I Fell in Love with a Nun | Sojourners

I Fell in Love with a Nun

Sister Annunziata in Rome in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Cathleen Falsani.
Sister Annunziata in Rome in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Cathleen Falsani.

This is a love story.

An unlikely love story, perhaps, but a true love story just the same.

Not 10 minutes after meeting her for the first time in the shadow of a 33-foot-tall metallic statue of the Virgin Mary at a convent in the Rust Belt suburbs of Chicago’s south side, Sister Annunziata told me she loved me.

Reaching out an elegant, wizened hand from her wheelchair to touch my cheek, she first asked me whether I was Irish and then said, “You have the face of an angel.”
I was a goner.

Annunziata, who was 83 at the time, had me completely from that moment forward — utterly devoted to her for the rest of her life. I was Annunziata’s and she was mine — and that was that. She became the Maude to my Harold, showing me how to love without limits.

Falling helplessly in love with an octogenarian wheelchair-bound Roman Catholic nun was not exactly what I had been expecting those many summers ago when I was a cub reporter dispatched to the convent in a town called Blue Island to write a story about the giant statue of the Virgin Mary (nicknamed “Aluminum Mary” by us newsroom denizens). The pet project of an eccentric Catholic businessman, the statue had been drawing huge crowds as it made the rounds from parish to parish on the back of a flatbed truck.

I’ve never had much use for saints and their statues and never truly understood people’s devotion to them, even to the Virgin.

My parents had christened me with the middle name Mary — at the time a sign of my mother’s religious devotion and the namesake of my godmother, my mother’s only living sister, Mary. As a child, I would visit my great-aunt Sister Mary Charles, a Sister of Mercy nun, at her convent in Connecticut, and spend hours studying the statues of the young woman in blue the sisters referred to as “Our Lady” with the same kind of fascination I lavished on my dolls. The statues were like giant stone and plaster versions of the Madame Alexander dolls that my mother collected for me and that I doted on cautiously, careful to not damage their delicately fashioned limbs or muss their taffeta costumes and elaborately plaited hair.

As I set out that hot summer afternoon to see the enormous metal statue of Our Lady of the New Millennium, as it officially was called, I figured the reward would be some kitschy anecdotes about the devotees who flocked to pray at its enormous feet. When I arrived, a few dozen people — mostly pensioners and women with their young children — had gathered in folding chairs beside the flatbed truck that carried the giant Mary to say the Rosary. There were dozens of roses and bouquets of supermarket flowers propped up at the statue’s gleaming feet, dozens more tall votive candles flickering in the light breeze, handwritten petitions on scraps of paper, and prayer cards with familiar images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the dark Lady of Czestochowa tucked here and there.

As I strolled across the courtyard of Our Lady of Sorrows convent, a clutch of older ladies wearing badges identifying them as members of the Blue Army — die-hard Marian devotees — greeted me as I approached the assembled crowd and invited me to
join them in a decade or two of the Rosary and bring my own concerns to the Virgin in prayer. I thanked them but declined, explaining that I was a journalist and was only there to observe, not participate.

I found a chair off to the side and watched as the group prayed in English, Spanish, Polish, and Italian, marveling at the devotion I couldn’t quite fathom. Some of the penitents knelt in the lush grass or on the pavement. A few stood alone, quietly weeping. After watching for an hour or so, I dutifully approached a number of people and asked why they’d come to see the statue, what the experience meant to them, what they were hoping to accomplish or feel, spiritually or otherwise. They told me about illnesses and lost souls, about how the Virgin Mary had drawn near to them in prayer, how she loved all people and was the last great hope for a world gone mad. I wrote down their names and their stories and moved back to my seat to reflect on what they’d said and to bask in the amber light and encroaching cool of the evening.

++ Join us in showing our appreciation for Catholic women religious (aka nuns or "sisters") on Thank-a-Nun Day, May 9. Click HERE to send a thank-you note online. ++

It was about this time that a small motion caught my attention. I turned to see an elderly nun sitting in a wheelchair in the shade, a thick black cardigan pulled tightly around her hips. She was looking at me and was waving, beckoning me to her.

Her name was Annunziata, she told me, grabbing my hands and pulling me low to her. I crouched down and introduced myself, and that’s when she said I had the face of an angel.

