Wednesday, May 5, 2010


There are times when you wish that you carried a camera with you everywhere. Those times are called “missed photo opportunities,” and I experienced that loss Sunday. I’m attempting to retain the image I wanted to photograph by writing about it. Sunday, I preached at St. Mary’s chapel on the bluff and following that service, I went further down the mountain to Grace Fellowship church, a non-denominational congregation of approximately twenty worshippers who are Christian but not affiliated with any mainstream church. I went there to preach another sermon, accompanied by Srs. Elizabeth and Mary Zita, two of the Anglican nuns who belong to the Order of St. Mary here at Sewanee. Mary Zita, a Filipino nun who first served with the sisters at an orphanage in Banga-an in the Philippines, wore a straw hat that could only have been exported from the Philippines and was dressed in her typically-layered clothing—blouse, blue jacket, and shawl—despite the warm temps.
When we drove up to the concrete block chapel with a traditionally Anglican red door, I noticed a small bell tower, bell and rope attached, beside the entrance and was told that it was Mary Zita’s job to ring the bell for church to commence. This was the missed photo op–a picture of a tiny, frail nun who doesn’t tell her age but who must have passed the age of seventy, pulling vigorously on a rope at least a dozen times, grinning with each pull. It was a sight that caused a lump in my throat because I remembered last year when she was unable to walk due to loss of balance, dizziness, and strength to manage her usual gardening duties–she’s the world’s champion leaf raker and weed puller and loves the outdoors. Nowadays, she walks with the aid of a walker or someone’s arm, and I was amazed that she had the strength to make that bell swing and peal so loudly. She beamed with pride each time the bell rang, and I prayed that she wouldn’t be pulled up by the rope on the upswing.

Sr. Mary Zita sits in front of me during chapel services, and I always resist the impulse to put my hands on her shoulders and encircle her with prayer, but she is a devoted worshipper, and doesn’t want to be disturbed as she follows the worship in the Book of Common Prayer intently, using her finger to follow the lines and saying the words in English. Otherwise, I’ve never heard her converse in English. She’s a joyful nun, always meeting people with a wide smile, and when she shakes hands at the Peace, she pumps it up and down in the same fashion as she does when she operates that bell at Grace Fellowship.

Mary Zita has been a sister for over fifty years, and in 1992 she was transferred to Sewanee from the Philippines where she ran an orphanage. She served at the House of Prayer in Los Angeles four years before coming to the convent at Sewanee. The beautiful flower arrangements throughout the convent are her specialty, but like Brother Lawrence, she has more mundane duties in the kitchen and dining room. Once, when I was invited to stay for dinner and thought I was being helpful by stacking the dishwasher in the kitchen, Sr. Mary Zita walked up and began taking the dishes out of the washer and plunging them into soapy water in the sink. I had committed the faux paus of assuming duties assigned to her!

The Community of St. Mary at Sewanee can be traced to the Memphis order of St. Mary, and the Sisters formerly ran a girls’ school in Sewanee which closed in 1968. The site of the school is now a renowned retreat center located on a bluff where group and individual retreats take place, along with workshops, contemplative prayer sessions, and other spiritual activities. St. Mary’s on The Mountain was actually dedicated in 1888 and began serving Tennessee mountaineers who were part of three million people living in the Appalachian Mountains. According to TEN DECADES OF PRAISE by Sr. Mary Hilary, these people were proud and reserved, honest and independent, lived in windowless one-room cabins and eked out a living on mountain slopes or distilled corn whiskey. When the Sisters arrived for their first summer, they discovered that the mountaineers regarded them as heathens who worshipped an idol. The so-called idol was discovered to be their large brass altar cross. “It was the first of many instances which demonstrated how the mountaineers had passed down the rudiments of a Biblical religion, despite illiteracy,” Sr. Hilary writes. However, the Sisters persisted and when the dedication of St. Mary’s on the Mountain on the Feast of Transfiguration took place, people came from cove and cabin for twenty miles surrounding the convent to acknowledge their work and to worship with them.

Today, the Sisters have expanded their order to include transferring Sisters of Charity and Sr. Madeleine Mary, and are joined by four hundred associates, and seven oblates, who are a part of this sacred community on a bluff overlooking the Cumberland Valley. The Sisters say the Office according to the Book of Common Prayer four times daily and serve breakfast following services to those who attend every day except Wednesday.

And to return to the subject of missed photo ops, I’m including a picture of Sr. Mary Zita taken by Sr. Madeleine Mary for their annual publication, “St. Mary’s Messenger.” The smile is her natural, spontaneous expression. Beside her picture in the newsletter are the words of Mother Teresa: “Be the living expression of God’s kindness.”

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