Of course, it's all a stereotype, but I couldn't resist asking Sister Anne Myers, who once upon a century would have been called Mother Superior, but is now a more prosaic Congregational President, about the harsh depiction of mother superiors in the movies. Is it true?
We were standing in the back of the beautiful chapel in the mother house for the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia at Chestnut Hill College when I said, "All those nun movies have a witch of a Mother Superior."
She laughed, "Right. Yeah. Boo."
Q: I'm scared. I'm scared. But what about that? This vow of obedience, who are you being obedient to?
A: That's where you've heard me say about praying and discerning. Ultimately, we all want to be obedient to God and God's will.
Q: So how does that play out practically?
A: Years ago obedience meant you got told that you were going to teach third grade at Saint Bartholomew. Period. And you went. Now, it's more of, `All right, so I feel love to teach third grade at Saint Bartholomew. I make an appointment and I come to see my ministry coordinator, one of the sisters in our leadership. And I share this what I'm thinking. Then she shares, either what the needs of the congregation are or what she thinks in light of what you shared. There's what we would call a mutual discernment, where you try to discern what you think God's saying to you. You share it with a representative of the congregation. Now, say that person then says that one of our administration knows that this sister wouldn't be good in third grade. Then she would say, `Sister, I don't know that that's where your best gifts are.' That's where the openness to hearing that and hearing together what God might be asking of this sister is part of the obedience.
Q: So that's how it works?
A: It's not like the command. It's not a military obedience anymore.
Q: Was it like that when you started out? You were 18 at the time, right?
A: A little bit more.
Q: Did you ever chafe under that?
A: It was kind of starting to change so I didn't really experience anything that strident.
Q: How did you get the job of congregational president?
A: The nice thing is how we choose our leaders is completely different from what happens in the secular world. We have what they call a chapter every five years. We have a gathering, for us it's usually at least 300 sisters that come together, as many sisters as can and others will participate in other ways to look at how can we live our mission of unity going forward in new and revitalized ways. So, every five years we're looking at how are we doing, and what God is calling us to in the future. What's the Spirit of God saying to us? And so, we make some commitments, pledges, as far as the direction for the future. Then as part of those meetings, we elect a new leadership team. So it would be the president and four counselors. Sisters submit your name. It's a long process. It begins before the chapter starts itself. Sisters submit your names and then people pray to see if they would be open to doing this ministry. I mean it's a real ministry of service.
Q: How so?
A: It's a service to the congregation. It leaves everybody else free to do their ministries, to teach and to be working in parishes or hospitals. So, that's the purpose of this -- to free our sisters for mission. So, some of us do this ministry for the congregation. So, then, at the actual chapter meeting itself. we have a lot of processes where sisters discern and pray. Then they'll ask those of us who are in this what we call a leadership pool to talk a little bit about what our hopes might be for the congregation and for our mission going forward. Then it's a very prayerful process where we elect the first person and then we elect the second one. Like not all at the same time. You elect one.
Q: So you elect the president first?
A: Yeah, somebody is elected to the president.
Q: It's not like you elect the general counsel (which is a group of leaders -- sort of like the C-suite) and one of them rises?
A: No, you elect the first person as president and then after that person's elected, you have the next election for the vice president and then all the way to five people that are there -- the president and four other sisters. But, you don't campaign. In fact, anybody who really was ambitious to try to be in this role wouldn't be elected.
Q: How long have you had this role?
A: I was elected for a five year term and then eligible for another five years. So, I'm in my second term.
Q: Is there a term limit?
A: Yeah, five years. So, I had one five year term and now I'm in my second five year term.
Q: Then after that is there any term limit as to how many terms?
A: Two terms for president, yes.
Q: Why did you become a nun in the first place?
A: Well, I had sisters in elementary school as teacher's of St. Joseph's. I went to St. Timothy's Elementary School. It's a huge school in Northeast Philadelphia. We had, I'm going to say, about 72 children in first grade class at that point, but we had almost all sisters who staffed the school. So, I was familiar with sisters from first grade on and in high school. So, I kind of admired what they did and how they lived and they were joyful and very interested in us as students. I'd say by the time I was in high school, what really was the clincher for me, I have to say, is looking at a crucifix and seeing what Jesus did for me. It made me feel like I had to be as generous to Him in response. It's as simple as that.
Q: Wow! Was there a particular day this happened? Do you remember?
A: I don't remember. I don't remember, but I just remember feeling…
Q: Feeling an obligation?
A: Well, feeling like I need to be as generous. Not that anybody could be as generous as what Jesus did for us, but I felt like I had to respond with the gift of my life. I mean I think everybody gives their life to God in a different way, but I felt like that's how God was calling me.