Posted by: Maryann McCullough | July 29, 2012

Story for August 2012

Fifty years ago, in August of 1962, I along with fifty-two others made my profession as a Dominican sister. The women with whom I shared that life recently gathered at the motherhouse in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin to celebrate their Golden Jubilee. Of all the aspects of my life that have inspired interest, interest in the “why” of my decision to enter religious life is surpassed only by questions regarding my decision to leave it. Here, with the insight that the passage of years allow, is my story.




Maryann McCullough

 In August of 1960, as friends were packing up for the big move to college life, I was packing up too. But instead of taking a step toward independence and the excitement of college, I was packing up for a different sort of life. I was headed for Saint Clara Convent, the Dominican Motherhouse at Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. I was going to be a nun.

At the time of this decision, I was a senior at Trinity High School, a girl’s high school in the beautiful Chicago suburb of River Forest. I was blessed with a great group of friends, had my own green ’53 Pontiac, had received scholarship offers from several colleges, and wore Denny Herlihy’s gold football on a chain around my neck. In February of that year, I had been chosen “Sweetheart” of the Valentine dance put on by our Student Council. The purported angst associated with high school was never my problem. My life at age seventeen was fantastic!  

 So, why, you may wonder, would I bid that happy life farewell? The choice to walk away from all of that required some special motivation. So what was mine?  With hindsight, I’d describe that decision as a woven kind of rationale, a thread of this and a thread of that. Doing the analysis to pull apart threads of that teenager’s decision is a challenge for me today. It has been more than 50 years since that choice was made.

One factor in the decision was that religious life was deemed “the best use of a life.” If you really wanted to do something special with your life and you were a Catholic girl, the religious life represented the “goodness” pinnacle.

A character flaw was present in the mix of motivations as well. It was a lack of confidence in my ability to make decisions. The prospect of making choices with all their possible ramifications terrorized me. Religious life offered the promise of leaving that task to others. My chosen life would be one in which I could interpret the choices being made for my life as being “God’s will” since my superiors had made them. I’d just have to obey. I was good at that.

Another influence was my mother, a loving and normally sane woman, pushed. In her mind this decision on my part would be her ticket to heaven and she certainly assumed it would be a good life for her firstborn child. In a “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry/” moment, the day after I informed my parents of my plans to join the Dominicans, my mother kept me home from school. “Emergency” appointments were made at doctors and dentists so my application could be mailed off that very next day. And, sadly in an uncharacteristically unkind statement, earlier that year she had told me that I would not be a good mother, that I was too impatient.      

Why she said that, I don’t know, though we certainly were not cut from the same cloth. Her gifts were for organization and efficiency. At seventeen, my role as second-in-command felt overwhelming on many occasions. Her words were said, not vindictively, but in the same manner as she would say “You’re not wearing white shoes in May, are you?” – with a confidence that didn’t allow for disagreement.

Why I believed her, I don’t know either. I know my decision was something that pleased her very much and pleasing her was something I was in the habit of doing. In our home, the expected and standard response to a request was “Yes, Mother, I’ll be glad to.”   She likely thought the convent would be a good place for her gentle firstborn daughter, and so she nudged. Or perhaps, she pushed.

I look back on those seven years between those bookends of my entrance and my exit from religious life, kindly. I did not speak about it for many years after I had left – certainly not from shame, but from fear of being defined by that portion of my life. Now, decades removed from that time, silence no longer feels necessary. Recalling and sharing my black and white period is a very comfortable experience.

Memories of my first year are of “missing” – missing music, missing family, missing my friends, and missing dating.  The withdrawal from the world process was a tough one for me. And I remember the food!  Eating was a high priority for all the postulants (stage one of the process) Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday were fresh bread days. Friday’s main meal always had pie for dessert. Sundays promised sticky buns or cinnamon rolls. So of course we became more padded postulants as the year wore on. We took classes, as my college bound friends did and we worked  (generally in the laundry or the kitchen) and we prayed. We chanted all nine hours of the Office, we went to Mass, and we had rosary and benediction. Those activities were responsible for the calluses on both knees. We also did spiritual reading for a half hour and meditated for a half hour. Since these were early morning seated activities, they were responsible for my “falling asleep in the Lord” (or “napping” as it is more commonly called) on a regular basis.

