By: Allison Copenbarger
(Originally published in The News-Gazette, Feb. 20, 2011)
Writing my Sister Sarah story for Professor Harrington’s class
taught me how deep feature writing can be. One of our readings talked
about narrative stories being “deep and not wide”, meaning you really
focus in on a particular subject and mine for intimate details. The
class helped me to conduct more personal interviews, ask better
detail-specific questions and, most importantly, see where the real
story was among all the interesting details.
My story won 3rd place for Personality/Profile writing in the
2011 Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program ($1500) & 1st place
in the 2011 Marian and Barney Brody Creative Writing Award ($2500).
– Allison Copenbarger
As Sarah Roy walks down Sixth Street, her pale blue eyes squint slightly at the sun and her black veil gently whips behind her head. She’s among a sea of North Face jackets, Ugg boots and orange and blue sweatpants. She herself is donning her normal garb – black jumper, black tights, black veil and black mary-jane flats. It’s the same uniform she has worn nearly every day for the nine years since she became a Roman Catholic nun. Today she has added a navy hooded sweatshirt over her jumper – it’s a little chilly.
The University of Illinois campus is always busy just before noon students hurrying to class. Sarah is instead hurrying to noon mass at St. John’s Catholic Chapel at Sixth and Armory streets. She hops up the familiar concrete steps to the chapel, opens the heavy glass door above which is carved: “Teach ye all nations all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”
Sister Sarah sees the engraving as an assuring reminder: at 33, she is carrying out what God has commanded of her by being a Catholic sister; she is being obedient and useful to God. She is confident in being the only sister under 50 in her entire diocese. She wears the habit with pride. She is content with a life of no sex, no husband, no children and no luxuries. But she wasn’t always so sure this was where God wanted her or where she wanted to be. And sometimes she still doesn’t feel like what she calls the “typical nun.”
St. John’s sanctuary is massive, with a high, curved, gothic ceiling and giant stained glass windows. Above the altar is a painting of Jesus and his disciples. It is a Catholic church not unlike the one Sarah grew up with in New Haven, Indiana. As she did as a girl, she makes the sign of the cross, kneels, folds her hands and bows her head.
The familiar bell rings and mass begins.
It was in this sanctuary, that Sarah wrestled through the decision to become a nun. One day around 10 years ago while she was studying social work in graduate school at the University of Illinois, she came here for answers. She needed to know what direction God had for her life.
She began to pray: God, please don’t make me a sister. Just let me find my husband and we’ll get married and we’ll have 10 children and raise them all Catholic. Just please, please don’t make me a nun.
After dating Joe, also a devout Catholic, for two years, she still didn’t think he was the one. He was great. They had talked about marriage. But after praying together about it incessantly, she told him their marriage didn’t feel right. At first, she thought maybe Joe just wasn’t the one, maybe she would marry someone else.
In St. John’s sanctuary, in quiet time with her God, she believed He would give her the answer she so desperately needed: God just give me a sign, please just give me a sign of what you want me to do. Just tell me what you want, please.
Sarah liked to pray for signs. Although a relationship with God is an intangible thing, throughout Sarah’s life she believes He has manifested Himself to her in visible ways.
To her left, was a stained glass window. It read, “And all that heard Him were astonished at His wisdom and His answers.” Sarah heard a sound behind her, lifted her head and turned to see what the noise could be – she had picked this time during the day because the chapel was usually empty. She saw a nun walking down the aisle. She was dressed from head to feet in a veil and a long, black skirt. She seemed to glide down the aisle toward Sarah. She knelt on one knee, stood and shuffled into the row in front of Sarah.
Ha-ha, that’s funny God. You’re so funny. I’m not doing that.
In a mix of fury and fear, Sarah quickly got up and left the chapel.
Sarah lifts her head listened to a girl in her 20s wearing a grey sweater and an orange scarf give the first reading. “The word of the Lord,” said the girl.
“Thanks be to God,” Sarah responds aloud along with the rest of the congregation.
