I've been at the motherhouse almost two weeks now; time to have shared many a meal with the senior sisters here. One of them is Sr Mary Timothy, who was the first or second Daughter of St. Paul I knew by name. Although she grew up in Italy, her parents had been born in Louisiana. Their parents brought them back to Italy before World War II, and they married and raised their children in Sicily. Once the war was over, they came back to the States, where two of the girls became Daughters of St. Paul. (At one time or other, each of them was stationed for a good while in Louisiana, although by then the family had settled in New York.)
The other day Sr Mary Timothy was telling us about some of her experiences from the early years of the Daughters of St. Paul in the United States. At the time, our brother community was nearby, and the sisters were assigned either to making books and doing parish visitations, or to domestic services for the priests and brothers*. (There are actually lots of stories from the sisters who ran the kitchens during those years!) Sr Mary Timothy remembered when she was a girl in Sicily, how her mother tried to teach her own to iron men's shirts. Nothing doing. "I'm going to be a nun. I don't need to know that." Well, wouldn't it happen that one day, she was assigned to the domestic services team. The sister in charge sent this sister to the kitchen to peel potatoes, that sister to the sweeping and mopping...and Sr Mary Timothy to the laundry--to iron shirts!
I asked her if she ever told her mother. "Never did," she said.
*This sort of arrangement seems to be quite traditional (the Cathedral parish in Chicago is served by a Mexican community called the "Oblate Sisters of Jesus the Priest"), but the very idea always rankled me. In the Pauline Family, the Sisters of the Divine Master have (as a kind of "adjunct" to their liturgical apostolate) a specific expression of service to the priesthood, which can include domestic work. But still. One of the brothers, though, shed new light on the matter when he said, after the Divine Master sisters were no longer a part of the picture of their large community, "We really miss the formative character of that feminine presence." In other words, the important thing wasn't having consecrated women doing maid service; it was that the service provided an opportunity for the sisters to accomplish a subtle but important ministry of spiritual formation so that the men's community could benefit from the feminine genius, rather than be left with an exclusively male perspective.
I can appreciate the sisters' contribution much more now, but ... don't ask me to iron those shirts!