FARGO — As the public poured into the Sacred Heart Convent in south Fargo recently for an estate sale — grabbing everything from tea sets and kitchen utensils to religious books and artifacts — most of the building’s former inhabitants stayed away.
Perhaps it would have been too hard to watch.
“I know that I’m still grieving,” says Sister Shawna Foley, 50, the youngest of the 19 Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM) who called the convent home in recent years.
“That’s part of the reason it’s difficult to go over there. For some, it feels pretty gutted right now.”
She’s grateful not everything has been removed. “There’s Mass still being said; the chapel hasn’t been touched.”
Though she doesn’t get there every day, she says, she appreciates the option, for now. The convent business office also continues to function there, along with the on-site Presentation Prayer Center. No one knows what of this will remain with future ownership.
“We’re living in the question mark,” Foley says, and like the Israelites, “We were dispersed, too. How do we come back together? I think that will come. Right now, we’ve got to go through some of the hardships of separating.”
Where have they gone?
The sisters have left the convent, but not the community. When it became clear at the end of September that they’d be moving, various options arose for new accommodations. Some went to Riverview Place, a retirement community and site of the convent from 1960 to the 1980s. Others settled into nearby senior housing at River Square. But Foley didn’t fit the age restrictions of either.
She called her biological sister in town, asking if she knew of options near her apartment. “When I called her landlord, he asked, ‘How would you feel about living close to your sister?'” The opening was right next door.
“I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old nephew I get to see regularly now,” Foley says.
During the days when she’s working at her part-time job as chaplain for Hospice of the Red River Valley, the dog hangs out with her brother-in-law. While some sisters are struggling through what their ministry might be now, Foley says, she wonders if the answer is perhaps simpler than many realize.
“Maybe it’s just to be a presence to those we’re near?”
Sisters Bernadette Trecker and Lorraine Schmaltz, both at River Square, try to get over to the convent chapel daily for Mass. Trecker, a music teacher, plays piano, while Schmaltz lends her singing voice to the sparse congregation.
They use Zoom frequently to communicate, including for daily prayer and Trecker’s online piano lessons.
“Since we do not really have a place to congregate — we’re hoping to find that eventually — we’re kind of in limbo,” Trecker says.
It also helps them stay connected with their 120 associates — laypeople who have joined the order from the outside, and who, Schmaltz says, “share in the Presentation charism, or spirit,” of their foundress, Nano Nagle, “to care for the poor and those in need.”
Both say they are managing OK — each has lived independently before — but agree it’s challenging at times.
“We had everything at the other place,” Trecker says, noting that the convent offered a structure and space that allowed the sisters to easily “rub shoulders, eat together, pray together,” and care for one another. “Now, we don’t have each other as much.”
The loss of a physical building, a visual to point to them, might create some confusion, she adds. But neither despairs over the temporary situation.
“We just have to be patient,” Trecker says.
“And we’re still accessible,” Schmaltz offers, noting that the convent phone number still works.
Because of the generosity of the community, Trecker says, they’re gratefully doing OK financially. “If people are wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to those poor sisters? Are they out on the streets?’” she assures, they needn’t worry.
‘The presence of God’
Sister Stella Olson has taken the move in an especially positive stride, maybe because it’s not the first major transition she’s lived through.
Olson came to the convent in January 1994, after going through a divorce and discovering God’s presence in the aftermath of that hard time. Though a vowed religious now, she was fully immersed in the world prior to her commitment, and has four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren attesting to it.
“I had to sell a four-bedroom house to move into the convent,” she says. “A building is an exterior, it’s not an interior. The change of residence has no power with me because it’s all in the people around you that makes the difference.”
“In the challenge of living,” she adds, “the presence of God reveals what it’s all about.”
Within the first month of the move, Olson met someone at Riverview Place, her new home, who mentioned she was divorced.
“I said, ‘I’m divorced, too.’ Well, if you could have seen her expression!”
The conversation led to further discourse, which Olson says was mutually beneficial.
For her, it’s all about looking forward. “Wherever you go, there is ministry if you have your eyes and ears open.”
She’s found new life in her current residence, she says, through taking part in daily prayer with the sisters as well as engaging with others.
“You have no idea the commonality you have with people until you begin talking. Then, all of a sudden, it clicks,” she says. “These are strangers to us, from all over, but we find ourselves ministering here in a way we never could never have planned.”
Death before new life
Beyond the smaller, immediate questions, Trecker says, is another that looms large: What is the future of religious life?
“We’re in transition (worldwide) because of the lack of vocations and changes in ministries,” she says, adding, “We don’t have to be great in numbers to be a witness to the beauty of religious life, but it may take on a different form.”
Despite challenges, none of the sisters expressed being without hope.
“Even though some of us are aging and can’t be out in the field, we’ve got others who are still doing things,” Trecker says, including those active in politics.
“We have one sister who used to live in Fargo, in our unit, who’s now in San Antonio,” doing ministry at the border. And in countries like India, Pakistan, and Africa, she says, vocations are growing.
“Our founder was part of the apostolic movement, where you go out and teach the poor and help the aged,” Trecker says. “There’s also still something about the commitment to the vows, of being celibate, and the witness of living singularly for God.”
When Nano Nagle started their order in 1775, Schmaltz says, she did so with just four sisters, not knowing how it would expand.
“And when Mother Agnes and the others came from Ireland, landing here in 1882, they didn’t know, five days later, they’d be opening a school.” One that would become a whole system for Catholic education here.
“I think we just need to be willing to be in the dark for a while,” Schmaltz says. “It’s kind of like the seed that is in the ground and needs to germinate for a bit. It seems like it’s dying, but it’s only then that it’s going to come up. I think that’s where we are, and we just know that in some way, something new will grow, because it has for the last couple hundred years.”
“Religious life will not die,” Trecker says, borrowing the biblical image of the vine. “Some branches are cut off now, but that doesn’t mean we’re dead. We’re still rooted.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on March 26, 2021.]