Sunday, February 1, 2004

Serving others, nun reaches 100

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Sister of Charity Isabella Glenn turns 100 on Monday.
(Tony Jones photo)
DELHI TWP. - Sister Isabella Glenn sits in a recliner in her cramped room at Mother Margaret Hall, palms resting on her knees. Her sky-blue eyes sparkle as her mind trolls backward and unfolds the story of her life.

When she turns 100 Monday, friends from around the country and nearly three dozen family members will gather here to celebrate her life, a life full of faith and charity. She is the longest-serving of the more than 500 Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, a ministry that she knows is meandering to a quiet and peaceful ending.

"It's odd, the things you remember from this life," the nun says.

She tells of a time her mother spanked her - for running off to chase a rabbit on the family farm. Of another, when her brother made her a "roost" - a tree house - where she would read books. And she talks about students she taught during 80 years in the classroom. She retired at 96.

"Those were the best years of my life, when I was teaching speech in Trinidad, Colo.," she says. "I just loved my kids, loved them. You get to know them when you travel with them on the speech meets. It's the love you remember."

She talks of her family, pointing to pictures of nieces and nephews near her television; a picture of her stern-eyed mother, born during the Civil War, sits on the dresser. She tells about growing up on a 180-acre farm in then-remote Parker, Colo., stories of her mother teaching her about Jesus every night in readings from a tiny black prayer book ... oh, that prayer book ... it's still around here somewhere, she says...

Then, she bolts upright, grabs her walker and shuffles a few feet to the dresser. She rifles through her scant belongings and pulls them out one by one: an eyeglass case ("darn"), a cordless phone ("darn"), a stack of linens ("darn").

No prayer book.

"Gee, golly, gosh, deuce, devil, darn," she says, sitting back in her chair. "I can't seem to find it. You're not supposed to say bad words. When we were kids we used to practice all those. But darn'll do now."

A long-lived society

At a place like the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati campus, down the street from the College of Mount St. Joseph, being the elder stateswoman doesn't garner much extra respect, or even a bigger room.

"Every so often we have someone pass the 100-year mark, and it's a big celebration out here," says Sister Barbara Hagedorn, president of the Cincinnati order of nuns and a longtime friend of Sister Isabella. "But you'd be surprised - we have lots of sisters in their 90s. Sisters have a long life span. It's the life us sisters live, with lots of structure to them, and a life full of prayer. Maybe that's why."

Sister Isabella is short. Her body bends over her walker as she shuffles about in her blue habit. But her mind doesn't bear the wear and tear of a century. She's a big reader, and her favorite stories are old cowboy stories, authors like Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, and spiritual stories like those of C.S. Lewis. She loves The Lord of the Rings trilogy. ("If you don't know Tolkien, you don't know literature," she says.) She plays Scrabble nearly every day in the motherhouse.

The Bible she describes as "the poetry of the ages," and her favorite book is Psalms. But she enjoys a good true crime story, too. CSI is her favorite television show.

She decided early what she wanted for her life. She'd always wanted to be a nurse, and when her brother got in a horse-riding accident and broke his legs, she met the Sisters of Charity - the nurses at a Denver hospital who cared for him. She was in eighth grade.

At 17, she committed her life to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

She talks about wisdom that comes with age: ""You've got to learn it, and earn it. It's something that comes with experience. You can't experience for another person, only for yourself. People ask me for wisdom and I tell them: 'You came to the wrong spot.'"

Her best friend, Sister Donna Bryant, 59, who taught with her in Colorado, says she's not surprised at Sister Isabella's longevity.

"It has to do with having a positive will to live," says Sister Donna. "She just has the best spirit, and spirit doesn't know age ... She's becoming like a crystal-clear brook - you can see her spirit, like sunlight sparkling on the water, if you listen and watch."

But it's tough being so old, Sister Isabella says.

"So many people I remember are dead now," she says. "Oh, gosh, yes, it's hard."

God has always blessed her with friendship, she says. Most of her friends, Sister Isabella says, are right outside of her room, in the graveyard for the Sisters of Charity. And she too has picked out her gravesite.

"I have no illusions about the rest of my life," she says. "This is God's will for me, I think. I must have some purpose yet, and I hope to achieve that purpose, whatever it is. God isn't through with me yet."


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