Friday, May 8, 2009

jubliees and centenarians

I had lunch on Wednesday with a 100-year-old woman. That was definitely a first for me. Sister Arno Beehler was born on July 9, 1908. She was the only daughter in a family of seven children. She grew up on a farm in North Dakota, 500 acres of wheat, oats and barley. Her brothers weren't interested in farming, and the family moved to town during the Depression when they lost the farm. She joined the novitiate at Saint Benedict's Monastery in 1933 and made final vows in 1936. She ate a full plate of food-- chicken and mashed potatoes and asparagus, and a full slice of lemon meringue pie, and even had a few sips of wine.

With 100-year-olds, the tendency is to focus on what good shape they're in. Sister Arno appears to be maybe 90 years old. She has macular degeneration, so doesn't see very well, but she hears wonderfully, and pointed out every time she heard Sister Jane laugh from across the dining room. The only difficulty is that it's hard to hear her when she speaks. She barely has any voice, though she speaks clearly and lucidly. She said she hopes God will call her home before she turns 101, that she's ready to go and never planned on living this long.

The occasion was the jubilee celebration at Saint Scholastica Convent, the assisted living facility for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. We had seven 75-year jubilarians this year, and six made it to the celebratory Mass and dinner. Sister Carolinda, who is 97 and in the early years took care of the turkey flock, stood for the photo and still gets around very well. Sister Berno, who turned 99 on April 3, was having a hard time at the photo shoot, but when they got her hearing aid in the right ear she was fine. It was a great celebration. Sister Ellen Cotone played the piano and Sister Ancille played the organ. They played "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and I couldn't help notice two Sisters watching to make sure that they would eventually wind down and stop-- it's one of those numbers that loops around and can just keep going. Father Dominic, the chaplain, was brief (as is his custom) but pithy, and everyone was glad to move on to dinner.

Sister Ellen and Sister Ancille also sat at my table, as well as Sister Aurelianne and Sister Giles, both of whom are deaf and so excused themselves from the conversation.

Sister Ellen is delightful. She has Alzheimer's, so forgot that she had played the piano for Mass, and we watched her wine and coffee intake (2 glasses of each). She told me about her childhood in the Twin Cities, and how all the relatives would drop in for visits from the country. Her father was from a family of ten children, and "back then people didn't make arrangements, they just came when it worked for them. We never knew who would show up for the weekend, and it was so much fun." It was just her and her brother, and they both played music-- accordion and piano-- in a band and in clubs in Minneapolis. Sister Ellen is the one who can play the piano with her hands behind her back, but more impressive is that she can play pretty much any song, even with Alzheimer's, if she sees the name of it on a list. She was in Brazil for ten years and loves Brazilian music. One of the music teachers at St. John's University donated a piano for her, which is in the dining room, and after meals she sits down and plays. After this lunch she played a few classical numbers and then went into a rag and some popular numbers from the '40s.

This was during nap time, while some of the jubilarians rested up before the program at 2, when everyone reconvened in the dining room for stories about each of the jubilarians, to celebrate their long lives and commitment to the Benedictine way of life.

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