Growing up, we had a school bus driver who referred to my sisters and me as “the fish-eaters who lived on the hill.”
I didn’t know what that meant, so I went home and asked my dad. He told me it was a nasty way of saying we were Catholic because, at that time, rules from Rome forbid us from eating meat on Fridays; we could only eat fish. Times were worse when he was growing up Italian Catholic in a small Pennsylvania town. The KKK burned crosses on the hill behind his home.
State College didn’t have a Catholic school when I was a youngster. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began hearing nun stories from kids who went to Parochial schools. The ones about the nuns who whacked errant hands with rulers. The ones about the nuns who locked kids in closets. Then, there were the nuns of movie and TV screens: the Sound of Music nuns, The Flying Nun, and the Whoopi Goldberg Sister Act nuns. I wanted a nun.
In all my years as a growing-up Catholic, running-away Catholic, and a come-back-to-the-fold, finally practicing Catholic, I never knew a nun.
We joined St. Mary’s Parish when we moved to Kutztown in 1997. Two years later, Sister Kathleen White became a pastoral associate and director of religious education for the parish. She nurtured both of my kids and countless others through junior and senior high ministry and the growing pains of young adulthood. With effortless calm she recruited and trained the kids to serve spaghetti suppers in the church hall to raise money for Heifer International.
Sister Kathleen became “my” nun when I joined one of several faith-sharing groups in our parish. And I’m sure each of the parishioners at St. Mary’s felt the same possessiveness toward her. My stories aren’t out of the ordinary–she shared herself with so many.
Over the years we had a standing date in November to go to the Kutztown High School musicals together. And we’d exchange emails, mostly her encouraging me to use my gifts. Two of my gifts were my strength and height. And one of Sister Kathleen’s gifts was allowing people to feel worthwhile by asking them for a favor. My last January in Kutztown, she invited me to her apartment because she couldn’t get her artificial tree to break down for storage. I used a little of my farm muscle and got the darned thing apart, and we packed it away into the far reaches of her closet.
My mom, friend Dina, and I supported her Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, located in Reading, by walking in their Nun Run. One day Sister Kathleen shocked me by saying she played point guard for her high school’s basketball team. If Sister K stood 5’tall, I’d be surprised. But she was so feisty I could see her ripping up the court.
Another time, Sister Kathleen confessed that she was pulled over by a police officer for speeding. En route to a diocesan conference, she had stashed her purse in the trunk with boxes of religious materials. When she had to open up the trunk to get her license, the officer quickly put two and two together. “He told me, ‘Have a good day, Sister,’ ” she said, with a twinkle in her eyes. He walked away without giving her a ticket.
I remember once she asked me why I called her Sister Kathleen, and not just Kathleen. She said when she came to St. Mary’s everyone called her Sister or Sister Kathleen. “I don’t understand,” she said. I explained that she was the first and only nun I had ever known, and was proud of her. I had five sisters, but she was my only Sister.
“What do you want to be called?” I asked. “I’m Kathleen,’ she responded, “but Sister Kathleen is fine.”
Throughout the long months of the Chicken Fight, she supported Fleur-de-Lys in the shadows. Once a week she would stop in for a dozen eggs and a chat under the trees. As we sat on the “Stonehenge” benches, she encouraged me to fight the good fight.
Our twice-monthly faith sharing get-togethers glowed with her wisdom. She always seemed to find a clear path in a muddled world. When the door of divorce crashed shut in my life, our faith-sharing group was reading and discussing Joyce Rupp’s The Open Door. Sister was there, giving me faith that doors would open, that all was not lost. On days that I couldn’t imagine an open door, or even a window, she’d squeeze me into her busy schedule. We’d sit in my kitchen, with just a simple bowl of soup or grilled cheese sandwich, and just talk.
Her gracious and graceful words were healing. Her conviction was softly spoken, but direct. I remember when I first realized my marriage had fallen apart I was ready to chuck everything. I had been on the Internet investigating my options. I’d decided on the Peace Corps. It was something I had always wanted to do and now it seemed like the perfect escape. I was so excited about telling her I had found my open door.
Sister Kathleen listened politely. Then, with just three words, she gently brought me back to reality. With three words she solidified everything and I saw my doorway.
“Richard needs you.”
Last spring Sister Kathleen went to a doctor’s appointment. One thing led to another, and doctors discovered she had brain cancer. She had surgery, and chemotherapy, but thenpneumonia set in. On Feb. 3 Sister Kathleen left us. She was needed elsewhere.
Comfort Food: Everybody needs a little comfort in February, even when we’ve had a mild winter. Ruthie send this recipe for Cream-less Creamed Corn and I couldn’t wait to share it with all of you. What I like best about it is that you can make it Southern-style, with grits, for my Charleston SC buds, or Northern Italian-style, with polenta, for my family roots. What I like second-best about it is that it is even better as a leftover, and yes, the vegetable lover that I am, I like it for breakfast as well as dinner!
Cream-less Creamed Corn
3 T butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 springs fresh thyme, leaves only
2 T olive oil
4 cups fresh corn (4-6 cobs) but frozen corn is fine too.
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups milk
1/3 cup cornmeal (or grits)
Salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce to taste (Instead of Tabasco, I tried a sprinkling of smoked paprika, my new favorite spice, yum!)
Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until tender. Add garlic and thyme; continue to cook for another two minutes. Add olive oil, corn, and a pinch of salt, and cook, tossing until soft, about 8 minutes. Add stock and milk, and bring to a simmer. Sprinkle in polenta (cornmeal), add a dash of Tabasco, and continue to simmer, stirring, for 15 minutes or until polenta is cooked. Adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve warm. Ta da!
California Dreamin’: Soon I’ll be heading to the San Francisco Writers Conference. Before I moved to State College, my good friend Terese brought over a bottle of California wine she discovered when visiting SF. It’s called Rex Goliath. I’m partial to the Rex Goliath Free Range Red. It’s so smooth. It also doesn’t hurt that there is a gorgeous graphic of a proud black-and-white rooster with red wattles and comb on the label.
Plus, it’s got a great story: At the turn of the 20th century, His Royal Majesty Rex Goliath was a treasured attraction at a Texas circus where he was billed as The World’s Largest Rooster, weighing in at a whopping 47 pounds. The wines, the label says, are a tribute to Rex’s “larger-than-life personality.”
Written on Slate No. 1: “Don’t curse the darkness; light a candle.” –one of Sister Kathleen White’s oft-quoted sayings.
Written on Slate No. 2: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All we love deeply becomes part of us.” –Helen Keller