Sister Mary Katherine Sullivan
Since Ray Whitlow died, Isabel has reached back into her earlier life to rejuvenate old friendships and near-forgotten relationships. After Ray’s passing, Isabel was surprised to hear from a number of folks from her past who had obviously not forgotten her during her forty-two year marriage to Ray Whitlow. One of these is Mary Katherine Sullivan who was Isabel’s best childhood friend and neighbor before her family moved to Tennessee many years ago. Mary Katherine, now 66 and a nun in the order of Felician Sisters Convent in Chicago, has exchanged letters annually with Isabel for the past forty-four years. Perhaps lonely for a familiar voice and the warmth of an old friend, Isabel offered to fly Sister Mary Katherine in to visit with her for a week at the Inn, and Mary Katherine gratefully accepted.
Because it is a long drive to the airport, Isabel asked Micah to come along for the ride and to keep her awake. Micah, a conservative Baptist, was dreading the ride because he didn’t know what he would say to a Catholic nun. Isabel, who was originally brought up Methodist and joined Ray’s family’s Baptist church when they were married, was also worried about seeing Mary Katherine after all these years. Why they dragged me along on the trip, I’ll never know, but they did; maybe there’s strength in numbers. Isabel’s Ford Taurus rides comfortably, and I slept nearly all the way to Atlanta. The trip went quickly.
It turns out that Isabel and Micah had worried needlessly about Mary Katherine. She is really no different than anyone else; once you get past her northern accent, she is open, accepting, cheery, and extremely articulate. Within ten minutes, it was as if she and Isabel were just picking up where they left off, and they were talking like teenagers. I never realized that old people could dredge up so many old memories.
I have to admit, Sister Mary Katherine, with her intense brown eyes, looked rather intimidating in her traditional black habit. Next to Halloween, I had never seen anything like her. Mary Katherine told Isabel and Micah that she rarely dons her habit outside of the convent, but she actually prefers to wear it when traveling because it ensures her some precious ‘personal space,’ guarantees her a higher degree of civility in public places, and usually gets her a coveted bulkhead seat on the airplane. She admitted that she normally feels most comfortable wearing a warm, baggy wool sweater and a sensible pair of slacks.
Although Mary Katherine’s order traditionally ministers to the needs of schools, hospitals and the under-served, Sister Mary Katherine has recently been on loan to the Chicago Diocese functioning in the role of a lay statistician studying trends in membership, and long-term spiritual sustainability. In addition, she explained that she holds a masters’ degree in sociology and is near to completion of her doctorate in psychology.
With an entire week to spend at Faded Glory, Isabel was afraid that Mary Katherine would soon become bored with the slower paced country life we enjoy here. Isabel called Rev. Calvin Payne, her family minister, and invited him to have breakfast with her and Mary Katherine on that coming Thursday. During their brief phone conversation, she could tell that Rev. Payne seemed uncomfortable at the prospect of the visit, and Isabel went out of her way to assure him that religion would not be the principal topic of conversation.
Thursday arrived, and a light breakfast was served at a small table in Isabel’s comfortable sitting room. Obviously, I hung around for the ‘questionable’ scraps, and I was amazed to see that the conversation almost immediately gravitated to the subject of religion. Both Rev. Calvin and Sister Mary Katherine discovered that they share serious mutual concerns relating to the fate of the major religious denominations in the U.S. today. In fact, they became so embroiled in conversation that they barely noticed when Isabel left the table and headed for the kitchen two hours later. They were still talking heatedly as the lunch hour came and went. They finally got up so that Micah could clear their dishes, and they continued their discussion on the outside porch until Calvin had to leave to visit an ill parishioner at the hospital later that afternoon. They parted, promising to meet and talk further at 9 a.m. the following day. Mary Katherine commented later that “folks really take their religion seriously in the mountains” and Isabel shook her head knowingly.
I was lying on the porch that following morning when Sister Mary Katherine came out to keep her appointment with Calvin; but, on this occasion, Calvin appeared to be late. Mary Katherine looked around and then saw him seated in one of the white wicker chairs further out on the porch. He was engaged in a conversation with a young man about his own age who was wearing a forest ranger’s uniform, and he didn’t so much as look up or acknowledge her when she sat down in a chair adjacent to him. Calvin was wearing a different color blazer than he had worn yesterday with a starched white shirt open at the neck. It was then that she noticed that Calvin was wearing a shoulder holster almost hidden by his blazer, and she could see the butt of a black semi-automatic pistol peeking out from that holster which was neatly tucked under his left armpit. Sister Mary Katherine’s face went ashen as she stared in disbelief at a man of the cloth that she thought she knew and trusted. . .
Sensing her intense scrutiny, Calvin interrupted his conversation with Ranger Matt Tipton and turned slightly in his chair to face Sister Mary Katherine. “I guess you folks really DO take your religion seriously here in the mountains,” she proffered with a faint smile. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?” he replied; “I don’t believe we’ve met.” Mary Katherine was now confused and still trying to sort out what had just happened when she saw a familiar figure striding toward her from the far end of the porch. “Sorry to be late. I see you’ve met my brother. . . Kenny, meet Sister Mary Katherine. . . . Kenny is my twin brother, and he upholds our laws in this County – he’s the Sheriff. . . .” A very relieved Sister Mary Katherine sagged in her chair momentarily and recovered from the shock of her unscheduled meeting with Sheriff Kenny Payne.
Micah, and even Isabel, can ‘t tell Sheriff Kenny and Rev. Calvin apart because they are truly identical twins and neither of them wears a frock or a uniform; usually just a sportcoat or a blazer with a white shirt without a tie. I have always been able to tell them apart because I’m a dog, and “the nose ALWAYS knows.”
Rev. Calvin and Sister Mary Katherine went on to the far end of the porch to continue their discussions over a steaming pot of hot coffee. They went their separate ways later that day with a promise to mail copies of articles that they had discussed earlier and continue their dialogue via the U.S. Mail. Mary Katherine was still talking about her time spent with Rev. Calvin over tea with Isabel later that evening. She seemed very relaxed and happy when Isabel and Micah drove her to the airport that Saturday.
A few days later, Rev. Calvin confided in Isabel that although his beliefs had not changed as a result of his conversations with Sister Mary Katherine, his approach to spirituality certainly had. Obviously, two lives were infused with new light that had not been shed before.
When you realize that you humans are blessed with the marvelous gift of speech, it makes dogs like me wonder why you don’t make better use of it. Go figure!
For an old dog like me, it’s nice to get a fresh glimpse of the outside world once in awhile. I hadn’t taken a trip in an automobile since before Ray died, and I’ve certainly never met a nun.
Meanwhile, I feel the need for a nap coming on, and I see a sunny spot beckoning to me from the side porch . . .