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Conversations on the way to Sr. Regina's grave.

The motherhouse cemetery is circular. On the right are four circles of graves, each containing two inner circles. Across the road is the beginning of a fifth circle. In this circle are the graves of sisters who died this year.

My friend and I visit the cemetery on our weekly walks. She's in her 80s and uses a cane. The cemetery is too far from our health care center for her to walk, so I push her in a wheelchair.

I'm in my 70s. The uphill road makes me puff; we stop frequently so I can catch my breath. The pause gives us time to enjoy our surroundings: a small patch of Queen Anne's lace and, farther away, a luxuriant stand of corn. If we're lucky, we might see a squirrel or catch a passing glimpse of a groundhog family that's disturbing a symmetrical row of small pines ringing the outer limits of the cemetery.

My friend wants to visit Sr. Regina's grave. She repeats the story of how the two of them spent many years as walking companions. Sr. Regina, who was legally blind, needed my friend's help to find her way on their daily walks. Sr. Regina was surefooted and could keep them both from falling.

"We made up for each other's weaknesses," my friend said, "and, oh, the conversations! We discussed everything - the books we'd read, community news, stories in the newspaper."

I push my friend over to the graves I'd like to visit. Mostly they're the ones having a birthdate after 1920, the year I was born.

We visit the grave of Sr. Irene, born in 1924 and a member of my profession class. I ponder the mystery of why God chose this woman, a marvelously talented writer and teacher, to die before me.

My friend wants to count the number of sisters who died in 1992. We find 20 graves. In the circle across the road we count the graves of 12 sisters who died in 1993.

"We'll probably have at least eight more deaths this year," my friend speculates, wondering perhaps where her own grave will be.

My mind strays to the people who aren't buried in this cemetery. I remember my friend Sr. Marie Veronica. She always looked slightly unmade, her veil out of kilter and her scapular falling at a crazy angle. She irritated people with her frankness and her passion for justice, especially for African-Americans.

When she decided to leave the community, she explained: "I want to find myself. I want to be me." I could never understand her yearning, because I considered her one of the most authentic people I'd ever known.

She's dead now. She died after years of teaching in one of Detroit's poorest areas. Only on her deathbed did she begin to realize how many lives she had touched. Her spirit and the spirits of other former sisters must hover over this holy place, I thought.

It's time to return to the health care center. We choose the long way. It take us to another circle. This one connects the motherhouse buildings: Weber Conference Hall, Madden Hall, Holy Rosary Chapel, Ratisbon House, Regina Residence and the new wing of the health care center.

The buildings remind us of our roots: Holy Rosary, where thousands of sisters made professions of vows; Madden, the first building erected by our community in the 1890s; Ratisbon, named for our Dominican ancestors who came to New York from Ratisbon, Germany, in the kite 1850s.

As we round Ratisbon House, my friend recites a poem she learned in the novitiate. I respond with a few stanzas from "The Highway Man." Together we piece together the rest of the poem, arriving at the health care center with a flourish of "and the highway man came riding, riding up to the old inn door.'

Before our visit ends, we rest a while in the health care center's lobby. I'm tired from pushing the wheelchair. It feels good to lean back and let the tension flow out of my body. I ponder the connectedness of life: my friend and I on our weekly walks, the dead who provide continuity with our past, the changing seasons reminding us of our own mortality.

Even as we age, I think, sisters remain an enigma in our culture. We're still stereotyped as the habited bimbos of "Sister Act"; the malevolent underminers of the church in Unholy Rage. The enigma - perhaps mystery is a better word - is the connectedness we maintain even as we grow older, our numbers decrease and our ministries become increasingly more contemplative.

We are, indeed, companions on the journey.

Dominican Sr. Lois Spear lives in Adrian, Mich., and teaches journalism at Siena Heights College.
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Author:Spear, Lois
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 24, 1993
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