The Vocation Story of Irene Nowell, OSB

Scripture Scholar, Writer and Teacher

My vocation story really begins before I was born. My parents had been married several years and had no children. So they asked my aunt, who was a student at Mount St. Scholastica College, to ask the Benedictine sisters to pray. They did, and not long after that I was born. I sometimes tell the sisters they should have prayed harder!

During my grade school years I was convinced that I would be a sister. The conviction was, I think, a mixture of wanting to be like my aunt, who had by then entered the Benedictine community in Atchison, and wanting to give my life to God. In high school the desire got more complicated. I was having a wonderful time with dates and dances. But I couldn’t forget the nagging idea that I might enter the convent. I wrote to every cloistered community whose address I could find. By my senior year I had a whole dresser drawer full of information from the Carmelites, the Poor Clares, the cloistered Dominicans, and others.

Clarity was slow in coming. I came to Atchison for a weekend “Come and See” retreat and thought that this might be the right place. Through my high school English teacher I had come to love the Psalms, and the Benedictines prayed the Psalms all the time. That helped to convince me. I talked to my parents, thinking that they would say I should go to college first, but to my surprise they were supportive of my entering right after graduation. So in January of my senior year, after also talking to the high school chaplain, I asked Mother Alfred, the prioress, if I might enter the Benedictine Sisters in June.

I thought everything was set, but it’s never so easy. During senior week I returned to Dubuque, Iowa, where I had gone to grade school. With my best friend, who was entering a Dominican community, I went to visit the Visitation Sisters who had taught me and who had been very good to me. A favorite teacher said, “I always knew Miriam would go to the Dominicans, but I hoped you would come to us.” Well, I cried all the way home on the train, not knowing what to do. When I asked the chaplain, he wisely recognized that what I really needed was sleep. So I got wrapped up in all the graduation ceremonies and put the whole question of community out of my mind. On graduation night the chaplain asked, “Which community will you enter?” Before I knew what was happening, I said, “Atchison.”

The chaplain was a faithful friend. For the first two years of my community life he came over regularly to ask if I had really made the right decision. By then I knew that I had. I am very grateful to God, to my parents and teachers (especially my aunt), to the chaplain, and to the community for supporting me in my journey. I have been a Benedictine Sister of Mount St. Scholastica for fifty-five years and I know I could not have had a happier life than the one I have here!

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