Inside The Enclosure
Cloistered in silence, St. Louis' famous Pink Sisters know more about the world's desires and sorrows than most of us.
Photographs by Frank Di Piazza
Inside, the Mount Grace Chapel of Perpetual Adoration glows pink and gold, its Italian marble altar hand-carved, its marble columns holding aloft 216 rosy bronze cherubs. As always, one of the Pink Sisters kneels silent in the half-light, centered before the altar, her eyes raised to the 40-pound gold monstrance she believes to contain Jesus’ body and blood.
The sisters (who wear rose habits and are never called by their formal name, the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters) established a convent in St. Louis in 1928. As I enter the heavy doors, an interior door’s window slides open just long enough to reveal a smiling face and a bit of white veil.
I’m shown into a small parlor, where a chair has been pulled up to a screen. On the other side sits Sister Mary Gemma, who entered the cloister 54 years ago, flanked by Sister Mary Rebecca, who entered in 2001, and Sister Maribel, who just entered in November.
There’s a slightly surreal, game-show feel as I ask questions of each in turn, starting with Sister Maribel, a 31-year-old dentist from Puerto Rico. What drew her here? She hesitates and glances at Sister Mary Gemma, who murmurs, “Don’t think you have to do anything complicated. It’s very simple. People look for things to be complicated.”
Sister Maribel nods, lifting dark almond-shaped eyes: “I wanted to make my life simple so everything I did would praise God. I did not feel comfortable with the things the world would offer—titles, competition, material things. They took away my peace.”
She went to work in a rural community in North Carolina to pay off her student loans, and, one day, browsing online, discovered the Mount Grace Convent website. “After seeing it,” she says, “the thought would not come off my mind.”
Sister Mary Rebecca, who majored in English at the University of Nebraska, says she thought about entering the convent in high school but fought the idea. What finally made her decision was the prayerful adoration to which Pink Sisters devote their lives: “Every time I would go into the chapel, my heart would jump into my throat. It was like a magnet. It’s time spent with the Lord. And when we kneel in adoration, we bring the whole world; we intercede for everyone, everyone, who needs prayers.”
Sensitive, romantic, almost ethereal, Sister Mary Rebecca could be cast as Shakespeare’s Ophelia—but Sister Mary Gemma comes straight out of Chaucer, combining a wifely practicality with a twinkle of amusement at the world’s foibles. “People think we’re crazy,” she says bluntly. “They don’t understand the motivation, the ‘call.’ And we don’t understand it ourselves.”
She entered in 1951, right after graduating from St. Alphonsus “Rock” High School. “I really think I got my vocation when I was 6, and my father died,” she says. “You put your whole love in an individual, and then it’s gone. I thought, ‘Oh, I have to have something a little more enduring than that.’”
Her greatest delight—and exasperation—has been living in this community, which now comprises 25 sisters of six different nationalities, ages 27 to 99. All those personalities, all those opinions. “When it comes time to paint the walls,” she confides, “it’s easier not to ask.” But the real irritant, she adds quickly, is never other people: “If anybody drives me crazy, it’s me.”
The rule of silence—which may be broken for the sake of charity and during work or community recreation—acts as balm. “In silence, the relationships are very deep,” says Sister Mary Rebecca. “You learn how people feel inside. You can tell someone’s mood by the way she is walking down the hallway.”
Sister Mary Gemma leans forward. “When it’s hard,” she says, “is when you’d just love to tell a story, or a piece of news comes in.” Priests have a standing joke: If you want to know something, ask the Pink Sisters. Father So-and-So has been transferred? Why, yes, because Father So-and-So got very sick, and then Father ... “We have to be careful, though,” says Sister Mary Gemma. “People really confide in us.”
The Pink Sisters leave the cloister mainly for medical care, says Sister Mary Gemma, “although now we can also be fitted for shoes. We used to do that through a catalog, but did you ever get a good-fitting pair of shoes through a catalog?”
Sister Maribel hasn’t left since her arrival, but Sister Mary Gemma just went to the doctor. How did it feel to put on the gray traveling habit and drive away from the convent? “Oh, hustle-bustle,” she says. “I felt like a fish out of water with all those people rushing around. You wonder if it’s all worth it.”
The sisters read the newspaper, devotional literature and the occasional gentle novel (Sister Mary Gemma adores the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries). They avoid potboilers; as for sex, they suspect too much is made of it. They don’t watch TV or surf the Internet, although they do use computers to communicate with the outside world and record the donations that sustain them. “Sister Maribel’s e-mail address before she entered was ‘drillatooth,’” remarks Sister Mary Gemma, tickled.
