Out of the Cornfield and into the Convent

By God’s grace, I am what I am.  Rule of Benedict

When 15-year-old Marilyn Hettinger was bundled off to attend high school in tiny Nauvoo, Ill., she thought she had moved to the end of the world. Some of the streets were not yet paved. The phone poles were made of unfinished tree trunks. Muddy water was pumped directly from the Mississippi River for bathing. And the whole place stank of whey from the nearby bleu cheese factory.

Compared with Champaign, Ill. – the town nearest Marilyn’s family farm – Nauvoo was primitive indeed. She had been sent there by her family to keep her older sister – the new housekeeper for Nauvoo’s only priest – company. Although Marilyn feared the worst, she was about to encounter the beginning of the rest of her life.

Catching Religion in the Family

The Hettingers were a good-sized bunch, with 7 girls and 2 boys and another couple dozen cousins scattered around nearby farms. Summer Sundays meant great gatherings on the lawn for games of croquet, badminton, baseball and archery. It was a loving, tight-knit family.

Which set the stage for a decision that Marilyn would make years later.

“Religion is caught, not taught,” the Benedictine Sister says today. “We said the Rosary as a family every night, protest or not. It was dinner, dishes, Rosary, homework and fun, in that order. Living on the farm, we were so dependent on God. We caught our religion because it permeated farm life. One of my sisters became a Franciscan Sister and both my brothers became priests.”

She laughs as she says she “grew up in the shadow of the Church.” In fact, St. Mary Church – affectionately called the Cathedral in the Cornfield - still is an active parish, near the old family home.

“Because we lived near the church, Mother always volunteered us for church jobs,” Sr. Marilyn says. “I played organ, I sang in choir. I was always involved in the youth groups.”

She also attended the parish school.

“We had Franciscan Sisters as teachers,” she says. “I wanted to become one of them. But when I moved to Nauvoo and got to know the Benedictines, I began to have a change of heart.”

Called to the Family Spirit

Discerning between the Franciscans and Benedictines wasn’t easy. With her older sister in the Franciscan order, Marilyn was worried about hurt feelings. She consulted her priest brother.

“He said, God gives you a call to the place as well as to religious life,” she says. “I loved the Benedictine spirit, the sense of family. I loved the way they treated one another. They really knew and respected each other. They were individuals. The Franciscans were such a big, impersonal group. They didn’t know each other.”

The Rest of the Story

Despite her initial reservations about Nauvoo, Sr. Marilyn stayed on after she graduated in 1949, entering the Benedictine community. She had chosen to continue to practice – with the Benedictine Sisters - the family spirit of  “God, love and security” that had been instilled in her throughout her childhood.

As in any family, some things were more difficult than others. Rising before dawn for morning prayers wasn’t much of a challenge for a farm girl, for example, but not being able to go home was tough (although her family came to visit often).

“To really say, This is what I want to do for the rest of my life! requires a leap of faith,” Sr. Marilyn says. “Everyone will face different challenges. Coming from a large family, my rough edges were already rubbed off. I already knew it wasn’t about me!

“The first challenge for anyone is to discern your vocation. Pray about it. Also, meet and talk with real Sisters. See what makes them them. You need to know more about them than their mission or ministry. I supported the Franciscan mission, but the community wasn’t right for me. It was too big, too impersonal.

“Our Benedictine family welcomes those who want to understand who we are. Come and experience our rhythm, our monastic life, our community. Be open to the Spirit. Be open to being surprised by what you find.”