I was born on a dusty farm near Wood River, Neb., and given the name Norma Jean in baptism, a rite performed by our Irish pastor (right from the old sod), the Reverend T.D. Sullivan, in our parish church, St. Mary’s.
My four older sisters, Leona, Alice, Loretta and Marie, were a great help to my dad outdoors, planting and harvesting dry-land crops, milking cows, gathering eggs from a small flock of chickens, and helping mom with household chores such as gardening, canning, baking and sewing. My only brother, Ted, and I were much younger than our sisters, so we had plenty of time to play with our toys and enjoy life on the farm. Although we were poor, I remember the happy times and always having our needs met by loving parents who strove greatly to provide for us. There were the wonderful July 4 picnics with watermelon and a few fireworks which dad brought out to the farm from Wood River.
On winter nights I remember eating popcorn and apples while sitting around the family dining room table playing board games with mom keeping score for us. Life was simple, but satisfying for me.
My parents brought the Catholic faith they knew to our family, teaching us grace before meals, recitation of the rosary around the dining room table during Lent, monthly Saturday afternoon confession, and Mass every Sunday at St. Mary’s. I loved memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, and I looked forward to receiving a holy picture or medal when I had all the answers down pat. I had no sense of what a “sister” was, but I remember that each spring two of them dressed in brown would come to hold a two week “vacation” school with us at the church. I was fascinated by them, and I believe the early stirrings of my vocation were inspired by them, although I did not understand it at that time.
In 1942, during World War II, the owner of our rented farm told us we must move as he was selling his land to the federal government so an ammunitions factory could be built on a large tract of land between Wood River and Grand Island. As good citizens who wanted to help out the war effort, my parents decided we would move to Grand Island. Ted and I were enrolled in St. Mary’s Cathedral School in Grand Island. Ted was in the fifth grade and I in the eighth. This was my introduction to the Sisters of St. Joseph.
High school was an exciting time, and I really loved my CSJ teachers. All of these women were master teachers, and I fell in love with them.
My professional life as a Sister of St. Joseph took many twists and turns beginning with elementary school teaching in Salina, Kan., followed by a small rural mission in Collyer, Kan., and then sent a large school in Chicago. Then Mother Helena asked me to go to St. Louis to study to prepare me to teach German language and literature at Marymount College. I also spent a year of study at the University of Munich, Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. These years of study were, indeed, a turning point in my life.
My spiritual life was always based on the solid faith taught by my parents. The transition into religious life at age 17 found me agreeable to the formal prayers of the community, the meditation, rosaries and litanies, and chanting office which were the prayer life of the community over the years until 1969. It was only after the directives of Vatican II Council that allowed us to experiment with different prayer forms that I began to have a very real relationship with Jesus and God. From the experiences of directed retreats and prayer groups using different forms of praying the psalms and scripture, I came to know the deeper meaning of a life of contemplation and personal union with God. I have always relied on the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life.