has been a journey, she explains, like circling to the top of a mountain. She has become wiser and more mature as she has gotten closer to the top. She still has a long way to go, she says, but she has reached the point where she is content with her life. No, it’s not the same kind of happiness she had when she first entered the convent, when she was blind to what lay ahead and everything was still new and exciting. Now, her eyes are open. Now, she accepts both the ups and downs of the life she leads.
“No life is easy,” Sister Miriam says with a quiet smile. “But this is the life I can be the happiest living.”

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