Pushing for peace, aging with grace

Outside the Seattle mayor's office, they gather in plush leather chairs. Stomachs growling, books on the Virgin Mary in hand.

On a 24-hour fast, they are protesting cuts in the city's human-services budget. Later, they'll head to a peace vigil in Bellevue to light candles, lift signs and march against violence. They feed the poor. Nurse the sick. Pray and nurture their relationship with God.

But the heart of their mission is this: protesting, letter-writing and agitating for peace and social justice.

"When I first joined, I thought I was there to pray and be a good girl," said Julie Codd. "Then I realized there was a lot more to do."

As they prepare to mark their 50th anniversary at St. Mary-on-the-Lake, their secluded Bellevue campus and the headquarters of the West Coast mission, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace find themselves at a crossroads.

Gray hair is turning silver. New nuns, who flocked to the order in the 1960s, are now a rarity. Their residence halls need elevators and other pricey renovations to accommodate aging bodies.

But just like when they arrived in Washington in the 19th century, the nuns have a plan.

• A capital campaign is under way to make sure nuns can continue to live out their days at St. Mary.

• New recruits representing a rainbow of cultural backgrounds are helping the community to diversify.

• And despite some members' creaks and wobbles, the sisters continue to push for peace, a mission, they say, that can heal the world.

Acres of history

For nearly 50 years, St. Mary-on-the-Lake has been at the heart of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace ministry.

A private drive leads to the 11-acre Bellevue campus on the shore of Lake Washington, blanketed with giant cedars and tranquil gardens.

The low-slung wood and brick buildings house offices, a dining hall, a library and about 30 of the Sisters' 85 West Coast members — most of them retired. Rooms are modest, with beds, desks and a few mementos.

There are two baths per hall, something that has become a problem lately for the elderly members, especially those with wheelchairs and walkers. Stairs also are a challenge for many.

"These buildings were built for college-age women," said Judy Johnson, administrator at St. Mary.

Today, a nun joins the Bellevue order only about once every two or three years, as opposed to handfuls at a time decades ago. And many of the new recruits already are baby boomers — not far from retirement themselves.

It's happening to religious communities around the country. A recent national study showed there are fewer than half the Catholic nuns there were 40 years ago.

The community's collective aging explains the rumble of construction equipment piercing the quiet outside. An elevator is being installed, along with structural upgrades that will help the nuns navigate more easily. There's money for improvements to the first building; sisters hope to raise the rest.

Inside the main house is a common room with white brick walls, mission wood furniture and a cane hooked over the couch. A rock fireplace gives warmth to sisters as they doze or read. In the next room is a small, unadorned chapel with a wall of windows overlooking the treetops and lake beyond. A gong made of recycled metals calls the nuns to prayer.

Nearby, in one of the site's historic buildings, is the Peace and Spirituality Center, which the nuns want to modernize in hopes of attracting more groups on retreat.

It's different from what many might expect in a convent — no soaring stone walls or vast collections of stained glass. No intimidating echoes. Just simple spaces filled with women and their history.

A tale of change

A black-and-white photograph on the wall of the library tells a tale of change.

Twenty-one girls stand smiling in a row, the oldest 23, most still in their teens. Hair is curled and topped with veils. Their slender bodies wear wedding dresses of white satin, beads and lace. The brides of Christ about to take their vows.

It was 1960, five years after St. Mary opened. The brides — the community's largest-ever graduating class — soon took off the gowns and donned identical nuns' habits.

"That was old theology," said Jo-Anne Miller, who was 17 when she entered the order. "To me, it was a big adventure," she said. "I just walked out of my bedroom and joined."

Along with the plain clothes, she got a world of daily silences, formal hierarchical titles and the serious work of teaching or nursing.

Today, Miller is identifiable as a nun only by the silver peace cross around her neck. She wears jeans and does graphic design.

Much of the relaxation in rules, including the elimination of habits, came with Vatican II in the '60s.

The church "no longer believes that nuns should be purer or holier than regular people," said Susan Dewitt, director of communications, who joined almost 15 years ago at age 50. Today, she said, a teenager would almost certainly be turned away.

The nuns are now encouraged to follow their own interests, said Codd, who entered in 1962. Today, she advocates on behalf of Native Americans and does watercolors.

Whatever their career, sisters pass their salaries on to the community and receive a stipend. That, plus any personal retirement savings, makes up about 55 percent of the community's $3 million annual budget, with the rest coming from donations and investments.

Journeying west

It was 1890 when two nuns journeyed west from New Jersey to Bellingham. Their task: find money for a hospital in a time when most women didn't travel on their own and even fewer oversaw business transactions.

They circled the lumber camps for donations and went to Alaska to beg for gold dust, according to the group's records. One year later, the nuns opened not just St. Joseph Hospital — which still operates today — but a school as well.

That first West Coast success reflects not just the sisters' determination, but also their distinctly feminist roots.

The order was founded in England 120 years ago by Margaret Anna Cusack, a Catholic convert born in Ireland. After immigrating to the U.S., she worked to educate immigrant Irish women, but faced criticism among some U.S. bishops for her focus on women's rights. She eventually withdrew from the order, but it continued.

Today, the order has three provinces, or chapters — on the West Coast, on the East Coast and in England. Most West Coast members are in Washington, but there are also sisters in Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, California, Nevada and El Salvador.

Though the nuns have a working relationship with the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, they are not supported or supervised by the archdiocese.

Their dozens of ministries include social work, political activism, advocacy for immigrants, Native Americans and people with AIDS, health care and housing for low-income women and families.

They believe so greatly in their causes that some have willingly been arrested.

The most well-known is Miriam Spencer, who made headlines when, at 76, she served six months in federal prison for trespassing on government property during a demonstration in Georgia in 2000.

"Ex-con, that's me," Spencer jokes today, smoothing her white hair; a little old lady in fleece and Birkenstocks.

Codd said her social awakening came in 1984 in Washington, D.C., when she protested at an arms bazaar.

"I was just shocked," she recalled. "It was like a party. People were coming in limousines and fancy clothes to see these weapons of mass destruction."

Looking at the future

More than just their newest member, Amalia Camacho represents the sisters' future.

As director of religious education at Bellevue's St. Louise Catholic Church, she's nowhere close to retiring. With her golden skin, brown hair and seemingly endless energy, she's a stark contrast to the dozens of frail sisters in cardigans who slowly walk the halls of St. Mary.

Camacho, 56, takes her final vows next year. She came to the sisters after living a whole other life of her own — one in which she was married and raised a son. Like other nuns, she has a college degree, a master's in pastoral studies.

During the Vietnam War when her brothers went off to fight, she found herself grieving for people on both sides of the conflict. So she protested.

"I supported the troops, but not the war," she said. The violence of the time still makes her cry.

Today, Camacho reaches out to the Latino community, advocates on behalf of United Farm Workers of America and helps local janitors organize and connect with God.

It's part of a new focus on diversity that the nuns are hoping will boost their numbers and help the community stay relevant even as the bulk of sisters retire. Recently, Korean, Kenyan and Bolivian women have expressed interest in joining the order.

"In the Sixties it was pretty much all Irish Catholic or Canadian women who came from the outside," Dewitt said. "This is really exciting. For a long time we've been wanting to branch out, and we're finally doing it."

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com

Sister Elaine Clarke, 82, descends a staircase recently at St. Mary-on-the-Lake, a convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in Bellevue. Clarke, a resident of the convent for over 20 years, has been with this religious community for more than five decades. (JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Open House

Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace campus, 1663 Killarney Way, Bellevue.

Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

More information
Call Sister Susan Dewitt, 425-451-1770, ext. 120