Life after the convent: finding the courage to start over

| Christina Capecchi | October 7, 2015 | 0 Comments

There is no scrapbook of Kathy Webb’s life as a Dominican sister. No picture frames or friendship bracelets, no nun memorabilia perched in a closet or buried in a trunk. The only artifact from her convent days is the long apron she wore to protect her white habit, bearing her former identity on a tiny tag sewn onto the back: “Sister Cora Marie 558.”

The rest is muscle memory: the smell of the incense, the sound of the high-pitched bells, the memorized prayers that still flow out of her. “O sacred banquet in which Christ is received. . . .” There is her intimate knowledge of the sisters, idiosyncrasies perceived amid the uniform: the prioress general’s brisk walk, Sister Marie Josephine’s incurable cough, the way Sister Marie Caritas’ veil crinkled up and Sister Mary Angela’s veil stuck out and Sister Mary Kevin’s veil lay over her shoulder.

There were 275 Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in their Nashville convent when Kathy Webb lived among them, and during her first two years, it felt like home.

But when she professed her first temporary vows on a Sunday morning in August 2010, becoming an official Catholic sister, everything changed. The Mass was supposed to mark the culmination of a call the 28-year-old from Lexington, Kentucky, had first experienced in high school, a public and unabashed yes to the Lord.

As the mother superior placed her hands on Kathy’s, a feeling of dread seized her. “Whatever grace had sustained me while I had been there was completely gone,” Kathy said.

She didn’t dare articulate that awful feeling, so she proceeded in social mode, posing in group photos with a tight smile on her freckled face, catching up with friends, eating with her grandparents. When she retreated to her room for the night, she tried to explain away her feelings — typical jitters, sure to diminish — and eventually fell asleep.

It wasn’t until the following week, when she had begun losing sleep and struggling with her new teaching position, that Kathy shared her concerns with her superior, beginning a painful process of discerning out of the vocation she had once felt so sure about. It seemed liked a strange reversal. Was she now saying no to God? Had she fallen from grace? Did that make the bride of Christ the shamed ex-wife?

Four months after professing her vows, Kathy moved into her parents’ basement. “I felt like I had a scarlet letter on me,” she said.

She attended daily Mass with her mom, experiencing a profound wave of peace each time she received Communion. She started to rebuild her life.

Today, after five years, heaps of prayer, regular spiritual direction, countless convent dreams and some counseling, Kathy loves life again. She lives with a friend in an apartment near Minneapolis, teaches preschool, attends a Catholic studies master’s program and communicates with guys on CatholicMatch. Marriage, she says, is a genuine desire of her heart, not a default vocation. She’s waiting on God’s perfect timing, having recognized the flawed thinking that you can make something work, mistaking the avoidance of red flags for the absence of them.

Some of the most defining decisions of your 20s, Kathy says, are not the paths you commit to but the ones you walk away from. In every brave no, God can carve out a beautiful new yes.

Kathy is keenly aware of the many fruits she continues to reap from her chapter in consecrated life, especially as it informs her teaching. And whenever she bakes cookies, she pulls out her apron from Nashville, a reminder of a past she’s neither hiding nor dwelling on. “It’s really effective,” she says simply. Splattered with peanut butter and chocolate, the apron is still serving its purpose. So is she.

Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, and the editor of SisterStory.org.

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