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    Photos by Mickie Winters

    Down a highway that rolls like loose ribbon and across a railroad track, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth campus rests in the wooded folds outside Bardstown, Kentucky. On a chilly April morning, dogwood and redbud trees cautiously wake to spring. Tulips call for attention. Candles flicker inside St. Vincent de Paul church as sisters make their way to the pews, back pillows marking where a few elderly nuns must sit to ease aches during daily mass. In the church’s south tower, bells named for congregational virtues — humility, simplicity and charity — often ring, an elegant, audible nod to the legacy here.

    Since 1812, women have come to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN) community to dedicate themselves to religious life. “It is a place of love,” Sister Evelyn “Evie” Hurley says. She recently moved to the SCN Motherhouse after serving in active ministry for 64 years as a teacher in South Boston, then several more years in a Boston convent that dwindled in size from 27 sisters to 15 to just Hurley. She is 103 years old.

    Hurley has light blond hair and dull blue eyes. She walks briskly, without the aid of a walker or cane. Stairs aren’t a problem and her memories remain organized and intact. She often pushes the wheelchairs of those who are 20 years her junior and today, like most days, she’s a stylish presence — simple silver jewelry, lavender pants and a purple embroidered blouse. “My mother told me lavender and orchid were flattering. Some people need all the help they can get,” she says with a laugh that scrunches her face and allows an eager smile to part crinkled, pink cheeks.


    Sister Evelyn "Evie" Hurley and Sister Luke Boiarski joke around in Hurley's living room at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Motherhouse.

    Hurley and I attend mass and sit down for lunch together in a basement cafeteria. “Have you ever met a centenarian?” she asks me. I tell her I haven’t, and in her New England accent she says, “Well, now you’ve met three.” Because seated at our lunch table are Sister Alice Teresa Wood, who is 101, and Sister John Ann Kulina, who will soon turn 101.

    I find myself at a loss. What should I ask these women? They’ve lived a really long time, decades beyond what most would consider a good, full life. And like all orders of women religious, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth don’t waste time. Their “foundress” is Sister Catherine Spalding. Under her leadership, the SCN worked in military hospitals during the Civil War and opened medical facilities and schools, including Nazareth College on the SCN campus. It closed in 1971 and later became Spalding University in Louisville. (Former dorms on SCN’s campus now function as affordable housing for elderly and disabled people.) Spalding and fellow sisters also opened Presentation Academy, the first Catholic school in Louisville, in 1831. In recent decades, SCN has helped create the House of Ruth, a nonprofit that supports HIV/AIDS patients. With 550 sisters missioned in America, Botswana, India, Nepal and Belize, the sisters commit themselves to issues like poverty, education, the environment and racism. So where do we begin?

    It should be noted: Nuns knot me up. My daughter is named Maria and a certain precocious singing nun did indeed influence that decision. I admire nuns’ service, their assured lack of materialism. Sure, there are the prickly ones, but most I’ve met have a good sense of humor. When I ask an almost 70-year-old nun who looks more like late 40s for the SCN’s secret to youth, her response: “No smoking, no drinking, no sex.” (Some totally drink, though. They’re Catholic.)


    Left to right: Sister Evelyn "Evie" Hurley, Sister Alice Theresa Wood and Sister John Anne Kulina.

    When photo time comes, Hurley, Wood and Kulina rise from the chairs they’re sitting in and loop together as one. Hurley locks her arm at Wood’s elbow; Wood grips Kulina’s hand, reinforcing any weakness or dizziness that may creep up. Kulina has a two-week-old pacemaker in her chest and Hurley and Wood are especially protective of her these days. Side by side by side, the trio clasps tight, grinning for the camera. “Cheese, cheese, cheese,” Wood repeats in a near-whimper. A fellow sister looks up from the newspaper she’s reading and says, “Three cupcakes.”

     

    Hurley had an aunt who lived to 88 years old, but no one in her family has come close to 103. Other than problems with her vision and hearing aides in both ears, she’s tip-top. “I never sit down a lot. I’m down then I’m up for something else. Some people have been so careful all their lives — what they eat, how much they exercise. I’ve never been careful about any of that,” she says as she pats butter on her baked potato and adds a light flurry of salt. “I guess I don’t worry. I’ve never worried. A lot of times what you worry about doesn’t tend to happen.”

