Not a Sound: The quiet life of a nun who can't stop talking

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail photos
Sister Mary Pellicane, 94, sits in one of the private meditation areas in the backyard of the West Virginia Institute of Spirituality. The Institute will celebrate her 70 years as a nun today on Good Friday.
Sister Pellicane walks around the backyard of the West Virginia Institute of Spirituality, a quiet oasis in the capital city.
Sister Pellicane stands outside of the West Virginia Institute of Spirituality. She co-founded the Cenacle House in Charleston in 1977.
Courtesy photo
Mary Pellicane is all dressed up for her first communion at the age of 12.
Courtesy photo
As a young girl, Mary Pellicane loved to dance. Her Sicilian father sent her to ballroom dancing lessons so she could become as American as possible.
Courtesy photo
Sister Pellicane had this formal portrait taken in 1955 to mark her assignment to New England with the Sisters of the Cenacle.

There are several distinct places you might pick up the tale of Sister Mary Pellicane's long life and hard-scrabble roots.

Along with her 94 years of age and still nimble mind — minus the occasional, self-confessed senior moments — the numbers alone are impressive.

Today, on Good Friday, at the West Virginia Institute of Spirituality, Sister Pellicane will mark 70 years as a nun with the Congregation of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle, 39 of those years as co-founder of the former Cenacle Retreat House on Virginia Avenue.

She has been a nun longer than most of us have been alive.

You might start her tale on small farms in rural Sicily, the land from which both her parents' families and her father hailed.

Or perhaps on two ocean liners aimed for America across the choppy Atlantic Ocean, as those Sicilian country folk landed in the New World, and in New York City, several years apart but destined to meet.

If a fellow Italian with immigrant roots, like filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, were shooting her life's tale, the opening scene might instead start with an overhead shot of the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.

A young, comely Italian woman strolls across the bridge toward a short, handsome Italian fellow with curly black hair.

“He was so beautiful,” Sister Pellicane recalled of her father. “She was so beautiful,” she added, of her mother.

The couple began dating in Manhattan, she said. “She would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to save money on the bus. She'd save 5 cents, I think. And he would meet her there. Then they would walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge. They courted that way.”

Their romance soon blossomed into marriage. Along came a first child, a son, while living in a cold-water Brooklyn flat.

The second child was dark-haired Mary Pellicane, after the couple had moved into a warm-water Brooklyn flat.

Three more sons would follow as the couple undertook what Sister Pellicane dubbed the “immigration migration,” moving up and moving out of the immigrant ghetto where the family's life began.

Her father was an ambitious, if ever stylish, man, even when young.

One day, as a boy, he'd been sent out shopping for family supplies. He came home and told his mother he'd run out of money for what he was supposed to get.

“Where did the money go?” his mother inquired.

“I bought a cane!” he said.

Sister Pellicane chuckled, as she nestled her thin, stooped frame in a chair in the meeting room of the Institute of Spirituality at 1601 Virginia Street E. Her own gray metal walking cane leaned upon her chair, a testament to the then-and-now of her long life.

“So, he came with a cane on his arm,” she said, her face breaking into a beaming smile. “He was a gentleman all his life.”

Her mother went to Hunter College and became a teacher for a while before quitting to focus full-time on the growing family.

Her father's keen ear led him to learn English so well he eventually spoke with nary an accent, unlike his parents who spoke Italian all their lives.

“He read and swallowed whole Dale Carnegie's book 'How to Win Friends and Influence People,'” she said. “So he lived by that. He dressed well, he spoke well.”

One day, her father heard about “how you could insure people,” as Sister Pellicane puts it. “He decided that is what he should do and presented himself to one of the insurance companies. They said, 'Forget it, Joe. You'll never sell insurance to people who are not Sicilian. And you certainly never could persuade Sicilians to buy it.'”

Her father challenged the company to give him two weeks on the job with no pay, she said. “After two weeks without pay — if they had been paying him — he would have gotten a very good salary. So he got the job right away. And he was an insurance man until his death, 50 to 60 years later.”

'Keep quiet!'

The family moved from Brooklyn to Queens, 10 minutes away. It was a step up in the world. Then they moved one mile further into Queens, moving into a nice house that could fit a family that would grow to seven in number.

“We got a telephone, and that was thrilling,” Sister Pellicane recalled. “When you had a long distance call between Brooklyn and Queens, there was a very long ring and they said, 'Keep quiet!' And the people would get on the phone and shout from Brooklyn to Queens!”

One day, her father came driving down the street and parked a new Chevrolet at the house, she remembered. “I think it was the only automobile on the block. And he owned it.”

Despite their upwardly mobile trappings, they were still seen as immigrant interlopers.

“We were in a WASP neighborhood and nobody talked to us,” she said. “We went to the public school. When my mother went to the Parent-Teacher Association they turned their backs to her. She was Italian, she was Catholic — worse, Sicilian! And they were not interested in her. But she came home and said, 'I'm going to be president of that group.' And two years later, she was president of that group.”

Meanwhile, Mary grew up a tomboy on the streets of Queens. But young Mary also loved to dance. She learned ballet. Her father approved, as it was part of his plan, she said.