At the end of one year, we became novices. Like the ugly ducklings of Hans Christian Anderson, we became beautiful white robed sisters. Maryann Shanahan became Sister Mary Deidre. There is truth in the saying that “the clothes make the man.”  Wearing the habit, hiding my hands under the scapular, keeping my eyes downcast as I traversed the halls of the Novitiate, I determined I was a good fit for the religious life. Non-religious studies were set-aside for the year.  Scripture, theology, liturgical music (with the nuems and dotted punctums of Gregorian chant) constituted our academic program. Of course, the work and the prayer continued as before.

So much was beautiful about those two years.

In the convent, Advent was a very purple kind of time. No Christmas carols, no Christmas decorations, no celebrations, no shopping, no mail. It was a quiet time of anticipation. When Christmas Eve came, the murals we had been working on were hung throughout the halls; Christmas trees appeared and were decorated. The convent was transformed in a day. After evening prayers, each sister retired for the evening. And then, at 11:30 that night the “Angels” came. In truth they were the novitiate schola awakening the community with the most beautiful singing, calling us to midnight Mass. Our old chapel became ablaze with candlelight as our chaplain entered carrying the life-size statue of the infant Christ.

Later in the day we each received the mail that had been sent and held during Advent. Any gifts we gave to each other or our families were handmade. From those early years, I remember the story I wrote and illustrated for my brothers and sisters, the hand puppets made from wheat paste and sawdust, and the twelve days of Christmas figures that even today hang from the family chandelier. The serenity of those early holidays is impossible in the real world (Imagine avoiding Christmas carols during December!), but I do treasure the memories of my first Christmas away from home. I know I hurt my mother’s feelings when I described Christmas as the most wonderful I’d ever experienced. In hindsight my words were thoughtless- they were also true.

In August of 1962, two years after our arrival at the Mound, we took our first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We received the black veil and were officially members of the Order of Preachers. It was at this time that we received our first “Mandamus” which means, “We send you.”  Since my college education was not complete I was sent (as were most of us) to complete my degree. My assignment was to Edgewood College of the Sacred Heart in Madison, Wisconsin. I was there for two years as I completed my B.A. with majors in
mathematics, education and theology. (The Dominican order placed a priority on the professional preparation of their teachers.)

Life at Edgewood was like dipping our black-hosed toes into the real world. We weren’t exactly in it but we had some sense of what was going on. The College was a women’s Catholic College with a strong focus on teacher preparation. It seemed relatively untouched by the radical movements affecting larger campuses across the country. Vietnam, women’s rights, black power, and sexual liberation were not part of life at the school by the lake. It was a safe enclave in the midst of tumultuous times.

The campus was so lovely. We lived in an old convent at the top of a hill and would trek the mile down and mile back to the campus where the girls lived and studied. The days were full with heavy academic loads in addition to the same religious responsibilities as before. It was here that I decided on math as my major. This was largely the result of Sister Marie Stephen who was the most charismatic woman I have ever known. She was my first college math teacher and I wanted to be just like her.

That was my math motivation until I decided that I wasn’t smart enough.  I made an appointment with Mr. Stoffletz, my Calc III teacher, (memorable for leaving coffee stains on every returned paper) to tell him I felt I was in over my head. I might successfully get the answer but I didn’t “get it”, and math was something I always got. He agreed to discuss my concerns later that day, after the annual Honors Convocation.

 I learned two valuable lessons that day. The first is that you never really understand one advanced math course until you take the subsequent course. It’s just the way math is.  The second is that sometimes others can see your strengths more clearly than you can yourself. At that assembly, less than an hour after I left his office it was announced that I had received the “Outstanding Mathematician” Award for that year.