    In 1915, Hurley was born to an Irish Catholic family in Boston. Her father was a city councilor and her mother was a young homemaker, just 18 years old. SCNs taught Hurley in grade school and high school. They left an impression. Much to the surprise of her family and friends, Hurley announced that she would enter the SCN community right after graduation. “I didn’t do much thinking as a teenager,” she says with a smile when remembering the pull toward religious life. “(When I) told my friends, ‘I’m going to the convent!’ they couldn’t believe it.” Having never been farther from home than New York, she headed south to Kentucky and ultimately devoted herself to education. She taught in Kentucky and Mississippi before returning to Boston, teaching at the same parochial school for 45 years. Despite having classes that sometimes numbered 84 students, Hurley fondly remembers her decades teaching. “At 80, I felt like had as much energy as I did when I was 40. But I thought I better get out while I’m ahead,” she says.

    Sister Kulina lights a candle at the altar at St. Vincent de Paul on the SCN Campus.

    Unlike Hurley, Wood and Kulina opt for traditional garments that nuns have not been required to wear since the late ’60s. Kulina wears a shoulder-length white habit, and a navy bonnet covers Wood’s head. Wood, who was born and raised on a farm in Hollywood, Maryland, also took her first vows as a teenager. Kulina, an Ohio native, waited until she was 28. She was 13 when her mother died. Her father considered putting her and her eight siblings into an orphanage. But Kulina offered to drop out of school and assume the role of mother. Once her three sisters married and five brothers joined the military, she followed her heart to SCN.

    Wood and Kulina enjoy reminiscing about the decades they spent as cooks on campus. In the mid-1900s, there was a farm on site, and Kulina and Wood helped clean and cure pigs, slaughter cows and chickens and produce hundreds of meals for students at the college, priests and nuns.

    “How many did you have to feed?” a sister at the table asks.

    “I don’t think we ever had time to count,” Wood says with a small laugh.

    Sister Sarah Geier, an outgoing 74-year-old with a dry wit (“Geier means vulture in German and Sarah means princess. Call me Sister Princess Vulture”), joins our table. “They are never idle. I want a nap in the afternoon. I go see her,” she says, pointing to Wood, “and she is sitting crocheting, making things for babies or towels.” Long retired from the kitchen, Wood sells crafts and donates the money to the congregation’s various missions. “Not too long ago I gave $300,” Wood says. When I ask her what she credits for her longevity, she stares in silence for a moment, like she’s never really considered it much. “The Lord gave us good health to keep going,” she says. “What more can you say?”

    “Someone showed me a picture of a sister in Italy who is 110 years old,” Hurley says.

    “Is she still on the go?” Wood asks.

    “Yes, she is. She was recognized by the Pope as the oldest religious in the world,” Hurley says. “One of our sisters in India told me her grandfather in India lived to be 120 years old. Whenever he went to mass, he walked five miles to church and five miles back home.”

    Careful movements and modest gray hairdos occupy the dining room. Most of the 104 nuns on campus are older. Younger nuns work in the U.S. as teachers, nurses or social workers. India’s community of SCNs has a number of younger sisters, I’m told. But the diminishing number of women religious is well documented. In 1966, more than 181,000 sisters lived in the United States. That number is now less than 50,000. In the Archdiocese of Louisville, in 1992, 1,234 nuns belonged to a number of different local religious orders. In 2017, that number totaled 493.

    Hurley says that when she was young, many women idolized the sisters who taught them in school and felt drawn to “be just like them.” Geier adds that there are more opportunities for women these days. And many people find fulfillment in groups like the Peace Corps and through volunteering. I had partially expected at least one of the centenarians to speak of how younger generations are missing out on a purposeful life. That’s prime fodder for elderly folks, right? Exalt the past? Expose the wayward present? Not so at this table. “I feel like what we are doing now, young people can do out in the world,” Wood says, speaking of the SCN’s various ministries. “It’s wonderful.”

