The 1200 Days of Sister John Martin

Kathryn Lynch

Copyright 2019 by Kathryn Lynch

Photo of Sister John Martin with group of nums.
(back row on left - Sister John Martin, aka Kathryn Lynch)

Many of us experimented with lifestyle alternatives when we were young. In later life some freely discuss those experiences. Others bury the memories deep into their core personalities, benefiting from lessons learned, but never discussing them with others. This is the first and only time I have shared the story of my entrance into and exit from religious life sixty years ago.

Dad and Mom's family were all practicing Roman Catholics. Catholic families considered the dedication of a son or daughter to the religious life of the Church as the ultimate sacrifice as well as a success which entitled them to a respect unattainable by others. It was almost an admission ticket to Heaven.

Children of Catholic families attended Catholic schools which provided education from kindergarten level to the advanced degrees issued by Jesuit universities. From these large numbers of students came those who would eventually become priests, brothers, nuns, and sisters. Entry into the religious life was called a “vocation”, or literally a calling. No one did any calling of course. A vocation was an internal calling.

I was not considered a religious child. As my years in high school passed by, my interest in learning resulted in critical internal assessments of the teachers. I pictured myself doing the job better than they were doing. So was born my desire to be a top teacher. The Sisters of the Holy Names were a teaching order. It followed then, (in my mind at least), that I had a “vocation”.

So it was, that a month after I graduated from high school, I entered the convent. For six months a new entree became a “postulant”. I wore a long black serge dress, with head hair pinned back away from the face. Postulants had a short black veil which was worn in the chapel, in the refectory (dining room), or any time postulants mixed with other members of the community. A postulant was silent unless spoken to by a superior who would allow her to speak. At night, all sisters entered the Grand Silence when no one spoke at all.

Days were spent studying, praying, and sewing the habit which would be worn at the next step. These habits were completely hand sewn, made up of several yards of black serge, and were much heavier than clothing worn by other persons.

After a series of discussions with Superiors and the required six months having passed, postulants were allowed to enter the next step called the “novitiate”. Novices wore the habits they had sewn topped by white veils. They were now shut down from the outside world. studying church and community history, and other spiritual books, attending lectures by spiritual, learned priests, learning the art and skill of meditation from their superiors. Talking was limited to one hour of “recreation” after the evening meal.

18 months later, a novice was admitted to full membership into the community wearing a black veil and the crucifix hanging around, the neck. The magnificent ceremony was overseen by the local Archbishop who gave each novice her new name to which she replied “Deo Gratias” (Thanks be to God). The new Sister took three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I found poverty to be the easiest since I had no interest in the accumulation of money or other material things. Chastity was also easy then because I had no interest in men. Obedience could present difficulties. The best solution was to keep my mouth shut.

When the normal routine resumed, I expected to join my Sister-peers who were students at the college next door, training to be teachers. Instead, two days after the ceremony I was driven to the railroad station for a trip 300 miles to the north. The following morning, I walked into a fourth grade class in a
Catholic school. I was a full time teacher. My class had 56 children—40 boys and 16 girls. I had 8 college credits and I was 19 years old.

I had done what I had earlier imagined I could do—out teaching the teachers. After three years in the community, I remained on the faculty of a school at all times, even for Summer School. It was becoming clear that my own personal education was of very little concern. I imagined myself in 50 years much as I was then. I knew that I did not have 50 years of the same left in me. Accordingly, I petitioned the Holy See in Rome for a dispensation from vows. Six weeks later I made another trip to the railroad station. This time I was headed home.

Epilogue: in 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in Rome. When he died, Pope Paul VI completed the study which involved discussions with the Bishops attending and the laity making presentations.. The purpose of the Council was to modernize the Roman Catholic Church by issuing a number of Directives when it closed in 1965. One of those Directives concerned Catholic Sisters.

Sisters were exhorted to leave their convent groups and go forth to do work in the community. It specifically addressed the use of comfortable but modest clothing. The majority of Sisters viewed this as a call to abandon their habits and to spend considerable time in the parishes. The Sisters were no longer in the convent to follow the internal rules. Many moved to apartments or rectory outbuildings. Convents emptied out and were sold off.

In addition, hundreds of women abandoned the religious life forever to live as lay persons.

I took some valuable lessons with me when Sister John Martin left religious life. One is the ability to study. Another is the benefit which comes from listening to others outline a problems as problems cannot be fixed until they are defined. Lastly, I learned the ability to concentrate, that is to shut out other considerations that are not necessary or useful to reach a goal. 

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