Another new thing I learned at Edgewood was that I had an artist inside whom I’d never met. It was a love discovered too late to do much about academically. However over the years that followed I have nurtured the seeds that were planted in the early sixties and today my study is home to a drafting table and a cabinet for paints and brushes.

I definitely felt more in my element at Edgewood. I didn’t have to be as quiet. We didn’t pray quite as much. We were around regular people. We went to real school.

My favorite memories of the time at Edgewood come from the summers. Every Sunday evening we would have orchestral concerts on the lawn. I would never miss these events and always brought my sketchbook along   The poses of people sprawled out on blankets were so much fun to draw and the music on a cool summer evening made for a near-perfect experience.  

I also loved the Campus School, which I passed it every time I made the trek up or down the hill. It was such a treat to be around the children. That was where I did my student teaching, sixth grade with Sister Marie Sara. She was a real confidence builder for me. I also taught French to the fourth graders. I never spoke a word of English to them!  .

Two stories come to mind at this moment – both involving the college president Sister Nona. The first involved a sociology course she taught. It was one of the most interesting classes I took and it was important to me to do a great job on the term paper required for the class.  My chosen topic was “Planned Obsolescence” I worked hard on my research and was proud to hand in my paper. It was only when Sister (with a grimace) returned it to me that I learned that I misspelled obsolescence each one of the forty-some times it was used in the paper. By page two Sister Nona realized that I really had proofread the paper. So I got back my “conscientious” points and, no doubt, provided her with a good story to tell.

The other story I share in that it reflects how narrow our horizons were in the convent. When walking down the hill one afternoon in November of 1963 an excited student yelled to me that the president had been shot. I then passed on the news to a group of young sisters whom I met along the way. Their response was “Someone shot Sister Nona?”

Actually the events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy are among the most vivid in my Edgewood memories   Normally we were not allowed to watch television, but one was brought into our community room and we were, like the rest of the world, glued to it in every free moment. This community room where we had our recreation (our talking time) became very quiet except for the sound of the television.

Most of our crowd spent two years at Edgewood after a year of postulancy and a year of novitiate, thus making our formative period like (though not as much fun as) the four -year college program. At the end of that period, we received our second mandamus, this time for a real mission!  This was my chance to go out and be a teacher. This was what these four years of preparation had been about.  Now I would get to do God’s work at Incarnation Parish in Minneapolis, Minnesota

The trip from Madison to Minneapolis was by Greyhound Bus. I was met at the terminal by one of the Incarnation sisters and her driver, a Mrs. Donovan.

As part of the conversation on the way to my new home Mrs. Donovan remarked “Perhaps you’ll have my daughter Noreen.” 

I then asked what grade she was in.

Mrs. Donovan responded, “Eighth grade.” 

To which I said, “Oh, no. I’d never be given an eighth grade. I am a beginning teacher.”

 Sister Lolita turned to me and smiled “Oh, yes, you’ll be having her.”

And thus was my introduction to the place I would spend the next three years of my life.      

I fell in love with eighth graders and can still see faces and recall names from that period so  long ago. I was the departmental math teacher. In addition, I taught a little art (contour drawing), and was part of a team that taught junior high religion. I even became the cheerleading coach!  A few of the students taught me how to play the baritone ukulele, and relatively speaking, I was a cool nun. I loved it all – the students, the subjects, and the sisters I lived with.

As you can tell, these were not bad days.  So why, at the end of those three years at Incarnation, did I decide to leave the Dominicans?   Why did I walk away from a life I can speak of in such positive terms?

It has been forty years since I responded to the name “Sister Mary Deidre,” forty years since I walked with my hands modestly cupped under my scapular, forty years since so much of my world was silent except for the click-click on the floor of sensible black shoes with Cuban heels, and the gentle swish of long rosary beads against my habit. The pictures from those days of decision are very clear. The rationale is more muted.

Again that major decision was woven from different threads.