“She’s our mother,” Sister Annunziata said of the massive statute looming in the distance. “She’s everyone’s mother. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
I stayed there for a while, holding hands with this elderly nun, who was a stranger to me but who felt instantly like family.

As I stood to leave, explaining that I had to return to the newspaper and write my story, Annunziata asked if I’d come visit her again. I said I would.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you too,” I found myself saying. And I meant it.

Why do so many people have such a hard time saying, “I love you”?They ration those words, as if their meaning could be somehow cheapened or diminished were they said too many times to too many people. Is it possible to love too much? Too recklessly? Unconditionally and indiscriminately?

No. There is nothing better in life than knowing you are loved. There is no more precious gift, no sweeter burden.

A few weeks later, I returned to Our Lady of Sorrows to see Annunziata. She was waiting for me in the convent’s first-floor dayroom in her wheelchair, smiling and spreading her arms wide as if I were her long-lost child. She had tears in her eyes, and the first thing she said was, “Oh, I love you so much!” Then she giggled. She was always giggling, a bubbling stream of joyful laughter that made her seem more like a silly schoolgirl than a wise, holy woman.

She wanted to know all about me, about my family, my mother and father, Sister Mary Charles, where I grew up, what I studied, what I liked to read, how I fell in love with my husband, whether I hoped to have children someday, why I had become a writer. I told her my stories with no holds barred. She was my instant confessor and listened to my stories as if they were the most riveting she’d ever heard.

Annunziata told me her stories too. How she’d entered the Mantellate Sisters Servants of Mary religious order in 1937, when she was twenty-one years old. That she was the child of Sicilian immigrants and grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago that had been transformed into something she didn’t recognize with high-rise public housing and violent crime.

She told me she disliked her given name, Biaggia, and hated the Americanized nickname “Bessie,” bestowed on her in grade school; that she couldn’t wait to get her religious name, Annunziata; and that her sister, Marie, had been the pretty one. When I said she was beautiful — and she really was — she got cross with me and said she had a fat face, that she’d never been pretty. I told her she was ridiculous, and we agreed to disagree.

Over the years, in subsequent visits, which were never as often as I would have liked them to be, Annunziata told me stories about her students in Blue Island and in Rome, where she lived and taught from 1958 to 1972. She was an English teacher, a voracious reader,
a true lover of language, art, and film. One afternoon, she revealed that her favorite film was Casablanca.

“Not The Bells of Saint Mary’s or The Song of Bernadette?” I said, jokingly.

“Oh, no. I loooooooove Casablanca! It’s so romantic, such a sad love story,” she swooned.

At the time we were in the small room in the convent’s infirmary where she’d been moved some months earlier as her health began to fail. She was unhappy there and missed being on the ground floor where she could see the visitors who came to call on the other sisters, where it had been her job to answer the main phone line, a responsibility she loved because she got to talk to all sorts of people. In the infirmary she felt isolated and old.

As she talked about her years in Rome and more about Casablanca, Annunziata fished out a stack of photos from the bureau next to the easy chair where she slept because it was
more comfortable for her than the single bed. She handed me a small black-and-white snapshot of a much younger Annunziata standing with two uniformed Catholic schoolgirls. “Those were her daughters,” she said.

“Whose daughters?” I asked.

The pretty Swedish actress, she said, the one whose name was escaping her. I looked closer, and one of the girl’s faces looked familiar. I couldn’t place it at first, and then she said, “Ilsa.” The Catholic schoolgirl in the photograph, the one smiling shyly next to a beaming younger Annunziata was Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini. I said the names — Bergman, Rossellini — and the nun’s face lit up. “Oh, yes! Yes, that’s her!”

“They were so cruel to her; they said such awful things,” she said of Bergman. “I felt so sorry for her. She had these beautiful daughters. I couldn’t understand why people were so cruel to her.” Annunziata was talking about the controversy that had swirled around Ingrid Bergman nearly a half century before, when the Swedish actress (who, of course, played the role of Ilsa in Casablanca), a married mother of one, had a love affair with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, became pregnant, and gave birth to his son in 1950. It was absolutely scandalous at the time, and Bergman became something of a pariah. She even was denounced on the floor of the United States Senate as “a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence for evil” and was, by a floor vote, officially declared persona non grata in the United States.

