Markus Sisters reunited after decades of far-flung religious life

After decades apart, sisters are roommates

Staff writer

Three sisters growing up in rural Clinton County, chose a path of religious life – one that branched into separate journeys all over the country and even the world. Now the sisters, all of whom are celebrating jubilee years, have come to live together for the first time in decades.

“We lived apart for 43 years,” says Sister Joan Markus, and she laughs. “Now we have to help each other walk, find things we lost. We’re each other’s caretaker now.”

The three women, who grew up on a farm in Aviston, all joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Twins Joan and Carol Markus, both 80, joined the order 60 years ago; younger sister Theresa, also known as Tess, age 70, is celebrating her 50th anniversary in the order.

“I was five years old when they went into the convent,” Sister Tess says. “I really didn’t know them that well. It’s been nice living together – we all get along.”

All three say their parents set them on the path toward religious life, through the example of their own faithfulness to God.

“Mom and Dad were very involved in the parish,” Sister Tess says. “They worked in the parish, donated chickens for the church picnic, supported renovations of the convent. We came to it by osmosis: They didn’t say ‘You have to do this.’”

“They didn’t have to tell us to go to church,” Sister Joan adds. “You just knew.”

The family already had a legacy of religious service; two of the girls’ aunts had joined the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

But Sister Tess says their teachers in grade school and at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Breese belonged to the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

“So I was really connected with Notre Dame, and of course, after my sisters joined, I could visit them,” she says.

Sister Carol says she always knew she wanted to be a nun, but Sister Joan wasn’t quite as sure at first.

“My junior high school homeroom teacher asked me, ‘Would you like to be a sister?’ I said, ‘I don’t like all the clothes you have to wear,’” Sister Joan says with a laugh.

Over time, she says, her concerns about the wardrobe “drifted away.”

Once they became nuns, the twins, and Sister Tess, never served in the same place.

“We went hither and yon,” Sister Carol says. “We went in obedience.”

Sister Carol taught and served as principal in schools in Missouri, Illinois and California. After further study, she then worked at Indian reservations in Arizona and South Dakota. She spent time in Guatemala and Mexico and then continued to serve schools in California and Texas. Now, she ministers to the needs of residents at The Cottages at Cathedral Square in Belleville.

Sister Joan spent the first decade of her religious life teaching in schools in and around St. Louis and the Diocese of Belleville. She later served as the provincial leader for the St. Louis Province of her order, and spent time in Rome working as the executive secretary to the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s general superior.

That Rome assignment gave Sister Joan’s sisters the chance to visit her. “Lots of people came to visit,” Sister Joan says. “I had an itinerary for them whenever they came, we went all over. I took people to Assisi 11 times.”
Her work with the order took her to other far-flung locales: Argentina, Honduras, Nepal, Japan.

Returning home to Illinois, she worked as chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital in Breese, a post she recently retired from.

Sister Tess has taught in and was an administrator at Catholic schools across Missouri and Illinois. She is currently director of religious education for the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville.
The three women live together in a former “mother-in-law” apartment of a Cathedral parishioner. Sisters Joan and Carol live upstairs, Sister Tess gets the master suite – her sisters tease that she has more clothes and so needs the larger closet.

Living together has given them the opportunity to compare notes about their religious lives. Sister Tess points out that she entered the order ten years later than her sisters, and things had changed significantly. For example, her sisters had restrictions on how often they could visit home, and under what circumstances; they all remember their mother serving them dinner in the garage in order to adhere to the rules.

“By the time I got in 10 years later, things had changed, and you could come home,” Sister Tess says. “The Second Vatican Council resulted in tremendous change to religious life.”

Another of those changes was in the required dress; they no longer had to wear habits.“I couldn’t wait,” Sister Joan says. “When they changed the habit, I was so happy.”

This summer has brought many celebrations of their religious life for the three Markus sisters. They were among 70 nuns to renew their vows at a Mass at the cathedral in June.
Then there was a smaller ceremony at their home parish, St. Francis of Assisi in Aviston. This one was a family affair; relatives were servers, lectors, lay Eucharistic ministers and musicians, and their cousin, a priest, was celebrant.

Yet another celebration was planned this month at their order’s motherhouse. It’s been an opportunity for them to reflect on the full lives they’ve led thus far in the church.
“I have loved my religious life,” Sister Joan says. “Every place I was called and sent to was a challenge, a gift and a grace. It has been a very rich life. I was sitting at the jubilee thinking of all those graces and gifts God gave me.”

Sister Tess thinks back on all the people she’s met – priests, sisters, laypeople, families – who’ve supported her.

“Everywhere I go, people are devoted to God and his church,” she says. “Seeing the faithfulness of other people helps my own faith.”