Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary felt called to religious life at a young age

 Sr. Mary Kathleen Mullin.
Sr. Mary Kathleen Mullin.

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Mary Kathleen Mullin
Age: 77
Who is she: Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin
Lives in: Rock Island, Ill.

Sister Camille: My efforts to find a Good Samaritan I'd read about led me to the Diocese of Moline, Iowa, in search of someone who could give me some information about that man for a story I was writing. I connected with Sister of Charity Kathleen Mullin, BVM, who provided me with everything I needed. I am pleased to introduce her to you.

Sister Kathleen, where and with whom did you grow up?

Mullin: In my first 18 years home was Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City, Seattle and finally Des Moines. In each city my parents had relatives and/or friends who supported our flexibility. As the oldest child and only daughter, I was close to my brothers, three years and 12 years younger, and a cousin my age who was like a brother, living with us for several years after his mother's death. I attended Catholic elementary schools in Omaha, Seattle and Des Moines and a Catholic high school for girls staffed by BVMs in Des Moines. I enjoyed learning and got my first library card in kindergarten.

Did you have role models?

Surrounded by caring adults in my youth, I honor my parents as primary role models. Each of them was the youngest of large Irish families where hospitality prevailed. Both had Sinsinawa Dominicans in Omaha grade schools. Mom had the Sisters of Mercy for high school, and Dad had the Jesuits at Creighton Prep and University. Although Dad was born sickly, he became a Naval officer in World War II, which broadened our consciousness of the world yet affected his health for his remaining 25 years. My parents lived their faith, 'finding God in all things' as they taught us. They were loving, generous, compassionate and fun!

Did any of your teachers exert an influence on you?

Among my other role models was my sixth grade teacher, Sr. Kyran Shea, BVM. She was a gifted teacher, enthusiastic about life and a caring person who became a mentor and friend to me. One of my heroines was Dorothy Day. She visited our high school and gave stirring presentations. We students already subscribed to the Catholic Worker newspaper and had some awareness of her stances and ministry. Over the years I have read her books and those about her, and have been impressed by her daring vision and perseverance in a faith-full life. Another influential woman is Catherine of Siena, my patroness with whom I became familiar as a youngster. She has great meaning for me now as a mystic, a contemplative in action, a woman of courage and conviction.

Where do you live now?

I now reside in Rock Island, Ill., part of the Iowa-Illinois Quad-Cities, where BVMs began staffing schools in the 1840s. At age 77, I am healthy and happy to be serving in a Moline, Ill., parish as a pastoral associate.

What has that entailed?

During 27 years here, with changes of priests, staff, paradigms and demographics of parish members, I appreciate the relational and growth opportunities which abound in this ministry. I have served on area boards and committees but resigned from them during the years when I did initial membership ministry part-time for the BVMs (commuting an hour to our complex in Dubuque) while retaining my role in Sacred Heart Parish.

What are you involved in today?

Currently I'm on the area Churches United board and its executive committee. This extends my involvement with a shelter complex for women and children, meal sites and food pantries, in addition to liturgical collaboration.

Can you pinpoint the time when you felt called to religious life?

The notion of being a sister came to me while I was preparing for Confirmation in sixth grade. The day I registered for high school (when career options for women were thought to be nursing, teaching, secretarial, clerking ... all leading to marriage), I startled myself by declaring my intention to be a sister; the BVM counselor didn't react; she put me on the academic tract. Later that day my father and I talked about my response. Among his relatives there were several sisters, and we talked about religious life as we knew it then. My parents were supportive of my idea but insisted that I should go to college and have maturing experiences first. At that point we agreed to put the topic on hold, as well as a discussion about the congregation that was attracting me.

Please describe your high school experience.

Through high school I got involved in extracurricular activities, socialized, worked at summer jobs to help with tuition costs and saved a little for college. The last months of senior year were exciting and simultaneously poignant because of all the 'last times' together. Home life seemed to be splintering because my cousin was entering the Marines and I wanted to apply to the BVMs rather than go to college.

Why were you drawn to this community?

