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Family Album / The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet

Our Life of Prayer

The sisters live, worship and play, laugh and cry together in the 12,000-square-foot Doheny mansion on the downtown L.A. campus of Mount St. Mary's College.

November 22, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sister Aline Marie, 81, is laughing and pushing buttons wildly in the dark. She and three other Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet are scrunched together in L.A.'s oldest home elevator--a tiny, iron-gated affair--in which the heavy doors have just clicked shut and the single overhead light has just blown out.

Ordinarily, the sisters take the stairs. But things are rarely ordinary at the three-story Doheny mansion on the downtown campus of Mount St. Mary's College.

The 12,000-square-foot house (once the family home of oil baron Edward Doheny) was built in 1898, donated to the Catholic church in 1958 and then to the college. It has served as a convent, social hall and Doheny memorial ever since. This bit of real estate history is possibly unknown to actors Sandra Bullock and Liam Neeson and the huge film crew from Meat-hook Productions who are occupying the building's ornate, marble-laden main floor, which boasts a ballroom with a Tiffany glass ceiling.

They are making a movie, tentatively called "Gun-Shy," and require absolute silence on the set--which is why the sisters cannot even tiptoe through the house and up the stairs.

The irony of having Hollywood film crews, father-daughter luncheons and chamber music concerts on the main floor of their convent does not escape the family of eight sisters who reside primarily on the more spartan second and third floors. This is the '90s, after all, and these sisters have seen it all.

They've probably survived more than they will ever publicly discuss. They have lived through the tough years, before Vatican II, when their choices of what to wear, where to work and how to arrange their lives were totally out of their control, decided by church superiors. That was the life they chose as very young women, and now--half a century later for some--you might think they'd have had some second thoughts.

But watch them stride in from work any night, ready for prayer and dinner, and you'll sense how refreshed and energized they are by their various holy missions.

They are an oddly glamorous, sophisticated and high-spirited group, even without benefit of youth, cosmetics or trendy clothes--and despite an aggregate age that soon could rival Methuselah's 969 years. The oldest sister is 89, drives half an hour to her job every day and shows no signs of losing her racer's edge.

A communal sense of the absurd is apparent in the whoops and banter that emanate from the big round dinner table in the campus cafeteria, where the sisters meet after evening prayer for their nightly meals. There they share the days' events, the oddities of earthly life and the joys of being sisters in an ancient holy order (founded in 1650) who pray, play, live, laugh and cry together, sharing a bond that they say certainly meets anyone's definition of "family."

Some wear the traditional black-and-white nun's habit. Others wear a short, slim, modern version, with or without veil. Still others wear street clothes and no identifiable sign that they are women religious.

"We're all so different, which is maybe why we get along so well," says sister Aline Marie.

Each has a fascinating job in a different ministry, she says, which is part of what makes them so interesting to each other. And it doesn't hurt that they all have separate bedrooms, she adds.

Perhaps equally uniting is the knowledge that all are remnants of a thinning rank of women once willing to take the lifelong vows that are now so antithetical to modern life. Poverty, chastity and obedience, once considered admirable, are viewed as vestigial virtues by many young women steeped in the opposite values of today: earn good money, find sexual fulfillment, exercise your hard-won women's rights to an autonomous life.

So you might call this clan rebels of a sort. (Don't call them nuns, although some refer to themselves that way. That term usually is reserved for women who live in cloistered communities.)

Father Gregory Coiro, spokesperson for the Archdiocesan Catholic Center, calls them "countercultural. In a materialistic society like ours, where pursuit of money and possessions is so important, where there is an obsession with sex, where everyone focuses on individual autonomy," the vows run "totally counter to the culture of our times."

Which perhaps explains why fewer Catholic women are taking them these days. Sister Faith Clarke, vicar of women religious of the archdiocese, says there were 81,372 women religious in the U.S. in 1995, compared with 92,015 only 10 years before. The median age was 68 in 1995: It was 63 in 1985.

"We were at our peak numbers somewhere in the 1940s, after World War II, when women aspired to reach out and help others," she says. And if a woman wanted to work in the church, she needed to become a religious.

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