Catholic Herald staff
“Do nuns really go to the bathroom?” Sr. Patricia Erickson wondered in her Catholic school-going days. “They’re just hands, feet and face.”
Now preparing to take her first vows in the cloistered Carmelites of the Ancient Observance order, Sr. Trish, 54, can see past “the mystique of nuns.”
“None of us are perfect,” she said. “I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I’m not perfect.”
A native of Albert Lea, Minnesota, Sr. Trish knew decades ago she was being called to the religious life, but life got in the way. She dated in high school and college, studied psychology and fine arts and grew dependent on alcohol in her twenties.
Although she went out on dates, Sr. Trish never let herself get too involved.
“I always knew where I was going to end up somehow,” she explained. “I didn’t really want to lead anyone on.”
Overcoming her addiction to alcohol was another peak to summit, one the novice achieved in 1989. She’s been sober 26 years and, since entering the Carmelite Monastery, Hudson, two years ago, she’s also quit smoking.
“I can’t say I miss the smoking, but that was really hard to give up,” she said.
Sr. Trish first tried religious life in her twenties, but at the time, she wasn’t ready. She’s gained insight and maturity through her experiences.
“It’s one of those things – you want to make sure you’re mature enough to handle it,” she added. “If I hadn’t gone through everything in my life exactly as I have, I don’t think Jesus would have been first place in my life. It’s been a walk.”
A welcoming community
Sr. Trish took an online vocations placement test in 2009 to identify possible orders to join. She was looking for a small community, but her age created limitations. Many orders wanted women to have discerned by age 50, but the Carmelites accept postulants age 55 and younger.
After she discovered Sr. Trish’s interest in the order, Sr. Lucia LaMontagne, prioress of the monastery, tried to coordinate a visit. Their timing was off – Sr. Trish’s brother had just died – and it wasn’t until 2010 that she came for a monthlong live-in visit, discerned the religious life and felt led to enter.
“Sr. Lu thought I was the perfect age to enter. I knew by the first two days I was where I belonged,” she added. “It’s never too late.”
After a six-month period of postulancy, Sr. Trish entered the novitiate two years ago. Since then, she’s spent much of her time studying.
“Sr. Lu is a very good teacher,” she said. “What I read and study, it’s like I’ve been dying of thirst. Whatever she gives me to study, it’s been sating.”
Sr. Trish is the youngest of the five nuns who live in the monastery; a sixth sister suffers from multiple sclerosis and resides in a nursing home.
It was a bit of a transition moving from the outside world, where she worked three retail and cleaning jobs and spent plenty of time with family and friends, to joining the cloister, Sr. Trish admits. But, even after her first visit, she felt she was “mostly here and somewhat there.” She initially missed seeing her family whenever she wanted, but now she’s content to visit them on occasion.
“It’s good to see people, but it’s a relief to come home,” she added. “I really don’t miss anything from out there, except the relationships.”
Communal living, however, has not been a major change for Sr. Trish, who has always had roommates or lived around others in apartment buildings.
“I’ve always lived more or less in a community of sorts,” she observed. “What I really appreciate about this community is that everyone has your back – everyone is supportive.”
The Carmelites awaken at 5:30 a.m. and begin the day in private prayer.
The office of readings starts at 7 a.m., followed by morning prayer at 9. Mass is celebrated in the chapel twice a week at 10:45 a.m., and Communion services begin at 11 a.m. on the remaining days.
After midday prayers, the nuns eat lunch, then take time to work, rest or study in the afternoon. They share a small supper at 5 p.m., spend time in private prayer, and meet for vespers at 6:30 p.m. Following an hour of private recreation, they hold night prayer from 8-8:30, and then retire for the evening.
Wednesdays are hermit days; the nuns only come together for Mass.
“It’s kind of a day for prayer,” she added. “I try to keep a prayerful, reflectful attitude.”
A potter, Sr. Trish makes pottery and hand-carved ceramic tiles when her schedule allows. She’s also learning to use a loom, which she thinks could possibly be used to weave vestments or stoles in the future.
During the growing season, the nuns maintain flower and vegetable gardens, and Sr. Trish likes to take walks. They welcome guests on private retreats year-round, although they generally have more visitors in warm weather.
“In the summertime, we’re outside a lot more,” she said.
An admitted Anglophile, Sr. Trish likes to watch British sitcoms and mysteries. She and her fellow sisters share a passion for period dramas.
“We’re really into ‘Downton Abbey,’” she said, grinning. “I like Mrs. Hughes the best.”
Staring out through the chapel’s wide picture windows, Sr. Trish sees reds, golds and greens in the sparse winter landscape. Come April, she’ll profess her first vows April 10 at St. Patrick Catholic Church, Hudson and, God willing, her permanent vows three years later.
As her spiritual journey continues, Sr. Trish is inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux and St. John of the Cross, both of whom take a common-sense approach in their writing. She greatly admires Pope Francis and his emphasis on the poor.
“He doesn’t hold himself apart,” she said. St. John Paul II “was still a little more separate,” but “Pope Francis is with the people.”
Sr. Trish advises anyone interested in learning more about the Carmelites to contact Sr. Lucia at 715-386-2156 or .
“Give it a shot,” she said. “You’re never going to know until you try. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.”