My experience of BVMs as happy and 'real' persons respecting one another, educators who urged us to think, create, care about others, who taught us about a loving God -- as did my parents -- made the congregation seem right, if they would accept me. The sisters did not pressure me nor did several class-mates who had announced plans to enter. Leaving the family did not appeal, however, so it cost me to plead for permission from my parents to enter at 18, a common decision among Catholic teens then. They reluctantly agreed to let me apply.

How did that work out?

Our family had a brief and emotional vacation which led us to the motherhouse In Dubuque in September of 1956. Upon arrival, we went to the chapel choir loft and gazed down at hundreds of young women at prayer. My little brother sobbed and asked me to return home with them. He struggled with the changes in the family dynamics as each of us left and he became an only child.

My 'set' entered in the early years of religious formation changes. The postulate and novitiate life and training, while restrictive, were based on then developing thoughts in theology, psychology and on the 'whole person.' Formation staff members were sensitive to diverse needs of new members. In my case, all those with whom I entered chose to leave before reception into the novitiate. The postulant mistress met me one evening and asked if I was troubled. I responded that with the others back home, my parents might be concerned that I desired to return home but didn't want to disappoint them. When she asked if I wished to remain and got a positive answer, she took me to a phone and had me call my parents to talk about it. That kindness eliminated any dilemma.

In my first five years I taught or 'refereed- huge classes of first and second graders in three Midwestern cities and then was sent to our college library in Dubuque for one year to replace a staff member who needed surgery. At one of the grade schools in which I taught I developed a new library for the 1,200 students. These activities led to my securing a graduate degree in college library administration at then-Rosary (now Dominican) University in River Forest, Ill.

At Clarke College (now Clarke University) for the next six years -- not one -- I treasured the BVM community members and students on campus and had rich experiences academically, ecumenically, culturally, in justice groups and within the larger BVM congregation as we implemented Vatican II.

Fifteen years after entering, I was elected a 'regional representative' for one of 12 BVM regions. I asked for and received much direction and prayer support for this role. For six years I served hundreds of sisters in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was a graced, demanding and humbling time of my journey as I partnered with our BVM leaders and was a member of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Our mission called us to be 'freed by love, acting for justice' in the 70s, a period of major changes for religious life and in society.

I was urged to return to Clarke College as director of the library. Six years later I was assigned to fill in as administrator of our Chicago multi-purpose center -- formerly the Scholasticate where I lived as a young student. Over a hundred sisters, some doing various ministries, most actively retired, sisters of other congregations and often other nations who studied at Loyola University comprised the community. In this lively and lovely skyscraper home, hospitality for relatives, other guests, meetings and events were constant.

After three years, I traveled to Berkeley, Calif., for spirituality and theology studies at the Jesuit and Franciscan Schools of Theology. The Graduate Theological Union campus refreshed and stretched me. I spent three years in the Bay Area, getting a degree and more training as a spiritual director, ministering in San Francisco and connecting with our BVMs in northern California. Invited to do parish ministry back in the Midwest, I began another learning process and have remained, except for the time when two international novices and I moved to Kumasi, Ghana, in West Africa.

What did you do there, so far away from home?

There we opened a BVM house of formation and hospitality for women interested in sampling a form of religious life. That venture proved to be a brief experiment. The Moline pastor saved the position for me through those months when others graciously and responsibly accepted the roles I left.

What contributes to your spiritual grounding?

Throughout my life journey spirituality has been a value. Formal prayers and daily Mass were normative when I was growing up. In high school I learned about spontaneous prayer and lectio divina, and those practices continue privately and communally. The prayer schedule in community helped and challenged me. My first directed retreat with a Jesuit made that my preferred style and in my mid-30s I made a 30-day retreat at a Cenacle Sisters’ center and later did the Nineteenth Annotation.

I've been blessed to have three sisters (of different congregations) companion me for retreat and monthly direction through more than 40 years. In my first period at Clarke, seven of us BVMs formed a prayer group which lasted for decades. Eucharist, community prayer, centering prayer, the labyrinth, Taize prayer, a local prayer group of seven women, spiritual reading ... these and more nurture me and bond me with other believers. The extra-time ministry of companioning others and directing retreatants evokes gratitude for our spiritual quest and graced opportunities.