For Sister Mary Rebecca, technology’s power is fading: “I hear about iPods, and I don’t even know what that is. When my family comes [sisters are allowed, through the screen, three visits a year], I feel kind of silly not knowing what they’re talking about, but I don’t worry about it. It’s not—”
“—a means to salvation,” Sister Mary Gemma finishes. “We are geared just to God, so we don’t get flustered if we don’t understand something that is going on outside. We live in our own world, although I hate to say it that way, because people feel you are pushing them out. We take people with us to the Lord.”
After 55 years on her knees, what does Sister Mary Gemma believe about petitionary prayer? “No good prayer is left unheard,” she says slowly, “but you have to be open to whatever God wills.” Can God be persuaded? “I think he can,” she says, perhaps startling the novices. “I think he’s got a little weakness there, you know, and if you really beg him for something and yet, at the same time, tell him you will accept whatever he wills ... I think he kind of bends.”
Local news media had a field day with the Pink Sisters’ successful prayer for good weather for Pope John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis. The sisters are also famous for bringing babies (at least seven sets of triplets) to infertile couples. “The word’s gotten out,” Sister Mary Rebecca says with a giggle, “that if you want the Pink Sisters to pray, you have to be prepared for more than one.”
One couple was married for 17 years before the Pink Sisters prayed, and they conceived triplets. I hesitate, trying to be polite—was the mother perhaps taking fertility drugs?
“I don’t know,” says Sister Mary Gemma with a shrug, “but surely if she were, it would have worked sooner?”
The sisters possess nothing of their own. What do they miss most?
“I think I’m too old for that question,” Sister Mary Gemma demurs. “Too used to being without.”
Prodding brings an admission from Sister Mary Rebecca: “When I entered, it was hard to leave my favorite sweatshirt. And when I heard that my mother had gone through and cleaned out and given everything away ... I felt like bits of my identity were gone. But if you are not willing to separate yourself from things, they will get in the way.”
Sister Maribel speaks up, her shy voice passionate: “They try to sell you happiness, and the more you get, the more empty you become.”
Listening to all the heartfelt disparagement of materialism, Sister Mary Gemma suddenly remembers: “I have a fascination for jewelry. I went out with one of the sisters, because she needed shoes, and we went by the jewelry counter and I said, ‘Oh! Look how beautiful it is!’ She took me by the sleeve and said, ‘Come on.’ I guess I embarrassed her.”
We all laugh, and then I dare the question: Would it be possible to enter the enclosure? Sister Mary Gemma sobers fast. “I would have to seek permission from the Mother General,” she says. “Only physicians and maintenance men are allowed.” She promises to try. Meanwhile, she recounts the day’s schedule, which begins at 5:15 every morning. “Do you ever get to just—” I wave my arms wide for emphasis—“sleep in?”
She stretches her arms out, mimicking both gesture and tone: “No!”
Then she invites me to Mass that Sunday—at 7 a.m.
I scurry into the chapel at 7:02 a.m. The sisters are already kneeling in their places behind the heavy brass grille, their backs to the pews, serene. One reads from the Book of Job in a light, sympathetic voice. The sisters sing the psalm and response; the laypeople remain quiet and seem glad to be so. There’s none of the usual jockeying to do things, to lead prayers or usher or collect money. They’re here to listen to the sisters, who have been listening to the world’s need all week long.
“Protect us from all anxiety,” the priest murmurs, inviting an exchange of the sign of peace. The sisters nod to him, then to each other. I am vaguely disappointed. I was expecting hugs, hoping to see the perfect white veils scrunched or flung back. But maybe, like long-married couples, they don’t need such show. The hugs would leave us out.
After Communion, there’s a long silence, but the air stays loose, doesn’t thicken or throb with self-consciousness. Then the pink curtains high over the back of the altar slide back, as though of their own accord, to reveal the monstrance, spotlit.
A few sisters busy themselves putting hymnals back in place; others remain kneeling. The lights dim. No one in the pews seems to want to rise and re-enter the world.
Outside, signs along the white stone wall—signs that should have seemed preposterous—forbid the possession of firearms. Twelve years ago, the sisters reluctantly hired a security guard, although her successor, Jewell Banks, says that there’s rarely any trouble: “I’ll say, ‘Y’all know this is God’s property,’ and they’ll leave. People are familiar with the church. Some say, ‘My mama brought me when I was little; we stayed right down the street.’ Some say, ‘I’m from California, and I want to see the Pink Sisters.’ During Hurricane Katrina, I said, ‘I’m not going to take any press from those people, but if y’all find a little room, please pray for me, too,’ and it wasn’t even a month until I found an apartment. I know what they can do. Every day when I clock out, I go pray.”
