Memories, Stearns

Doesn’t It Hurt Your Eyes?

She was trying not to judge, but her voice gave her away. Sister Paulette Laufer hated my bright blue eyeshadow.

I doubt Sister P had ever worn eyeshadow – of any color, let alone bright blue.

She was tall, with perfectly groomed white hair beneath her flowing nun’s habit and wimple.

Raised in Wilkinson, North Dakota, she’d joined the Benedictine sisterhood in 1915 before she was even out of her teens.

Sister Paulette’s vocation took her far from Wilkinson and back again to the midwest, where she devoted herself to religious service and keeping young people like me on the rails.

I was 15 and she was in her late 70s when she transferred her affection from my older brother to me.

It was his company she craved, but his altar boy days were behind him.

He attended college, sold shoes at Sears at the weekends, smoked weed and drank, even though, to Sister Paulette, he would always be an angel.

Sister P was determined to mold me into a replacement catechism tutor for the children of the diocese, but we both knew I wasn’t an ideal shepherd for her lambs. I was pleasing everyone but me, so I soon retired from my unlikely role, and we became unlikely friends.

Sister P’s room in the old brick mansion for retired nuns, the historic St Raphael’s Hospital in St Cloud which was now a convent, was spotless and spacious.

There was a ceramic sink in one corner, large windows overlooking the gardens, and her narrow bed next to the finned radiator was tightly made in pure white linens.

“Always be sure to sprinkle holy water on your bed at night,” Sister P advised during one visit. She demonstrated her technique with a practiced flick from a nearby glass bottle that had been blessed by the Bishop.

“It keeps Satan away and whatever else might creep into those damp, dark, you-know-the-rest places.”

Sr P

Until then I hadn’t realised the dangers faced by damp, dark, you-know-the-rest places, although the spectre of Satan gave me pause.

It’s a memory that still makes me smile.

Every few months I’d receive a card featuring Sister P’s distinctive handwriting.

On the front would be a spiritual message, and on the back comments to inspire and cajole, asking me to visit soon, and reminding me that she loved and prayed for me every day.

I kept those cards.

When I read them I feel grateful for Sister P, more appreciative in hindsight for her heartfelt warmth than I could show or understand back then.

Only later did I see that Sister P was more than a friend.

She was family.

It was 1979 and I was fed up with Willmar, Minnesota.

With living over a grain store, with not enough money, and the smell of the turkey processing factory across the street. With the mice and rats that came with the grain store, and the old car that wouldn’t start most winter mornings, meaning I couldn’t get to classes at the community college.

In the New Year I applied for a job at a small mail order company in Spicer, planning to save money and return to college later.

Sister P’s cards kept coming, a constant when so much else was uncertain.

Then my father died.

It was a year of loss and change. My youngest brother was 14, my sister 16, and our mother didn’t drive. Moving home made sense. I was at a crossroads anyway.

I was back in Sister P’s orbit, then she became unwell and suddenly died. I was in shock: first my Dad, then Sister P.

Whenever I see blue eyeshadow at department stores, in cosmetic advertisements, or on the bright eyelids of my daughter, I think of her.

And I think of me, the naughty teen Sister P saw something in.

One of her little lambs.

Sister P is buried in the St Benedicts Convent Cemetery in St Joseph, Minnesota, in hallowed ground among dozens of other nuns who have served that small community since 1863.

Her funeral was held in the Beaux-Arts style Sacred Heart Chapel with its high ribbed dome.

We followed Sister P’s casket through the peaceful grounds to her place of rest.

Nearby the gravediggers leaned on their pickup, waiting to fill her grave.

Later I learned that Sister P was buried facing the wrong way.

The gravediggers had to re-open her tomb and turn her around to face east, based on the belief that when Jesus returns the departed will rise from their graves, already facing towards him.

Over the years I’ve tried to find Sister Paulette’s Dakotan kin. There is another Paulette Laufer, the well-known playwright, but she says she is not related to Sister P.

Staff at the College of St Benedict library have few records about Sister P, nor does Google cast much light on her history, family or religious.

Am I the only one who remembers her?

In my daughter’s bedroom is an old glass bottle featuring a roughly painted crimson cross. It once held the holy water of Sister P.

The old bottle has crossed oceans and time.

It is one of few possessions from my early life to survive my many shifts and purges.

Sometimes Lily and I laugh about Sister P’s ritual of sprinkling holy H20 across her bedsheets. But on dark nights I have found the bottle next to her pillow.

Maybe she believes in its superpowers because I do, or did, or thought I should. Maybe she believes in its superpowers because of Sister P.

During visits to Minnesota I am drawn to the peaceful cemetery at the College of St Benedict.

To its simple stones and iron crosses, many for very young women who left their families to serve the Lord only to die far from home due to hard living and epidemics of the time.

When I’m there I think about how when I die, my feet will face whichever way my ashes blow.

About how someone’s memory can come down to a small granite stone above a grave facing east, an old bottle, a story shared with the daughter I never thought I would have.

Visiting Sister P, St Benedict’s Convent Cemetery, St Joseph, MN.

2 thoughts on “Doesn’t It Hurt Your Eyes?”

  1. Lois Thielen says:

    When I was a student at the College of St. Benedict in the mid-1970s, a visiting professor of mine was doing research on those young nuns who died in such numbers. It wasn’t just disease,; there was a great lack of food sometimes because some of the aid sent from the mother convent in Austria or Germany went by mistake to St. John’s Monastery down the road and the monks didn’t correct the error. My professor documented it. I have walked through that cemetery and it is so sad.

    1. Editor says:

      Many of those women were so young. It brings home that pandemics are nothing new.

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