     

    After lunch, Sister John Ann Kulina goes missing. Not abducted-type missing. Just: Where is she? The woman with thick glasses, stiff posture and a tendency to slip into Polish (a language her family spoke) since the pacemaker surgery isn’t in her room. It’s quiet on the assisted-living floor where Wood, Kulina and Hurley live. “We’re not the noisy kind,” Wood says with a laugh. Then here comes Sister Luke Boiarski, a woman who doesn’t carry herself all soft and wilted.

    “Did you find her?” Boiarski calls down the hall to a SCN staff member.

    “No. She’s missing,” the woman says. “She might have snuck down to the church to rearrange it again. She did it over the weekend.” (For decades, Kulina was in charge of arranging the altar. Health issues have lately kept her out of that role. But something about the potted Easter lilies and candles has irked her.)

    “Did she really?” Boiarski says with a laugh.

    Boiarski is pure extrovert, a jokester, a hugger. If polka music was a nun in her late 60s — that’s Boiarski. (She’s responsible for the “No smoking, no drinking, no sex” line.) She calls the three centenarian sisters “my girls,” even breaking out into the Temptations tune when she spots one. Covered in dust and plaster from a morning spent rebuilding houses damaged by recent Ohio River flooding, Boiarski walks with me to the small rooms Kulina, Wood and Hurley live in.

    We visit Wood, who sits in a crimson recliner, cream yarn at her feet, crocheting a washcloth. Nearby, trinkets dance on a windowsill, the afternoon’s powerful sunlight their fuel. Boiarski says the three senior sisters bring joy to the place. They’re always interested in what other sisters are up to. Boiarski, who leads a team that responds to natural disasters, says, “Every time I go on a trip, they slip me $10 or $15 and say, ‘Get something to treat the volunteers.’ They’re just good, good women.”


    Sister Hurley and Sister Wood.

    Boiarski says some 80 years ago when the women joined, the reality of religious life was far more intense. Women didn’t get to choose their vocations; instead, they were assigned duties. A photo in the SCN museum on campus shows three sisters arriving on steam ship in Calcutta, India, in 1947 to set up a clinic. At that time, those nuns had no idea when or if they would ever return to the U.S. to see their family.

    We go to Hurley’s room. On her door: a birthday sign that she’s kept up for over a year. The original 102 in green is written over with 103 in black pen. Her room is uncluttered — a pink rosary on her nightstand, a few family photos and a small cotton plant. She picks up a tiny clump of fuzz that sprouted last year. “When I missioned in Mississippi, I had never been that far south,” she says. “When I saw all those cotton fields, it reminded me of the snow in Massachusetts. It would thrill me if I could get a whole cotton bowl.”

    Aside from meals, mass and the rosary at four in the afternoon, Hurley spends much of her time seated at a wooden desk that faces the window where boxes of open stationary and cards hold fort. Hurley’s known for writing former students, longtime friends, family and nuns scattered across the globe. She often telephones sisters who are at Nazareth Home in Louisville, a nursing home established by SCN. And on Sundays, she and a few other nuns go visit in person, though Hurley doesn’t drive. She gave that up when she was 98.

    Hurley opens a dresser drawer and tenderly lays out a periwinkle crocheted skirt and sweater she made. She then opens her closet and slips on a crocheted cream cape for an impromptu fashion show, clutching at the buttons, then lifting her arms like wings. Forget her age, her devout faith. In this moment, whimsy and class, skill and beauty define the woman.

    Before Boiarski leads me to the SCN gift shop (where I gleefully accept an educational Sister Catherine Spalding coloring book for my kid named after fictional Sister Maria), a nurse solves Kulina’s disappearance — medical appointment, not an undercover altar mission. Hurley then reminds Boiarski that in a few weeks, she’ll be heading out of town for a three-week trip back to Boston. At 103, Hurley is flying by herself. Boiarski’s cheery face dips serious. “You make sure you come back,” she instructs, before squeezing Hurley’s shoulders and delivering a loving, firm peck on her cheek.

    This originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline Aging Gracefully. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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