Mass was always a familiar experience to Sarah. She had been attending Catholic church her whole life. Her parents were Catholic, and she had attended private, Catholic schools for preschool, middle school and high school. She had attended church every Sunday since she could remember.
She believes she had her first experience with God in preschool. Sarah’s teacher always read the children Bible stories before naptime. One day, her teacher told them the story of Samuel from the Old Testament – about how God called his name, and he didn’t listen. Sarah recalls that she was determined not to be like Samuel. She convinced herself in that moment, lying on her back looking up at the ceiling, that when God called her name, she would hear it and get it right the first time.
“I remember I was looking out the window waiting,” Sarah says. “It was the first time, in the way a three-year-old can, that I longed for a relationship with God.”
About 20 years later, Sarah thought again about Samuel. God’s call for her to a life as a Catholic sister wasn’t a clarion call. She didn’t hear a deep, rumbling audible voice from the heavens calling down to her as Samuel did.
Instead, after she had fled from the chapel, God spoke to her through a pros and cons list. She was nearing the end of graduate school for social work and she had big decisions to make. She had been praying about her future and decided to take the practical step of listing all the good and bad points of being married versus being a nun.
“I really thought it would weigh towards marriage, and I was trying to make it lean that way,” Sarah says. “But in the end it was very clear that I was called to religious life.”
After this realization, Sarah pleaded with God: No, I can’t do this, God. I’m quite the sinner! I’m not living the good Christian life in lots of ways. I can’t do this.
Later that day, she opened a book she had been reading to this line: “God’s arms are the elevator which lifts us up.” In that moment, Sarah said she felt like God was saying, “Don’t worry, I am going to do it for you.”
“It was the weirdest thing,” Sarah says with a faraway look in her eyes. “I had been so mad and then, all of the sudden, I was like, ‘Well, if you’re going to do it for me, then I’ll say yes.’”
Sarah has never doubted the decision since.
The robed priest gives a reading from the Bible and then says, “Let us pray.”
Sarah bows her head and her black veil falls closer to her face in prayer.
The decision to wear the veil – known in religious terminology as a habit – was a difficult one for Sarah. Of the many sisters in her diocese, only about a quarter wear them.
After Vatican II, a time in the 1960s when the Roman Catholic Church made reforms, nuns could choose whether or not they would wear a habit or regular clothes. A wave of relief rolled through the sisterhood; they could finally look like everyone else. In her first three years as a nun, Sarah didn’t wear a habit and was uncertain about whether or not she ever would.
After all, she loved clothes and shopping. When she was growing up, her mother, Laura, bought her a new wardrobe every season. Beginning in high school, Sarah started to highlight her hair every few months. She always kept her toenails polished in bright colors.
Yet, nuns don’t shop and primp. Becoming a sister meant giving them up – along with her car, cell phone, career and income. Finally, she decided to wear the habit.
“I thought, ‘Well, I can either look like a sister or a frumpy 30-year-old,” she says, laughing.
More seriously, Sarah likes that the uniform makes her stand out – that when people look at her they think of God. She hopes that it makes her look approachable and makes people think about God, if even in a small way. It also makes her quite the spectacle. While Sarah was once grocery shopping, a man yelled, “Hey, look, it’s a nun!” Everyone turned to stare, leaving her mortified. Another time, while in a cashier’s line close to Halloween, the students behind her and in front of her thought she was wearing a nun costume. When they found out she was an actual nun, she says they mocked her for not having sex.
“To people you’re not really a person,” Sarah explains. “You’re this religious freak – a foreign entity.”
Her wardrobe consists of four veils and several black jumpers that her stepmom Karen made for her to save on cost. She has two pairs of shoes, her black everyday flats and her running shoes. She also has tee shirts, jeans and sweatpants – for relaxing at home or for when she just needs a break and wants to be treated like everybody else at the grocery store. She is also allowed to wear any kind of colored, modest blouse. She said other sisters go to Goodwill or the Salvation Army to save on cost but she has never done that.
“I guess I’m too vain!” she says.
