What’s it really like to be a Mother Superior?

Mother John Mary, C.P., tells us what goes on behind the quiet walls of her monastery

What’s it really like to be a Mother Superior?

Passionist Nuns of St. Joseph with Permission

What is it really like to be a new mother superior of a monastic order? Mother John Mary, C.P. knows all about it and graciously agreed to talk with Aleteia.

Mother was actually Sister John Mary for 21 years before being elected new leader of her community this past June. Originally from Indiana — “a born and bred Hoosier,” she tells us — Mother entered the monastery in August 1995 when the community was in the process of a major relocation. In December that year they moved 13 miles from their original location in Owensboro, Kentucky, to 170 acres of hills, woods and fields in Whitesville, Kentucky. There are now 15 nuns, one Passionist Oblate Affiliate, and two aspirants (who plan to enter the monastery this December 8). Mother John Mary might live behind closed doors among the fields and trees most of the time, but her life is never dull.

Mother, what is the charism of the Passionists? 

We were founded by the greatest Italian mystic of the 18th century, St. Paul of the Cross. As cloistered contemplative nuns, we dwell in spirit with our Lady of Sorrows on Calvary bringing souls to the living waters flowing from the pierced side of Jesus, our Crucified Bridegroom. Through our hidden life of prayer, penance, work, and joy we seek to be little co-redeemers with the great Co-Redemptrix [Mary]. We also have a small retreat house where persons can come to be with us at the Foot of the Cross through silence, solitude, prayer, and liturgy. Our motto is: May the Passion of Christ be ever in our hearts.

What are your duties as the mother superior? 

My main duty is to be present to my sisters and seek to assist them in their spiritual and temporal needs…to be a mother. I have a good role model in Mary our Mother of Sorrows; our Founder appointed her as the true superior of each monastery. I am to be her representative – tall order! Therefore, each day I beg her to take me by the hand and inspire in me what I should do next. On a practical level there are a lot of administrative duties. We are missing a generation of vocations so there are not many sisters to whom I can delegate; therefore, I try to keep things simple.

Passionist Community of St. Joseph's newest members, with Mother John Mary/Supplied image
Passionist Community of St. Joseph's newest members, with Mother John Mary/Supplied image

What is your typical day like?

As contemplative nuns at the Foot of the Cross, our life is devoted to prayer and recollection. Therefore, my life, like the other sisters here, revolves around the liturgy with the Mass as the high point of the day.

We begin our day with Liturgy of the Hours at 4:45 a.m., then an hour of contemplative prayer, Morning Prayer, Mass, mid-morning prayer, and then breakfast. New members then have class and professed sisters take time for spiritual reading. We then begin our work time. With prayer as our apostolate this leaves us about five hours to get duties accomplished in a day.

My duties consists in being the “CEO” of the monastery (personally, I’m more naturally drawn to middle-management, but God likes to take us outside our comfort zone!). I am also the Vocation Directress which involves keeping in touch with the young women who are interested in our life; keeping our vocation blog current and making sure our vocation promotion materials are out there so young women know that we exist.

At noon we meet again in chapel for Angelus and Midday prayer. We have a short recreation period after lunch and then silence time… time for a siesta! During this quiet, free time we can read, pray, rest, study, exercise, work… On some days we have a longer silence after which we resume our study or work duties. Other days of the week we gather at 2:45 p.m. to pray Mid-afternoon prayer, Offerings of the Precious Blood and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Then we either have study or more time for work. Professed sisters pray the rosary privately and at 4:30 I go for a much needed rosary walk (also called a “sanity walk”!).

Five o’clock brings us back to our Lord in chapel for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Evening Prayer, and another hour of contemplative prayer. Supper follows with another recreation period. During our recreation times we can go for a walk, play cards or a game, work on a puzzle, etc. During our evening recreation time we often gather in a large circle and work on crafts projects and chat. At 8 p.m. we have Night Prayer and the Great Silence begins at 8:30 with lights out by 9:30.

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What is it like to become a monastic superior, particularly following someone who led the community for many years?

We are a small community so it was easy to see this coming, although that still did not remove the holy dread that came upon me weeks before the elections. I was vicar (assistant superior) for the previous six years and now my former superior is my vicar so we have worked together for many years. It is helpful to have a “go-to” sister who knows all the events first-hand that have transpired over the past 15 years and beyond. She has a lot of experiential knowledge and I often find myself asking her what she did in this or that situation.

How long did it take for the nuns to call you “Mother” instead of “Sister”? 

This took a good two months! One day Sr. Catherine Marie (former superior) and I were out running an errand and as we stood in line I introduced myself to the woman next to us by saying, “My name is Mother Catherine Marie.” It was quite funny as I did not realize I had said anything amiss and Sr. Catherine Marie gave me the oddest look!

Did it change the way you relate to your sisters? 

This new role helps me to see my sisters in a new and more profound light. I feel I have a greater love for them and understanding of them that I never had before. I understand this to be one of the gifts of the “grace of office.”

What is it like to be a spiritual mother accountable for souls? 

In my role as mother superior it has been a very meaningful experience for me to get to know my sisters on a profound level. I am continually struck by the level of deep prayer and redemptive suffering going on in their hearts, minds, and bodies. They are an inspiration for me to strive for greater fidelity to virtue in the small trifles of daily life. Some days I just find myself begging God all day long to help me and give me sufficient prudence to meet the situations and trials of that day. Sometimes I am struck by how ignorant and nothing I am; this actually is very freeing and helps me put all my confidence in God. I just have to try to be faithful to Him in each moment. Without Him I can do nothing, but with him all things are possible!

What is the biggest challenge to taking on this calling? 

To have to be “spokesperson” for the community is a bit daunting at times. There are certainly smarter and more articulate nuns in the community. But I just give my littleness to the Lord and seek to keep my eyes on Him not on me!


Zoe Romanowsky

Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle and Video Editor at Aleteia's English edition