“My dad wanted us to be proper Americans. My brother Joe and I were sent to a ballroom dancing school. When I was in college we danced a lot. That was the only entertainment you had.”

She got good at the jitterbug and Lindy Hop, a jazzy dance supposedly named for the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, nicknamed “Lucky Lindy,” who rose to worldwide fame after a solo non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

As a child at about age 6, she'd glimpsed him. One day, there was Lindy himself, being driven down Jamaica Avenue as a snowstorm of ticker-tape rained upon the heroic airman.

“You could hear the band and they were throwing these ticker-tapes. We, as children, came running down to see Lindy. We had to see Lindy! And we were given little cards that had a profile. It was a shadow profile and if you looked at it for a few minutes and looked at the ceiling, you'd see Lindy's profile.”

Mary grew up into an inquisitive, cultured young woman, eventually majoring in French with a minor in Spanish. At age 21, She took a job as an expediter at the General Electric Supply Co., in Greenwich Village, earning the grand sum of $17 a week.

World War II came along and emptied the city and country of its young men. Before they left for war, they asked many a young woman for their hand in marriage before shipping out. Mary was among them. She'd been seeing two guys.

“One came to my office one day and said: 'We have to get married right away!' I said 'Why?' He said: 'I'm being shipped overseas.'”

Mary stood her ground. She answered: “I didn't say I would or would not marry you and if I did it wouldn't be right away.'”

“So, he was not happy when he left.”

The young man was shot down shortly thereafter in a battle overseas. Sister Pellicane gazed off, recalling a world war that reshaped every aspect of one's existence.

“All my friends had married their boyfriend as soon as they went to the service and they all had children already,” she said.

But what Mary was telling herself as the young serviceman proposed to her was what would happen if he did not come back: “I can't be the mother of a fatherless child.”

Her cousin, a zoot suit-wearing jazz musician, offered to be a stand-in husband, in case no one ever asked again for her hand in marriage.

“He says to me one day, 'Mary, if you can't find a husband, I'll break my engagement and I'll marry you.' I thanked him very kindly.

He was going to marry me so I wouldn't be an old maid.”

By that time, the first inklings she might be another sort of bride — “a bride of Christ,” as nuns are sometimes called — would soon come into view.

Semi-cloistered

It began with a co-worker who'd lost her husband. She was so heartbroken she felt the need for a spiritual retreat and looked up a friend who'd entered Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle, a semi-cloistered congregation of nuns. That meant they had little interaction with the outside world and kept a day-long prayerful silence, while offering silent retreats to women out in the world.

Mary, her co-worker and some other friends went for a short retreat to a large house the Sisters of Cenacle kept on Long Island.

She was 22 years old. In those few days, a small but distinct bell had just chimed in her life. But the calling was not immediate.

“I would go whenever I was able to go for a day or two of prayer. But I still wasn't thinking religious life. I was thinking it was a wonderful place. But I was also still in touch with a couple guys I had gone with in college. I was two-timing.”

One was the unfortunate airman who'd asked her hand in marriage and never returned.

As she undertook more visits to Long Island, the pace and quietude of life there came to entrance her spirit.

“As we went into the chapel, the nuns used to chant in Latin about five times day,” she recalled. “And the rhythm. Everybody dressed the same and all were very reverently bowing. Around the grounds, you would see people walking silently and maybe saying the rosary. It was just a sense of harmony for me.”

Not that her own home life was not harmonious, she added, if, however, full of the snap, crackle and pop of Italian family life.

“I mean, my family would eat together every night and visit the grandparents every weekend.”

What she found among those quiet nuns, though, was a life where, to put it another way, she felt like she might be able to hear her life's purpose better.

“Everything was silent. You didn't talk during meals. We were very impressed that there were sisters serving tables and they never made a sound.

“I thought I could be peaceful during that. I didn't have to talk to people.”

The irony of that inward spiritual conclusion was that she would end up spending decade after decade in outward listening. As a Cenacle nun, her spiritual journey would take her from Boston to New Zealand, Pittsburgh to Rome, Lower Manhattan to Rochester, New York. Then, ultimately, to a final landing in West Virginia's capital city.

Over the years, streams of people would seek her out at Cenacle retreats or one-on-one for spiritual direction and guidance through the turmoil and confusion of life in the uncloistered, unruly world.

“I ended up listening to people my entire lifetime,” Sister Pellicane said.

In that listening, in the long hours of quiet in retreat houses, she found her calling.

'Where I wanted to be'

It should be noted, before leaving the tale of her decision to become a Cenacle nun at age 24, that it was not a popular decision for two very important people in her life.

“My parents were very opposed to my going to convent, especially a cloistered convent,” Sister Pellicane said.

There was one person missing when they dropped her off at the Cenacle house on Long Island to start her nun's life.

“I remember the day very well. My father was so upset he wouldn't come. My mother was crying, but she came. My brother Bob drove me there.

“They put me into a black dress and black cowl, they said goodbye and they left. And I stayed — 70 years ago!”

