Edwina Menten, SHCJ (M. M. Edwina)

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The seeds of my religious vocation were sown in a warm Catholic family. We started out as Midwesterners, but my father’s business brought us to New England when I was nine years old. Thus, as a family, we are a hybrid of Midwestern and New England cultures.

My father was an excellent businessman and a good provider, thus we never wanted for a well provisioned home. My mother shared her love of culture by taking us to museums and concerts, and reading to us from our favorite “Babar Elefante” books.

Sunday afternoon drives showed us the special beauties of the sea and mountains, not known in the Midwest. We had settled in Melrose, Mass., a residential town where a parochial school run by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, assured a good Catholic education to my five siblings and me.

Our household was always buzzing with activity from school and sports club meetings to my mother’s work with the Melrose Women’s Club—not just a social group but one that looked out for the well-being of neighbors in crisis: death, sickness, loss of work, etc.

The Call
One of my first “lights” about prayer came when I was nine years old and visited a Church with my mother. I remember being impressed by her absorption: she was obviously in touch with someone, and I never forgot that. I was confirmed when I was 12 years old. With the anointing came the sense of a loving, affirming Presence which left me feeling less like a young girl and more like a maturing adult. As a Confirmation gift, I received a daily missal which introduced me to the Church’s liturgical year.

At daily Mass, I followed the life of Christ, entering into His experience. I also began playing the organ for children’s masses and devotions. Gradually, a calling toward religious life and an openness to spirituality was built in me. Along with this contemplative bent, I had many interests, such as art, science, literature, and drama. As a junior in high school, I began to consider seriously my future and even took a battery of aptitude tests. These showed that I would make a good teacher, but I thought that would be boring! Despite that, after prayer and reflection, I decided to consider joining the Sisters of the Holy Child, women whom I had found cultured, insightful, and prayerful.

Along with 18 other young women, I entered energetically into the novitiate regimen of work, prayer, and study. It gave me a solid foundation in Ignatian prayer, basic training for elementary school teaching, experience in communal life, and the beginning of studies toward a bachelor’s degree in education. Despite my early misgivings, after taking vows, I enjoyed teaching and administering in various parochial schools for the next 20 years and formed lasting ties with colleagues and alumnae/i.

Leaving it all
When I was assigned to pioneer in Chile, I considered this prospect of “leaving all” and living and working among the poor in Santiago, Chile, a great chance to put into practice what I learned about the renewal of our way of life. Four of us, experienced teachers and administrators, were asked to assume responsibility for Santa Rosa School in the outskirts of Santiago. The Holy Cross priests, in charge of the parish, helped us shed our quasi-monastic way of life and enter into the new culture by joining the civic, religious, and folk activities of the vast parish which included a copper mine high up in the Andes.  I felt solidarity right away with the people, especially the women.

The school work demanded creativity, resilience, and endurance because the children were used to a different learning system and had very short attention spans. When things got really difficult, I’d retire to our terraza looking out upon the Andes, a vista which put things into perspective.

Political turmoil in the country and religious differences in the church had repercussions on the parish and our community. I felt I needed distance to find clarity. This first tour in Chile opened new horizons, but also undermined my sense of self-sufficiency.

New Life and Energy
As a sabbatical, I was offered a yearlong program in Rome, Italy studying the call of Vatican II to renew religious life. It was another expanding and enriching experience. I returned to the U.S. to put the new insights into operation, but my health wavered. At 45, I had a permanent pacemaker implanted which gave me new life and energy. I began teaching again. I also collaborated with the American Province leadership in experimenting with local government as a non-resident superior and area superior.

Afterward, I accepted a position in the administration of the Mercy Center outside of Detroit, Mich. I made lasting friendships and learned much about business procedures during those stimulating three years. Following that, I became the Director of Dalton Center, the Society’s mission center in New York City, for the next five years. Grant proposal writing became a new focus.

I visited Chile in 1977 as part of the evaluation of a grant. I was drawn again by our sisters’ simple way of life. They asked me to consider returning. The next year I did. I was 60 when I returned to Chile in 1988.

Circumstances were very different. Our sisters were living in the southern zone of Santiago, engaged in community-building and adult education. We were asked to begin a new parish in a housing project of 3,500 families in Santo Tomas. So I became a pioneer again. Living in a little house in the project, we tried to build up trust by stimulating collaboration and communal activities.

With the women, I started a community education center to care for children before and after school and gradually introduced adult education. I became co-director of the new zonal women’s center which offered classes in homemaking and self-improvement. I taught diverse classes in the Bible and in grant proposal writing. Many of our graduates became leaders in the county and parish women’s centers which began to burgeon. The work goes on, now in its 20th year, under the competent direction of Chilean women—graduates of the center’s programs. These years brought creativity out of me, which gave me satisfaction.

Sadly, my health deteriorated in 2006 and I was hospitalized four times, experiences that taught me a lot. My own new powerlessness, the compassionate care of aides, the camaraderie among the patients, and the genuine concern of the staff helped me grow. I especially appreciated the almost daily visits of the Sisters of the Holy Child. In the end, all these health complaints made it easier to say good-bye.

I asked for a nine month sabbatical so that I could visit family and friends, after so many years abroad. I enjoyed leisurely visits with my two remaining sisters and their families, as well as happy encounters with old friends. My strength has been slow in returning, and this lack of resilience has been hard to accept.

In my new assisted living community, I have been embraced by kindness and given comprehensive medical care. I have time to relax, read, and reflect. All of us here in this community in Rye, N.Y. are in our physically declining years, yet I see women 15 years my senior whose wit and breadth of interests make their conversation stimulating! I enjoy hearing their stories and they appreciate my attentiveness. I serve them as Infirmarian and as house journal writer. I also reach out to former pupils and my family. Trying to keep one’s mind and body limber is worth the effort. May I continue!

Click here to contact Sr. Edwina Menten (M. M. Edwina).

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