I met playwright and fiction writer, Marcia Cebulska during my one year living in Kansas and working with the Inge Theatre Festival, and she is one of the high points of that year. Along with several other women and some wonderful creative opportunities, I learned the power of collaboration, community, and compassion. (Click on the above links to learn about one of those wonderful experiences). I reached out to see if she would contribute to this series, because I knew she would have a wonderful story to share, and would understand that unique abilities come in all shapes and surprises. I am delighted with her celebration of the Nuns who helped Marcia become the amazing inspiration that she is. To Community!
WOMEN IN VEILS
I’ve been thinking about changing my Facebook photo to one of me dressed as a nun. Yeah, this one where I’m smiling with baby teeth but ensconced in the starchy white and woolly brown habit of the Franciscan Sisters of the Blessed Kunegunda. That’s right, Kunegunda. Tom, my husband, laughs when he sees the picture. Most people do, maybe because of the incongruity of a Kindergartner wearing a wimple or maybe they’re remembering Nunsense. The Sisters I recall from my thirteen years of Catholic schooling were neither ridiculous nor mean. None of them rapped my fingers with a ruler. And yes, Sister Liam was comical while teaching Physics but her antics forever instilled in me the upside of making a point with humor. As an adult, I’ve given up going to church but I still admire the women who inspired the guiding principles for my life and work: the necessity for social action, the importance of knowledge, and the value of community among women.
So how did I get into this picture anyway wearing a veil more complicated than a burka? It was the centennial celebration of Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral parish. Two little kids were chosen to represent each neighborhood church in the city and dressed in miniature duplication of its nuns and priests. I was thrilled to be chosen. Home movies show a grand procession of us befrocked children snaking around downtown and eventually into the glorious Cathedral Church where bishops and archbishops resplendent in red and gold regalia enthralled us with pomp and ceremony.
In contrast, our own parish nuns were, like the current Pope Francis, devoted to simplicity, social action, humility, and poverty. They were committed to the people of our neighborhood where the factory smokestacks loomed just a block away from the church steeple and where most of the women wore housedresses and babushkas. Sometimes I see photographs of women from Saudi Arabia wearing scarves tied just like theirs. True, we all had to cover our heads in church so we didn’t tempt men with our glorious hair. My own mother, a woman of style, wore couture and hats, often with a wisp of black veiling over her eyes. Mom had tried being a nun. She had entered the convent as a postulant when she was fifteen but opted out and married at eighteen. Ever after, she flaunted her unnunness whenever possible, wearing filmy harem pants to costume parties and dancing the Can Can for a fund raiser. But she always had close friends who were in the convent. She brought them treats and had them over for martinis. When her nun friends came to our house, they’d try on her clothes, page through Glamour magazine, and laugh with her, conspiratorially and often. Then, having had their brief holiday, they dressed again in their formal habits to do their self-effacing good work. And my mom would go to deliver bread and pastries from our bakery to the poor, the old, and the sick of the parish.
By the time I was in high school, we lived in the suburbs and the Dominican Sisters who taught me stood proud with straight backs. They wore soft white robes and black veils. It was rumored that every nun at our high school had a doctorate, having been drafted from a college to open the new school for girls. Every classroom had a copy of Thomas Aquainas’ Summa Theologica. If we asked a pesky question, we were told to go, “to the Summa” to seek an answer. I learned to do research, decline Latin verbs, discuss world literature, converse in French, and sing Gregorian chant. I was in a shadow play adaptation of The Aeneid. I felt inspired and awakened. In off hours, the Sisters roller skated in the basement.
Nuns lived in community. When my mother took me to the convent for visits, I found it quiet, peaceful and scented with holy water. The women chatted in subdued tones in the dim sitting room. Mom would squeeze a $5 bill into a hand or kiss a cheek before leaving. Sometimes she would drive Sister Dolorine to visit her family in Cleveland. They would speak in Polish so that I, sitting in the back seat, wouldn’t understand the secrets they shared. They would laugh and cry together, forging some bond, celebrating their commonality. At home my mom raised a family and ran a business, balancing a difficult husband, bakers, salesmen, and ledgers. With her nun friends, she reached across to assure and be assured, offering support, a joke, or a hug. They shared lives so different yet so much the same, dealing with affronts, greed, pride, jealousy, humanness, womanness. They were part of the community of women. I watched and I learned.
I am grateful to nuns. Those women who lived a seemingly medieval life inspired me to have the confidence to take risks in the name of justice and peace. They were the most educated women I knew and they taught me not to allow my gender to hold me back in the pursuit of knowledge and self-actualization. Like my mom, they were far from perfect, sometimes impatient. But from them, I learned to respect and value friendship among women and yes, the benefits of a well-earned break.
A few years ago, I would get together for drinks with a few other women I knew from my connection to the William Inge Center for the Arts. We were of different ages and from different backgrounds but we shared similar ideals and enjoyed the occasional break from responsibility. We shared our challenges and reassured each other. Lisa Kramer was one of those women. Somehow, seemingly by accident, we developed a custom of raising our glasses whenever one of us said the word “community.” We said the word conspiratorially and often.
Raise your glasses high, Sisters! To community!
Marcia Cebulska is a playwright and fiction writer currently at work on a novel entitled, Watching Men Dance.
If you are ready celebrate your own powers (or someone else’s), consider contributing to this series. Read this post and then contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about empowering yourself and others in P.O.W.ER.
For each book sold, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to causes that support women and children around the world.