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June 27, 2004

Carmelite nun enters life in monastery

Record-Eagle staff writer

      TRAVERSE CITY - Rita Aune gave up her name, her family and friends, her possessions and the world.
      She will live the rest of her life as Sister Perpetua Marie of the Immaculate Conception within the Carmelite Monastery overlooking Traverse City.
      She has vowed to never leave.
      “Solemn vows bind you irrevocably,” Sister Perpetua, 24, said.
      Last week, the former Kankakee, Ill. resident became one of seven cloistered Roman Catholic sisters here. She’s the second in 10 years to do so and is the youngest of its inhabitants. The oldest is the monastery’s founder, Mother Teresa Margaret, 92.
      The 75 people who attended her solemn vows could barely see her. She stood or knelt in the sisters’ enclosure behind a grate decorated with a garland of white flowers as priests performed the ceremony.
      Those in the pews could barely hear her when she faced the mother superior from behind a grate and asked to be allowed to make “perpetual profession” in the community “for the glory of God and the service of the church.”
      After the vows, she and two other sisters greeted visitors through a grate. Sister Perpetua kept her hands folded under the black, apron-like scapular of her habit.
      Behind her, a window on an Eden-like woods gave a tiny peek at their world away from the world.
      The monastery features about 60 acres of wooded land with nature trails for walking and cross-country skiing that is closed off from visitors.
      Even in the public part of the monastery, there’s little heard but wind chimes, the breeze through the trees and an occasional bark from their pet Cocoa, a chocolate lab. It’s easy to forget it’s on the edge of Traverse City and surrounded by subdivisions.
      “We have lots of room to wander around. It’s very quiet,” Sister Perpetua said.
      Long preparation
      “Ever since she was little, she told me she wants to be a sister,” Martha Aune, Sister Perpetua’s mother, said. “It fits her personality. She never cared for the limelight. She never cared for noise or the current rock music.
      “God made her for this. I know that.”
      At age 9 - a girl who loved horses, drawing and playing the piano - Rita wanted to be a teaching nun, working among society.
      Then she saw the Carmelites’ habits.
      “Just like any 11-year-old, it was the outward appearance that first attracted her,” her father Victor Aune said. “Since then, she’s studied the Carmelites for years.”
      At 16, Rita found a pen pal in Texas who also wanted to be a Carmelite nun. She is now in a monastery in South Dakota.
      There are thousands of Carmelite sisters and brothers living among 960 monasteries worldwide, Mother Mary said. The other three in Michigan are in Clinton Township near Detroit, Parnell near Grand Rapids and Iron Mountain, said Mother Mary of Jesus Markey, superior of the monastery, said.
      Rita came here at age 19.
      For five years, she went through several steps to make sure both she and the other sisters thought she could live this life.
      “I was very homesick when I came,” she said. “You do miss family. But I realize this is what I want and I have chosen God.”
      She took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
      She spent the last eight days before the ceremony in seclusion praying.
      “We’re much more prepared for this step than 99 percent of all married people are before their commitment,” Mother Mary said.
      That period also helped her parents get used to their daughter’s new life.
      “As she’s doing what the Lord’s will is, I feel comfortable with it,” Victor Aune said. “That kind of removes the sadness from it.”
      The Carmelite order is said to trace its origin to the prophet Elias and his community of religious on Mount Carmel in Palestine. The Carmelites were reformed in the sixteenth century by the holy Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The reformed Carmelites are known as Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites and have produced many saints.
      Self-abandonment and total dedication is believed to add effectiveness to their prayers for the church, people’s souls, and especially for priests.
      Joyful but demanding
      “So many people have the idea that nuns are sad,” Sister Perpetua said three days after taking her solemn vows. “I wish they could see us at recreation time when we laugh and joke around.”
      St. Teresa of Avila is said to have had no love for “sad-faced saints.”
      And both Sister Perpetua and Mother Mary smile and laugh readily and gently. Mother Mary even jokes that while she’s not been officially named the mother superior, she’s the “expectant mother.”
      There are no televisions or radios in the monastery, yet they know some of what is going on in the world. Mother Mary reads the news and tells them the items she believes they should know.
      “We don’t have all the distractions,” Sister Perpetua said. “That helps us to keep focused on God.”
      Volunteers do their grocery shopping. They let others in only when there’s a need, such as repair people, doctors or priests visiting an ailing sister or giving last rites.
      The days are structured and very similar. They all rise at 4:50 a.m. and all of them pray about five hours per day, spread out over 10 daily occasions - including reciting the Divine Office together and private prayer.
      They all have their duties.
      Sister Perpetua prepares meals for the sisters. Others make communion wafers for churches in the area or small scapulars for people to wear under their clothing to “invoke the protection of our blessed mother.”
      They also try to pray and meditate while they’re working.
      “Whether we’re scrubbing a pot or doing laundry, it’s all for God,” Sister Perpetua said.
      It’s a peaceful and joyful life, Sister Perpetua said.
      “But it’s a very demanding life. It’s certainly only by God’s grace that one can fulfill the demands of the vocation.
      “I’m really very privileged that God has called me here.”

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