It was a regimented, sometimes strict life. Her brother Bob, who'd flown during the war as a pilot on the China-Burma troop transport route, returned home and continued to pilot planes in the reserves.

One day, the phone rang at her home with bad news: “Lieutenant Pellicane is dead.” He'd crashed his plane in Westchester County after failing to make a turn and was killed instantly, the caller said.

“My mother had him repeat it and she fainted at the phone,” she said.

She knew these details only second-hand. She was then a cloistered nun, her face encircled by a ridged snow-white coif like some exotic bird, her head topped with a black cowl and dressed in thick surge black robes. She was not offered the chance to leave to attend her younger brother's funeral.

“My father said that was the worst thing, almost as bad as his dying, that I couldn't go to the funeral. If I had been bolder — which I was not — I could have pressed it. They made exceptions, but not frequently. And no one offered it to me. So I didn't go.”

Sister Pellicane, who is sometimes prone to utter gnostic remarks — that is to say, mystical, meaning-laden allusions that bear some thought — says she was still becoming who she was to be.

She sometimes wishes she had better prepared her parents for her life's direction. “Even now at my age, sometimes I say I wish I had been more open with them. At least, they would have had more preparation.”

Then comes the phrase to chew over.

“Now, 70 years later I'm not quite sure that I was who I am,” she said. “I'm more who I am now than I was then — but it was where I wanted to be then.”

Not a sound

Her decision also had to do with children. Her mother had five of them, while her godmother had seven.

“That was a wonderful thing to do,” said Sister Pellicane, meaning parenting a big brood of kids. But might a nun's life lead to nurturing a far larger brood?

“In religious life, I might have more. I might know more people and be available to more people,” she said.

So it came to be. And so for nearly 40 years, she and her fellow sisters, such as Sister Dorothy O'Brien, Sister Anna Carulli and Cenacle House co-founder Sister Carole Riley (now executive director of the Institute), have carved out an oasis of quiet and spiritual solitude in a busy capital city, first at the Cenacle House, a brainchild of the late Bishop Joseph Hodges, then at the West Virginia Institute of Spirituality.

Never been to a silent retreat? Sister Pellicane described the ambiance.

“We can put the whole house in 'the prayer mode,' you might say. You'll come here during a retreat — there could be 20 people here and you don't hear a sound any place. You'll see people walking outside — they're not making a sound! They're serving meals in silence and nobody's complaining.”

People come, she said, “who don't know how far away from themselves they are.”

The silence helps to close the gap. Or maybe, she suggests, it helps them to hear what was there all along in that godly quiet.

“We don't even say 'Good morning!' to people during retreat. And they find after a while they don't want anyone to say 'Good morning!'”

She laughed. “They're too absorbed in what they're hearing and in how they're researching themselves.”

Sister Pellicane has other tales to tell, but the conversation has gone on long and she's ready for a rest. She doesn't want to get into the abrupt, life-disrupting closure of the Cenacle House in 1998, a story already told in a December 2011 profile by the Gazette-Mail's Sandy Wells, on the occasion of Sister Pellicane's 90th birthday. (The story can be read online at www.wvgazettemail.com/News/201112110055.)

But it's worth pulling forward from that story one of its more notable Sister Pellicane quotes: “I can't shut up.”

These days, she has been mounting a one-nun campaign about her interpretation of the Second Amendment, having recently published an online op-ed piece on the Gazette-Mail's website with another op-ed screed just mailed off. “It doesn't have anything to do with who owns a gun,” she says of the amendment, but everything to do with how a government might arm a militia of loyal citizens in a time of crisis.

Knowing and loving

She will be the first to admit she can't stop talking.

But then there's that silence that has also been the defining background to her life. After she stops talking, she is, you might say, a goodwill ambassador of the merits of retreating into silence.

“We're all very spiritual people, whether we're so-called 'religious' people or not. Anybody who thinks or who loves — knowing and loving is the basis of our lives. If you're looking to find happiness, those are two things you are looking for. So, to go away and stop the noise and wait — if you wait, it comes. Sometimes in two weeks, two months, two years. But sometime,” she said.

That December 2011 profile told a tale she repeats again about her first real glimmer she would be a nun for life. But that profile left out a significant detail that Sister Pellicane now furnished.

Her younger, pre-ordination self was on retreat at the Long Island Cenacle house. One of the nuns had died. There was to be a burial on the property.

Out of the great house poured a flood of nuns, headed to the burial.

“So I just stood by as they came out. They came like waves of nuns coming out. I'm walking up to the cemetery and then the coffin was brought up and put in the hole.”

Sitting there, watching the funeral, she realized just how many Sisters of the Cenacle it took, she said, “to make this such a wonderful place.”

Then it struck her.

“But if they need that many nuns and they're short one now, I'll go!”

And that was it. That was the moment.

“That was my firm decision,” said Sister Pellicane.

Then comes the significant, new detail to this twice-told tale.

“About 60 years later, I learned the name of the sister who had died. Her name was Lazarene, which is like Lazarus.”

She paused, beamed her broad smile.

“So, she had died. And I emerged alive.”

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

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