When I was in high school, we had nicknames for nearly all of the nuns. There was Bunsen (she taught chemistry) and Hook (picture her nose) and Dot (who sprinkled us with holy water and called us evil) and Spider and PJ and Smiley. Smiley was a favorite with a lot of kids and that was no surprise. She really WAS always smiling. And laughing. And totally accepting of each kid for who he/she was. And understanding. And a great listener. And easy going. We adored her. And she was probably the reason I became a Sister of St. Joseph. I wanted to BE her. This was one woman who was totally comfortable inside her own skin.
And she brought out the best in everyone. Her classes were never out of order. I never heard her raise her voice. I never saw her angry. Somehow, no one wanted to let her down. Amazing woman.
Smiley (or Sister Cecelia James) had her priorities and making sure everyone felt safe and good about themselves was number one. It would be nice if we learned a little Latin or American history while we were there but if we didn’t, she wasn’t too worried about it. (In these days of testing, she would NEVER survive)
Several years after I became a nun (I should tell nun stories here one of these days) Smiley became “Mistress of Junior Professed”…that meant she was in charge of guiding the young sisters who had made their first vows. The people who had been in charge before her were of the opinion that the most important lesson they could teach us was humility and the best way to do that was to convince us we were worthless, self centered and bold…especially if we were caught breaking a rule (no talking in the halls, no talking all morning, no talking most of the afternoon…imagine me there?)
So when the rumor started that Sister Cecelia James was coming, everyone asked me “Is she progressive?” (we were so into the “new nun” and liberal Catholic values)
“Ummm, not really,” says I, “but you’re gonna love her.”
Sigh. “Is she still wearing the old habit?”
“Probably…haven’t seen her in awhile…but yes, my guess is she is. But trust me, you’re gonna love her.”
Sigh. “Will she change any of the rules?”
“Ummm…no but she’ll never notice if you don’t follow them. Rules really aren’t her thing.”
Everyone brightened considerably and yes, they DID love her.
As the years went by, I didn’t work too hard to keep in touch. Ceil went on to become a missionary in Kenya and then come back to the States and teach middle school kids, work in the library and sub when she was needed well into her seventies, maybe eighties. Every now and then I’d send her a note (usually after I had a dream about her) and would hear from her but I hadn’t seen Ceil in (I’m guessing) thirty years…more I guess since it was before Erin and Sean were born.
Anyway, the trip north was a family trip but I had one thing I really needed to do. Ceil is 93 and has serious heart problems. Friends told me she could go any time. I needed to see her at least one last time. And so I did.
And oh my, that amazing beautiful woman is still amazing, still beautiful, still more interested in everyone else than she is in her own issues. We laughed, we reminisced, we talked about what really mattered to us…as women, as teachers, as people on this planet. She told me about her trip to India to see Mother Teresa,who was in Norway getting the Nobel prize….”That was fine,”says Ceil. ” I met the other sisters and saw their work…stayed with them a few days and was so thrilled to be in the presence of such holiness.
I hope Ceil will be around in September when I go back north. She hopes so too. But if she’s not, I am SO very glad that I saw her this time around.
I’ve been lucky to have had some amazing mentors along the way. Smiley is just one of them….and I am probably still trying to BE her and still learning to be content with just being the best version of me that I can be.