How would you describe religious life today?

We BVMs continually discover what membership and community can mean for each of us. Destructive fires throughout our history, since the Know-Nothings in our founding city of Philadelphia burned the convent there, have caused us to mourn and begin anew. We honor our publics and partners in ministry who give us courage and support for beginning, maintaining and letting go of ministry sites. We celebrate the ongoing collaboration women's congregations have in areas of leadership and service, formation and care for sick and elderly.

Did the canonical investigations of a few years ago have any effect on you?

The canonical investigations ordered by the Roman Curia of many congregations evoked a new level of solidarity among us. Within the BVM congregation our mutual trust and deep sharing emboldened us into the future. With gusto and gratefulness we observed our 150th and 175th anniversaries with huge gatherings in Dubuque and events in the places where we have served. Our gatherings for jubilees, the acceptance of associates, community feasts, senates, vow ceremonies, special topics, and sisters' funerals involve planning and then partying to enhance the memorable happening. Video-streaming and Skyping now engage more members and associates when physical presence is not possible.

Can you recall experiences that prepared you for life in changing times?

I discovered as a young child that life presents experiences of mistakes, messes and failures. Falling off a horse and being winded, not doing well in second-year Latin, procrastinating on a complex project, meeting the diverse needs and relating with family, sisters, students and friends, opening and closing community houses: in such instances I learned to ask for advice, for psychic and prayerful support, for presence, and, at times, to request understanding and forgiveness. The experiences and lessons persist.

As we enjoy the blessings of old age, we also experience losses of loved ones.

Family members in the communion of saints are integral and special to me. My parents' letters and phone calls have not brightened life for many years, but I communicate with them through prayer. My brother Denny and I were soul mates from grade school days, and his health deterioration and death seven years ago caused deep pain. Michael, the youngest, also experienced serious health issues for several years and entered life eternal this year. Because he lived in Manhattan, N.Y., for 30 years with no relatives nearby, our sister-in-law, niece and I became creative long-distance caregivers. Cousin Gil and his wife lived in Florida. For reasons never explained, he did not communicate with family for many years. Suddenly he began writing and phoning, and with his wife visited us in Iowa. We kept in close touch until both of them died. On my father's side a large circle of relatives in the Midwest keep connected by emails and reunions.

Do you have unfulfilled dreams?

My unfulfilled dreams? I desired to study the Spanish language so that I could speak with Latinos. High school and college French is a forgotten luxury now. Exuberant about Pope Francis, I long for and work for greater support of laity training and involvement in the church locally and globally.

And someday I wish to ride in a hot air balloon!

Well, I never did that; however, a few years ago my nephew took me sky diving. That was exciting. Do you make time for relaxing activities?

Leisure and relaxation are vital to a healthy life, I know. Making time for them challenges me, but I am privileged to have friends who encourage balance. As a little girl I woke up singing, and whenever possible I have attended the symphony, sung in choirs and listened to music. I walk along the Mississippi River, read, play Scrabble and Mexican train dominoes and observe nature as the seasons change. Vacation times rejuvenate me.

What would you say to a woman who is seeking 'more' in life?

I would listen to her story. If she were to inquire about religious life, I'd suggest that she visit sisters in their homes and places of ministry. (In the Quad-Cities area we have centers of active, monastic and contemplative women religious.) If the woman continues her search, I'd honestly refer to the challenge of a lifetime commitment (which is counter-cultural today) and to risks of entering now a religious community which has a predominance of older and retired members and few active sisters. The implications of this reality for peer relationships and ministry, for financial solvency, for a future together need pondering.

That sounds discouraging.

Yes, but if she encounters sisters who believe in 'community' and live it in contemporary ways, if she discovers a healthy and happy group passionate about their God-relationship, open to how they can best connect and serve with others, if these sisters can live with uncertainty and trust in the unfolding of new patterns, she may choose to begin this journey. I assure her of support and promise her that it's a life abounding in graced surprises and worth living.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemptionis available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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