By Mary Anne Skeba
My family came from Sicily and finally settled in a quaint Italian district of St. Louis, Missouri called “The Hill” over 100 years ago. My brother, sister and I lived in a two-story brick building built by my grandfather to be a place of business on the bottom floor and a place of residence on the top.
I remember waking in the morning to the wonderful smell of Italian bread wafting up from the bakery downstairs and hearing the gossiping sounds of people in the deli next door to it. I also remember not having very much money; but there was always lots of food and lots of company, lots of laughter and everyone talking louder than everybody else.
The place that I lived was the center of my mother’s whole family for two reasons: first, my grandmother lived with us, and second, we lived right across the street from the Roman Catholic Church we attended. We were a very religious family and our lives were completely wrapped up in whatever feastday, celebration, or excitement was happening there. Tradition! Tradition! Tradition!
I probably went to church every day of the school year, and on Saturdays and Sundays, too. I remember sitting in Sister Concepta’s 6th grade class and listening to her talk about the wonderful stories of Jesus. It so impacted my life that He died for me…she made it all so real. I found myself pondering the story and praying a lot more that I did before. Sister Concepta planted a seed in my heart.
As I grew older I had wonderful dreams of becoming a famous ballerina and musician. I worked very hard at both these quests. I also loved art and dabbled in painting and drawing.
I was very sensitive as a child. Sometimes when a person is overly sensitive, life becomes difficult. Everything is taken to heart. Since I was the oldest daughter and Mom was quite a strict mama, I was held responsible for much of the problems around the house. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had what seemed like an abusive way of speaking to me in a scolding tone of voice, constantly embarrassing me in front of family and friends. I found myself becoming more and more neurotic and filled with complexes. “I guess I just can’t do anything right in her eyes,” I would say to myself.
But things started to change. In my senior year of high school, I was so impressed by the love and goodness that I saw in the nuns who taught me. I wanted to emulate them to the fullest. There was only one way I could. I’ll never forget the look of irritation on my mother’s face when I told her I wanted to become a nun. “You want to do what?” she said. “I want to enter the convent,” I told her, filled with intimidation as I asserted myself for probably the first time in my life. At first, she said, “No” and so did my dad. But then, the day before the signed permission was due to the convent, she reluctantly penned her name and told me, “You’ll probably be back in six months anyway…you’ve always failed in everything you’ve tried to accomplish.” In spite of what she said, I was overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a nun!
My joy at becoming a nun quickly turned sour when reality set in. It seemed as though I went from the frying pan into the fire! Instead of having one mom like I had at home, I had many moms, (Mother Provincial, Mother Mistress, Mother Superior), who tried to change me and mold me into becoming the model nun! And what a schedule! There was morning prayer at 5:30 am, then Mass, then breakfast, then chores. Then class, then prayer, then lunch and the list goes on and on!
Hardest of all, as postulants (new sisters), we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone except Mother Mistress if we had a need. Neither could I call my family or friends except on special days. We were free from our vow of silence for one hour a day which was our community time. There were some wonderful times here when I could take out my guitar and the nuns and I would sing in 3 and 4-part harmony. But for the most part, my training to be a nun at the Mother House was very difficult and lonely for me. There were times I felt as if I would have a nervous breakdown. I’m so glad to say that God’s grace was there even then to show me the way out of troubled times.
In the midst of my training, I was sent out from the Mother House to a convent in Lower East Side, New York. There in Chinatown I taught Chinese children who hardly knew English. What a challenge! I used my artistic capability to draw pictures for words and, with the help of an interpreter, found the children to be brilliant and quite easy to teach.
From there I was transferred to a private school in Bronx, NY where I taught Music and Art to elementary children. After three years, I was transferred to Pittsburgh, PA. I found myself at a non-graded school with a wonderful group of sisters, all very well-trained and professional. Coupled with Monsignor Shanahan and the priests in residence there, we made a great family. There are so many things that happened in Pittsburgh! But I’ll tell you the one story that dramatically changed my life.
I remember standing in the kitchen of our homey convent when I heard a voice coming from our downstairs receptionist office. A non-Catholic lady named Oleen Eagle had come to visit one of the other sisters. They were planning a very special Bible Study and prayer meeting to be started in the Fall. As I heard them laughing and talking, I wished that I could be a part of it - even though I didn’t understand the full impact of what I was wishing for.