It was the late sixties. The world outside was going a little crazy. Even the Church itself, that most stable of institutions, was being swept by winds of change. Latin was out. English was in. Women in religious life were beginning to question their role in the church. Altars were turned to face the people and the laity began to assume roles in the liturgy and unprecedented positions of responsibility. The numbers of Catholics to the right and left of center grew, and priests and nuns began to leave religious communities in great numbers. Where was I in all this? For me, was the church moving too quickly or not fast enough? 

The truth is that the great drama going on within the institution really did not impact my decision in any conscious way. Nor was community life the problem; my relationships within the small community of Incarnation Parish in Minneapolis were wonderful. The group of thirteen-year-olds with whom I spent my days was part of the problem, but not in a way that deserves blame. I cared about them, perhaps too much, and inevitably they would graduate and be gone. I realized my need for someone to emotionally hold onto was growing in intensity. I guess that someone should have been God.

I have read that most people find the God who lives in heaven easier to love than the God who lives within their fellow man. I am not like that. More Martha than Mary (to this day), it is easier for me to find God in the faces of others than to try to put a face on a spirit. This is neither a reason for pride nor for shame. It’s just the way I am. But, at least in my day, in the religious life, there was a whole lotta prayin’ goin’ on. And I wasn’t good at that. I strongly felt that there was something lacking in me –something important that the other sisters had that I did not. And so, I began to consider a different life. My plan was still to do God’s work, but with a little group, maybe a family-sized group.

The summer of 1967 was to have been the time for making my final profession. That factor, the natural fork in the road, was key in my decision to leave the community that summer. And so I made my second big decision. I left as one might leave a loveless marriage to a very good man.  Nothing was horribly wrong. It just didn’t feel right to stay.

The wheels for my departure were set in motion in the spring of 1967. I made a visit to the Motherhouse and met with Mother Benedicta. It was Pentecost and Mother’s day weekend at the same time and I took this as a good sign. Since my temporary vows would automatically expire in August of that year, Rome was not involved in any permission or paperwork. I do remember being told that I could not marry until early August when my vows expired naturally. This did not seem like a deal- breaker. I agreed to finish up the school year so my date for departure from Incarnation was set for mid-June.

What was very, very difficult was the required silence on my part about my departure. I was not permitted to say my good-byes, certainly not to the students, but not even to my community of sisters. There is always such wondering when someone leaves religious life and I wanted to communicate so many things. A note left on the bulletin board felt a poor substitute for my farewell to these wonderful women.

So this has been a story of those two bookends in my life and some snapshots from the life contained between them. They were two important choices and the obvious question is “Were they good ones?” or, if one was a good choice does that imply that the other was a mistake?

From my current vantage point I can see inappropriate threads in the judgment for both decisions. My mother was too big a factor in my original decision. I was too hard on myself, my “skill” at praying, in the second. But I can also see the big picture, where I am now, in 2012. They were bends in the road that took me to the place I am today, and this is a very good place.

Today, doing God’s work is accomplished in more subtle ways, but it is still a factor in the choices that I make. I do have my “someone” to hold onto, but I have learned that all paths in life involve farewells.

There was a time when I judged the word “contented” to be somewhat pejorative, like a grade of C on a test. I no longer see the word in those terms. I see it as quieter and more reflective than happy, less transitory than some of the flashier emotions. I’m quite okay with “contented” now and I am quite contented with my life.










  1. Thanks for this, Mom. I thought I had read this before, so passed it over. So sorry that I waited this long. I’d heard lots of these anecdotes, but reading them as part of the whole historical narrative really gives me a sense of that period of your life.

    Glad that you made the choices that you did along the way – each and every one!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I am blessed that You do God’s work as a mom and now as a grandma too!

  3. love this Min, xxxx

    • Just reread this story and thought Sister LOLITA?????

  4. Oh Mar,
    I always wondered….both excellent choices that made you special!
    Thank you for sharing your story so eloquently. Xxx Vicki

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