Nuns at Franciscan Center dedicate 'retirement' to serving the poor

loberle@islandpacket.comJuly 19, 2013 

From left, Sisters Marcine Klocko, Agnes Marie Winter and Canice Adams are photographed on Wednesday at the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

The three nuns at the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island -- Sister Canice Adams, Sister Agnes Marie Winter and Sister Marcine Klocko -- each has her own story of sisterhood and choosing a remote life many don't understand.

They had tasted independence, but wanted something more. They've all had boyfriends, and Winter was almost engaged.

But each felt called to make a different kind of lifelong promise.

And this time, in retirement, they felt called to work with the poor.

Adams, who founded St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in Bluffton; Winter, who also taught there for the last six years; and Klocko, who came from Danville, Pa., where she had been working at a senior living facility, began their work at the Franciscian Center in July.

Along a dirt road, the Franciscan Center is two small buildings, one of which hosts a thrift shop the sisters have renamed "Second Treasures." In the other building, the sisters continue much of the work of sisters Sheila Byrne and Stella Breen, who returned to Philadelphia after 26 years of service, including the migrant outreach program that provides personal supplies as well as tutoring, GED preparation classes and home repair assistance.

"It's not retirement," Adams said. "Everybody says 'retirement.' It's just moving on to a different mission."

DECISION TO BECOME A NUN

When Sister Canice Adams was in the fifth grade, she began having unexplained convulsions that put her in a coma. The doctors didn't think she'd survive; didn't think she'd ever wake up. But when she did a week later, she was surrounded by priests and nuns who had been praying for her.

It was then she knew she wanted to be a nun.

She was raised in a Catholic family and attended Catholic school, but her classmates didn't think she'd ever make it to becoming a nun.

"They thought I was too wild," Adams said.

The girl who liked going to parties and drag racing in cemeteries wouldn't make it in a convent. They even took bets on how long she'd last.

Her parents were apprehensive as well. To be able to join the convent, she needed their signature. They told her if she still wanted to enter the convent in a year they would give their blessing, so Adams waited and joined in 1962 when she was 19.

Sister Marcine Klocko and Sister Agnes Marie Winter both joined the convent after working professionally. Klocko worked at a bank for four years and Winters at IBM for 11 years before entering.

They had felt the calling to become nuns, but weren't ready to make that commitment right out of high school. In school, Winter found herself drawn to the sisters.

"Sister Joan Marie was a very joyful sister, and it was something I saw in her," Winter said. "And I said, 'You know, that joy is there. I've got to find it.'

"I had to get that joy."

THE CALLING

All three questioned their place in the convent.

Both Adams and Klocko left the convent only to later return.

When Adams' father fell ill in 1972, she returned home to help support her family financially.

During her 32-year hiatus, Adams earned a doctorate in early childhood and elementary administration at University of South Carolina, served as principal of a Catholic school in Columbia and then associate head of an Episcopal school.

She re-entered in 2004 and served as the supintendent of the Catholic schools in Charleston. In 2006 she was asked to help build a school in Bluffton and was one of the founders of St. Gregory the Great Catholic School.

Klocko left because she had what she called a "restless spirit."

She started a cleaning business and became a partial owner of the Charleston Candy Company. When asked about her return, she quotes St. Augustine: "My heart is restless until it rest in thee."

"People are always looking for happiness," Klocko said. "You look for it in a lot of ways, and it's not complete. When I came back, that's what I was looking for."

But Adams says that re-entering was the most difficult part of her entire experience.

Going into the convent means giving that life up because of the three vows: poverity, chasity and obedience. When Adams and Klocko entered for the first time, they didn't have much of a life to give up, but the second time, they did.

"I owned a home and a car. I had the money I wanted and needed," Adams said. "And the vow of poverty means you own nothing."

The second time, having lived an adult life outside of the convent, the vows became more meaningful.

"It gave clarity to the vow of poverty," Klocko added. "The independence was the hardest thing for me to give up. You had made a life, been there and done that, and now you go back to being missioned."

When Winter entered the convent at age 29, she felt that sense of completion.

"When the children at school ask about being a nun, I ask them, 'Do you ever go to the refrigerator and say, 'Gee, I'm hungry for something and I don't know what'? Now, I don't do that anymore. That hunger isn't there anymore. It seems I have what I want."

Adams agreed.

"When you're called to religious life, that calling is so strong that you know this is where you're supposed to be."

HAVING A FAMILY

Like a woman marries a man, a nun is married to Jesus. For these nuns, they don't feel like they've missed out on having a family. They do have a new family, even if it's an unconventional one, in the church.

"I think it's like a woman who is going to go off and get married," Winter said. "It's hard on them to leave the family, too, but it's a natural thing."

Historically, nuns had little to no contact with their families once they took their vows. They had a new family, the church, which was their only family.

Times have changed, and the nuns at the Franciscan Center say they now have two families, and even an extended family.

"Your family becomes part of this family, so all the sisters families have really become our family," said Adams, whose her parents were opposed to her joining the convent because, deep down, they wanted more grandchildren.

But Adams looks at the children she teaches and has her family come to school programs and meet them.

"And they have hundreds of grandchildren," she said.

The nuns wear rings on their left ring finger because, instead of marrying men, these women are married to God. When Adams and Klocko left the convent, they gave back the rings and received new ones when they re-entered.

Winter likes to keep hers on at all times, and Klocko doesn't take hers off for fear of losing it.

But Adams removes her every night for bed, and, as a ritual, puts it on in the morning saying, "This is for life."

"I didn't do that in my other time," she said. "It's just a reminder that I'm here for life."

LIFE IN RETIREMENT

Their days begin at 5 a.m., with prayer and Mass and breakfast before their workday starts. Sundays are days of rest, and as an avid Dallas Cowboys fan, Adams enjoys catching up on the NFL.

"That was hard coming back into the convent because most nuns don't know football," Adams said. "So I would have to teach them. They didn't like it. They were just doing it because I said everyone should know football."

Above all, Adams enjoys the peace and happiness she's found in her work.

"The biggest thing in religious work is the joy," Adams said. "You can't really put your finger on it. Maybe it's because you're all doing it for the same reason. You've given up your life to serve Christ. It doesn't mean you won't have a bad day, but you have people to pull you out of that.

"You're doing the same work for the same person. We're working as a group for Christ."

Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.

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