Not very long afterwards, the sister working with Oleen was transferred to another city. So the plans changed. I found myself in the “Padre’s” office - Monsignor Shanahan, that is. He was so animated and excited as he appointed me to work with Oleen Eagle on the music for the prayer meeting she was to lead. But then he put me on a solemn mission. “Angelina”, he said, (that’s long for Sister Angela), “You’re going to have to listen real hard to make sure Oleen stays within the confines of Catholic teaching and beliefs. So, while you’re playing that guitar of yours, pay very close attention to what she says and come back and report to me.” I felt like the Padre and I had entered into a secret pact.
The responsibility of listening to Oleen’s Protestant theology felt pretty heavy to me. First of all, I just didn’t feel qualified, spiritually or physically. I felt my mind and my heart drifting from the most important things in my life. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience had become a struggle. Where was God in all this? Ritual,upon ritual, upon ritual. It all felt dry and fruitless.
The exhaustion of working so hard to prove to everyone that I was a success was overwhelming! I continually felt failure nipping at my toes as if I was in a race with myself to be the successful person my mom promised I would never be. Outwardly I was the perfect little nun, but inwardly I was dying. There had to be more to life than this, I thought. But I promised the Padre that I would listen intently to Oleen’s Bible teaching, and so I did.
As the weeks progressed I could feel something happening to me; something I had never experienced to this magnitude before. It seemed that I couldn’t wait for Tuesday to roll around so that I could hear what Oleen had to say about God’s Word, the Bible. I had studied every precept and principle of the church’s teaching in my twelve years of schooling; but this was a first for me. It’s hard to explain the explosion of new life I was beginning to experience! When Oleen would read the words of Jesus and explain them to our prayer group my heart started to burn to know more. I couldn’t hold back any longer!
When I had a private moment with her I asked, “Oleen, what do I have to do to know the Bible like you do? It seems like the more I hear, the more my heart burns to know Jesus more.” She explained to me that Jesus was drawing me to Himself. But there was something I had to do. I couldn’t imagine what that could be, because I was working very hard to be a good nun and a great teacher. She talked to me about giving my life over to Jesus Christ; putting Him in the driver’s seat of my life and letting Him have total control.
I was aghast! I said, “Oleen, I’ve been a nun all these nine years. I’ve been teaching His children, praying three times a day, and making all kinds of sacrifices! And you’re telling me I need to give my life over to Him and be “born-again”? What did that mean, anyway? Was this another “religion”? Oleen explained that it had nothing at all to do with religion, church denominations, or traditions of belief. This had to do with a very special relationship with Jesus, the Son of God, Who died for my sin and took all the punishment for it by His death on the cross. She told me that the Bible said Jesus died for me personally, something that just boggled my mind, and that He wanted to save me from eternal punishment. Now I was beginning to understand: my salvation rested upon what Jesus did for me, not the work I was trying to do to attain it.
It all made sense! I took Oleen’s hand and she led me in a prayer of repentance. For the first time in my life, I put my faith and trust in what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross, and received Him as my Lord and Savior. An inexplicable thing happened to me that day. Suddenly, I began to see Jesus' love for me. Immediately I felt a peace like I had never experienced before.
I somehow felt relieved of the burdens and questions I had been carrying for so long. I felt new all over and I had this wonderful feeling that I wasn’t alone anymore. The love of Jesus seemed to fill every inch of my heart! Think of it! Jesus was waiting my entire life for me to come to the realization of this moment. And I could have missed Him as I went about my busy daily routines trying to find Him by my own religious actions and merit! I discovered that I didn't know God even though I was trying to serve Him In the convent.
Once this realization hit me it was like an explosion took place in my mind and my spirit! My walk with Jesus was now based on a meaningful daily relationship rather than on empty daily rituals. I started to reach out to people in love and intense care for their needs. The talents that God gave me of music, art and the dance blossomed into full expression. I took on a men’s choir; wrote cantatas for the children to sing and dance to; produced stage productions and designed all the scenery; painted pictures of Bible stories for our church and on and on. It wasn’t long after my born-again experience that I received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. This opened the window to even more of the Holy Spirit’s power! My life would never be the same.
This is the story of how I discovered God while in the convent. My relationship with Jesus is the greatest treasure I have ever found!
You can find this treasure too! Learn how much Christ loves you an what He did for you by reading the book Discovering Treasures from the Cross.
If you can't ever remember a time in your life when you personally invited Jesus to come into your heart, then you probably never have. This could be your day to personally meet him.
Contact me (email@example.com) or visit our website (www.discoverministries.com) and click on the side tab: HOW TO FIND LIFE'S GREATEST TREASURE. Let me help you make this wonderful discovery as I did!