Vocations find their true meaning in Christ
Three young men share their stories as they are just days away from receiving an irreversible grace of being ordained priests. They speak about how they were influenced by others and how they could not avoid the call from God to be men who serve others.
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Voices of the Western Dominican Province
THE OTHER SIDE OF WHITE:
STORIES ABOUT DOMINICANS I HAVE KNOWN
Chapter 1: Sr. Moira
By Br. Daniel Thomas, OP
He was a brave little five year old when his mother walked him to school on that September morning in 1946. Michael Anthony Thomas would be beginning kindergarten, his first big adventure outside the home in those days before "pre-schools." St. Cyril's was an easy four or five block walk for him and his mother and it was the first time that he had gone outside in his new uniform of black corduroy bib trousers and a white shirt. The Kindergarten was slightly separated from the rest of the school which housed grades one through eight and had one entire wall made of glass with a huge sliding door that led out to the play yard.
He wasn't the first one to arrive and others were already inside and being shown around to their places. There weren't individual desks but long tables which could seat four children each. Other mothers were getting their children settled and saying their good-byes and the teacher was busy making sure everybody was where they should be.
He was a little nervous, which was to be expected, but also excited about all the new experiences he was encountering on this first day of school. He was a little kid but an adventurous one and he calmly waved good-bye to his mom. Pat Murphy, sitting next to him, looked like he was about to cry. Michael Thomas had no time for something like that. He was more intrigued by the teacher who was coming down the aisle.
It was the first time he had seen a Dominican Sister. She looked striking in her sparkling white habit and stiff black veil and she had an aura of holiness in material form. He was intrigued by the mystery of what was hidden in the yards of white and black fabric which so neatly enfolded her.
He could pick out the slight outline of her ears pressed tight against her head by the wimple and he could see a few golden hairs slipping out at the edge of the white fabric that circled her face. The black veil, lined in starched white was stiffened to form a perfect half-circle which arched from one shoulder to the other. It was perched on top of a starched, white forehead-band and fell to below her waist in the back in precise, symmetrical folds. The contrast between the black veil and the white habit gave her the added illusion of being tall. But then he was just a little kid and most people looked tall to him.
It was hard to tell how old she was since there was so little of her actual body that was visible. She said her name was Sr. Moira. She had a gentleness about her that reassured him that this day would be OK. She drew him into that gentleness and he didn't notice that his mother, like all the others, had slipped out while Sr. Moira made each of the children feel at home on this first day of school.
It was Michael Thomas's first encounter with Dominicans and probably the first time that the subtle and perhaps unperceived seed of a future vocation was planted. Whatever happened then was nurtured by this apparently holy women in white. I often think back to that day.
When we went outside for recess I could see that our play area came right up to the tall, stone wall which marked off the sisters convent garden. I remember peeking through the wrought-iron gate where I could look in and across the lawn to the house where the nuns lived. What was on the other side of those walls and what were the people really like who lived there? I could see the different sisters coming and going from the convent. In spite of the fact that they were all dressed the same there really were noticeable differences. Sr. Borgia was older and walked with a cane which scared us. Some of the nuns were tall and thin. Some smiled and some didn't.
I think that kindergarteners only went to school for half a day and most of that was taken up with projects of various types and getting used to being and working with other children. I know that we decorated for Christmas and did some kind of a "Christmas Pageant." Unfortunately, we moved to a new parish at the end of that school year and I began first grade under the care of the Holy Names Sisters.
As the years went on, the fascination with Dominicans, that I had first experienced as a kindergartner, was still there when I became a teenager and met the Dominicans who came to our parish to help out on Sundays and often to preach week-long missions. I was an altar server so I had that much of an "inside" view of these men in white. I would see them as we prepared for Mass and try to be around them as they made their way from the Church to the Rectory, but I was always looking for more. I always wanted to get to the other side of the wall to somehow break through those cloister doors and see what their lives were really like.
Now, at the age of 57 and pushing almost 40 years as a Dominican Brother, I am able to look from both sides as I remember the Dominicans I have met through the years. I am collecting those interesting stories and calling it, "The Other Side of White: Stories About Dominicans I Have Met."
Before I go on, though, let me finish the story about Sister Moira. I had the delight to know her many years later and now that she's gone to her reward I have the privilege of having known someone who was truly a saintly women. I had lost track of her until someone told me that she was stationed in San Francisco. At first I couldn't believe it because she would have to be a hundred and two years old unless she began teaching when she was a teenager.
I was also surprised to see her in the modified veil and see her strawberry blonde locks puffing out around the edge of her smiling face. I remembered that same smile of encouragement on my first day in school when I asked to use the bathroom. I did alright until it came time to get the straps of my bib-trousers over my head from behind. It seemed that I would have to be a contortionist to work that out on my own. After what seemed like a forever, she came in and quickly fixed me up without calling undue attention to my lack of dexterity. It's funny how some things stick in your mind. I'm sure that she didn't remember that incident when she attended my solemn vows ceremony some twenty years later. The delightful part of the Sr. Moira story is that, now that I am on the other side of the wall, so to speak, I can see that she was just as wonderful at the end of her life as I had remembered her as my first teacher.
Sr. Moira died in the summer of 1984. She was 71 years old and had been a Dominican Sister for 52 years. She is buried in the Sisters section of the Dominican Cemetery in Benicia, California.
At the time of this posting, Br. Daniel Thomas was the Director of St. Benedict Lodge, a Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. This is his first chapter in the series "The Other Side of White." He can be reached at his email.
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- 2008 report of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education.