Pete Rogado, who comes to Mass every Saturday and Sunday at 7 a.m., says, “It’s my devotion. I’m always looking forward to coming here. It makes me feel good, feel—” he gestures— “I don’t know, free.”
Two weeks later, the phone call comes: permission to enter the enclosure. Overhearing, a colleague confides that, when she lived in New York, she had the Pink Sisters programmed into her cell phone. I look up, stunned; she’s not even Catholic. “It was such a comfort,” she says, “when you had no real sense of comfort anywhere else.”
People call, write or knock on the convent door daily:
“My brother in Florida has to start chemo this Tuesday. It doesn’t sound good.”
“M. has a brain tumor that is cancerous. Please pray for healing.”
“For a very special little boy who is having mental problems. Pray that his anxiety is lessened and his faith restored.”
“For a peaceful death for my dad and for relief from pain for my husband. No need to send out a card, although they are lonely. It’s enough for me to know my two guys are in your prayers.”
“Can you the Sisters please pray for my dearest Grandmother, because she’s getting weaker, weaker every day and we don’t know how much longer she’ll live, so please pray for her please and can you please pray for my whole entire family, friends, pets.”
“Great news from my boss: My annual review went well. There was a time when our relationship was difficult. I know your prayers have paid off.”
“We have lost one son because of addiction. We have another son with the same problem.”
“Please pray for my troubled soul.”
Photographer at my side, I ring the bell, and one of the sisters comes to the window and giggles. “They’re coming,” she promises. “I think they’re getting nervous.”
Sister Mary Gemma ushers us into the inner sanctum without fuss, leading the way down a long, immaculately polished hall. “That’s the portress’ room,” she says, pointing to a closed door. “She answers the phone and inscribes the perpetual memberships in gold.” A door across the hall swings open and shuts again, fast. “She’s hiding,” Sister Mary Gemma observes.
The rundschrift, round writing, on the cards originated, as did their order, in Germany. “We can’t get our gold metallic ink anymore; it was imported from England,” says Sister Mary Gemma, “so I called Dick Blick.”
At the chapel entrance, bulletin boards display seating charts, liturgical assignments and a 24/7 schedule for the periods of adoration: Sister Amoris Marie at 2 a.m., Sister Lourdes Maria at 2:30 a.m., Sister Mary Joy ... When Sister Mary Gemma reaches Sister Ancilla Maria’s name, she smiles: “There’s a clown in every community. Sister Ancilla Maria gets dramatic; she knows how to get laughs out of people.”
As she turns, the phone rings, a loud, metallic, startling sound. The sisters receive as many as 300 prayer requests a day. “A lady in Peru writes steadily,” says Sister Mary Gemma, “and there’s a Jewish man who gives us big checks. He owns—what do you call those, those machines that dispense sodas?”
As we walk upstairs, she confides, “You wouldn’t think it’s so busy here, but sometimes it just overwhelms me. I try to stay calm.” We stop at the sewing room, where Sister Eliana orders thousands of yards of rose doubleknit, supplying all four U.S. convents of Pink Sisters.
Do they ever get sick of pink?
“I don’t tire of it at all,” says Sister Mary Gemma. “I think it has a good psychological effect. It symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and, years ago, when we had one long table in the refectory, it looked so nice, rows of rose and white. All over the world, we’re the Pink Sisters—in Germany, Rosenschwestern.”
Down the hall is the rec room, where the sisters assemble Thomas Kincade jigsaw puzzles and play Rummikub, Aggravation or rowdy, table-pounding Swap. Next is the oratory, overlooking the chapel, for sisters who are ill. There’s a smell of honeyed wax and a view straight down to the altar. Sister Mary Gemma points to marble stairs behind the altar: “That’s where the priest goes up to give the benediction. He pulls a cord to open the drape, and he picks up the monstrance and blesses the people.”
“Can I go up there?” the photographer asks. “I was an altar boy!”
Sister Mary Gemma cocks her head at him: “No, you may not.”
She shows him the cabinet of relics instead, and we talk about her patron saint. “St. Gemma was a young mystic, only 25 when she died,” she says. “She had the stigmata and suffered a lot, like they all do.
“Suffering is a mystery,” she continues. “I do know it’s part of sharing Christ’s life. He suffered greatly, not only physical suffering but rejection and a lot of mental anguish also. We believe that by bearing our cross, whatever it may be, we are sharing in his life—and he uses that to bring down blessings on other people.”
As we leave, we pass three men and a woman standing at the window, waiting.