In accordance with the vow of poverty, she is given $40 a month by St. John’s for clothes and spending money. Her mother often buys her running shoes, which are very expensive on $40 per month.
Not all of her family members understand her desire to become a nun or the spirit of her life. She received so many gift cards after her final vows that the church made a rule that sisters had to turn in all monetary gifts. Her mom invited her out to celebrate her final vows and took her and a few fellow nuns from the convent to a spa day.
“It was okay because it was for the sake of my mom,” Sarah says. “Now, if I came down to the Chapel with my fingernails painted they’d be like, ‘Go upstairs and take that stuff off.’ I wouldn’t get in trouble, but I’d feel so out of place.”
Although Sarah never doubts her call to be a nun, she has doubted being a nun working here at the Catholic Newman Center on campus, where the next youngest sister is nearly twenty years older than Sarah. She lives with just one other sister at the convent across from St. John’s and the rest of the sisters in her diocese live over 90 miles away in Peoria. The average age of the sisters is 68. “I wish there were more younger sisters,” she says. “It would be fun, instead of trying to relate with people twice my age.”
Sarah is cordial but not close with the others. Unlike some of the others, she enjoys working out, jogging, tae bo and yoga. She watches “The Biggest Loser.” She ran the Champaign Marathon last year. She has a Facebook page; her profile picture shows her with a white, fuzzy snowman cap atop her head.
Her parents often worry about what will happen to Sarah in thirty years. If more, younger sisters don’t join her community she could be left to care for them all with no one to care for her. Currently she is a spiritual advisor to individual college students and plans group activities such as retreats. Just added to her job was task of recruiting new sisters. Sarah doesn’t worry. She believes God will keep His word and be with her the whole way.
The priest concludes his homily, the congregation stands and says in unison, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Sarah closes her eyes. A little boy with white-blonde hair a few rows ahead is smiling with full, rosy cheeks and bright eyes. Suddenly he trips and falls and cries out. He runs to his mother who smiles and scoops him up into her arms.
At the noise, Sarah opens her eyes and gazes at the boy and the mom’s pregnant belly. She then she lowers her head to rest on her steepled hands.
Accepting that she would not have children was a hurdle for Sarah, who had always expected to be a mommy.
But that wasn’t God’s plan.
Sarah says many sisters go through a grieving process with God about not having children. This hasn’t happened to her yet. But she says not having a husband and children is difficult at times. Sometimes she just wants someone to hold her. Last year, when her uncle died, she had no one to console her at the funeral. Her mother had her husband. Her father had his wife. Her brother had his wife. Her other brother had his girlfriend. If the funeral had been closer, Sarah’s sisters in community would have come. But it was too far, and she was left alone.
For Sarah, the issue of not having a certain someone is more an issue of emotions than lust. She says celibacy isn’t much of a problem for her. What she craves is human intimacy.
She looks to God to fill that void.
Since middle school, she has kept a faith journal, writing in it every few days. It helps her focus on God and makes talking to him more real.
She also experiences Him through prayer – at least two hours every day. Sister Sarah starts with God at 8 a.m: God, help me to be more patient with students. God, be with me as I plan the student’s retreat today. Help me to feel you today. Help me to love people well.
“When you get quiet – to a point of just being – and you just sit there listening,” she says, “you become very aware of God’s presence.”
During her prayer time, she believes God has spoken to her through Scripture that solved some problem she was having that day. Sometimes when she has a persistent thought in her head that is unexplainable she believes it is God who has placed the thought in her head. Still, Sarah says that sometimes she longs just to be held – to be shown affection. Sarah says the life she lives it not always easy and she is not perfect.
“My relationship with God is not a ladder to climb. It’s more like navigating a spiral staircase.”
One particularly trying day a couple of years ago, Sarah desperately needed God to help her feel loved and adored. At morning chapel, she prayed: God, I need to know you love me today. Show me you love me. After she walked out of the chapel, everywhere she went people held doors open for her. One guy at work brought puppies and she played with them all day. People wanted to give her hugs.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Sarah says with a smile. “I think God was romancing me.”