More than 35 years ago my friend Carolyn Kortge and I embarked on a feature story about the Carmel of Maria Regina, a cloistered community of nuns who live on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon. Several years earlier, as a graduate student, I had approached the nuns about doing a photo essay, but they decided that it was not the time and sent me on my way to explore another religious community. But this time around, in 1983, they agreed. After getting special dispensation from the archbishop in Portland, Carolyn and I were given unprecedented access to the lives of the nuns to do a unique story for The Register-Guard, where we both worked, she as a writer and I as a photographer.
Through multiple trips to their compound, we experienced their prayer time, meals, packaging of altar breads, feeding pets, making gifts for their annual sale, and a wedding-like ceremony of a novice becoming full-fledged nun. We found humor and humility as they worked, prayed and cared for each other.
A bulletin board in one of the hallways reminded them, with neatly attached Post-it notes, of people who had requested prayers for themselves, their friends or relatives. One of their jobs is to pray for all of us who cannot seem to do it ourselves. Carolyn and I learned that the cloistered life is not an easy one. We became life-long friends.
Over the years, the 12 nuns have diminished in number to about seven, with just the occasional addition of a nun-in-training. They continue to work hard all day long, praying, cooking, doing laundry, taking turns in the role of nurse for each other as they grow old. This past week they lost one of their own, Sister Teresa, who was a Carmelite nun for 40 years. She was the one who tended to the blueberries, the accounting ledgers, the email. She also created gold-tinged paintings that belong in a Bible or a museum of 12th-century art.
Her life was made difficult by rheumatoid arthritis and a heart that could barely keep up with her zest for living. Until, finally, it didn’t. Last Thursday all of the sisters (except one who is bedridden) left the cloister to gather around Sr. Teresa as she passed away after a sudden trip to the emergency department at one of the local hospitals. Her absence will leave a gaping hole in the lives of those who have known her for so many decades and also for those who didn’t even know she was saying a prayer for them.