Bergman, who lived in self-imposed exile in Italy, divorced her first husband, married Rossellini and in 1952 gave birth to twin daughters, Isabella and Isotta, who were, for a time, Annunziata’s students in Rome. At least that’s the story she told each time she brought out the photograph. Though I couldn’t be sure, I chose to believe her.

The way Bergman was treated by the church, by the establishment, by the so-called keeper of society’s moral authority, haunted Annunziata, this pious woman who loved everyone with abandon. It pained her, troubling her soul into her last days on earth. She was so sensitive to cruelty, judgmentalism, the absence of forgiveness and grace even or perhaps especially when it came to those she didn’t know. It’s one of the greatest lessons she taught me, and she taught me so very much.

In the last year of her life, Annunziata was sick much of the time. She wanted to die, she said, to “go home” to Jesus, her Lord, her love, her “bride.” Each time I talked to her, she’d ask me to
pray for her to die in her sleep. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she didn’t want to suffer. Her body, she said, was falling apart. She was frustrated and scared.

“Everything is just so icky,” she told me one day as a dark mood flashed across her otherwise cherubic face when she couldn’t recall what she’d been talking about moments earlier. “I used to read profusely. To tell me I can’t read anymore is so mean to me,” she said, clenching her birdlike hand into a fist around the gold crucifix ring with a half-inch of yarn wound around the band to hold it in place. 

“Sometimes I stand up and I feel so bad, like I’m going to die. I get so angry because I want to be going on my way, but I keep pulling back through.”

She thought for a few moments and then the familiar smile returned to her face. “The end is near. It’s soon. I know it is. I’m not afraid. Not at all. God is so good,” she said. “I’m going to die while I’m sleeping. I’m depending on you for that.” I told her I’d pray for that, and I did.

On one of our last visits a few months before she went home to her bride, I brought a copy of Casablanca and we watched it together on an old television set the size of a steamer trunk in the infirmary’s lounge. We didn’t say much during the movie, except to comment on how beautiful Ingrid Bergman was. Mostly we sat in rapt silence next to each other, sipping superstrong, supersweet espresso coffee in tiny porcelain cups one of the Italian sisters brought up from the kitchen downstairs.

After the movie, a nurse and I helped Annunziata back to her room a few feet away. As I said good-bye to her in the shadowy room and tucked her into her easy chair with an afghan, she grabbed my hand and pulled me close to her face as she often did. “I love you so much,” she said.

Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.

Sister Annunziata died in her sleep on July 22, 2002. She was 86. At her funeral a few days later in the chapel at Our Lady of Sorrows, the priest presiding at the Mass mentioned her smile. It was a sign of her hospitality, he said, which was a central part of her vocation as a servant of the Virgin Mary.

My nun, which is how I think of her, was the most profound witness for God’s love I’ve ever encountered in this world. She was a magnet for lost souls, a petite fortress of strength and unconditional love. What this sprightly, silly, lovely woman did from the obscurity of a faded convent in Rust Belt Chicago was to fulfill in a passionate, tireless way the supreme commandment of Jesus’ gospel every day of her life.

According to John 13, just after Jesus washed the feet of his 12 disciples (including the one he knew would betray him and deliver him into the hands of his executioners), he gave them an order: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

When Annunziata said she loved me or any of her thousands
of other friends and beloveds, she was really saying, at least in my mind, “God loves you.” To paraphrase the singer/songwriter James Taylor, she showered the people she loved with love, always showing the way that she felt without holding back.

Even as her body could barely contain her soul any longer, she’d open wide the gates of herself with a smile, that giggle, her twinkling eyes, and she’d let the supernatural love flow through her.

Walking out of the chapel after her funeral, a woman I’d never seen before stopped me and said, “You’re Cathleen, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I croaked, tears rolling off my nose as I fingered the prayer card with Annunziata’s picture on it.

Slipping an arm around my shoulders, the woman explained that she was one of Annunziata’s former students and said, “She loved you so much.”

I know.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Annunziata's story is taken from the chapter "Aluminum Mary" in Cathleen's book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.

++ Join us in showing our appreciation for Catholic women religious (aka nuns or "sisters") on Thank-a-Nun Day, May 9. Click HERE to send a thank-you note online. ++