Last weekend I received word that Sr. Mary Joseph, a member of the Carmelite Monastery of Des Plaines, IL., had passed away at the age of 92. Sr. Mary Joseph was an unlikely member of her Carmelite community. Born Ann Russell, she grew up as a wealthy San Francisco socialite whose father was the chairman of Southern Pacific Railroad. She married Richard Miller at 20 years old and had five children by the time she was 27 – and then had five more! Writing about his mother, her eighth child said that “she had a million and one friends, she drank, she smoked, she played cards… she became an open-water diver. She drove so fast and recklessly that people got out of her car with a sore foot from slamming on the imaginary brake.” The San Francisco Chronicle described her as someone who, “chaired benefits, yachted in the Mediterranean, had separate glasses to match many of her outfits, and went to Elizabeth Arden four days a week.” In 1984, Ann’s husband died, leaving her a 55-year-old widow. Within two years, she was talking to her children about entering a monastery. Three years later, she gave away everything she owned and, after celebrating her 61st birthday party with 800 of her closest friends at the San Francisco Hilton, she joined the community in Des Plaines.
The Carmelites of Des Plaines live a very strict and austere life. As a contemplative order, they almost never leave their monastery, where they spend their days in prayer, living 23 ½ hours a day in silence, sleeping in tiny cells, and eating a meatless diet. Asked about the extreme change in her mother’s lifestyle, her youngest daughter said: “[My mother] would eat the whole carton of ice cream or none of it.”
Contemplatives are the spiritual lungs of the Church, and nothing delights them more than to receive requests for prayers. That’s how I came to know Sr. Mary Joseph. In 2010 my niece was diagnosed with eye cancer. One of my seminary classmates, whose family was from San Francisco, suggested that I send a letter to Sr. Mary Joseph asking her to pray for my niece and my sister’s family. And so I did. My niece has been cancer-free now for about a decade, but I continue to receive regular notes from the Carmelites of Des Plaines, asking about my sister’s family and giving me updates on Sr. Mary Joseph’s health. A few years ago, I visited the monastery with my sister and niece, whose home in Chicago is a short distance away from Des Plaines. We got to meet Sr. Mary Joseph, spending 30 minutes with her and the Mother Superior, talking to them through a fixed grille. I explained to my niece that the grille was there not to keep the sisters in but to keep the world out. She seemed to understand, and enjoyed asking them lots of questions.
Ann Russell Miller’s decision to spend the last part of her life in a Carmelite monastery created a stir in her native California. The Chronicle reported, however, that “the Mother Superior at the time observed tartly that there was no story in someone entering a convent. The story was in staying in one.” Sr. Mary Joseph stayed to the end, and spent many years in her monastery praying and offering sacrifices for you and me. May she continue to pray for us, and may she rest in peace.