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Not unlike the deity they represent, the lives of the religious seem to be shrouded in mystery.
There’s a perception that nuns, priests and pastors are more spiritual, more religious than the general public, that they have some special connection to God, that they are some sort of conduit to the afterlife.
Sister Margaret Bender doesn’t necessarily scoff at those notions, but her humility does help her to downplay them.
“I had to think about (participating in this article), and I spoke to a few people about it,” said Sister Margaret, or simply “Sister,” of this exclusive interview with LebTown. “My reason for saying ‘yes’ was because there are so few religious women in the area. I think people should get to know us and what our role in the church is.
“I didn’t really want it to be about me, as much as I love my identity. I represent the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. But people don’t get to see too many religious women in the area.”
“We’re all children of Adam and Eve,” she continued. “We all have challenges and triumphs. I think because of my religious beliefs I have less challenges. But it doesn’t make me different or better than you. Of course, my life is not more committed to God, if you’re committed to the promises you made. God’s grace is different for every one of us.”
Guarded, reflective and just a bit adventurous, Sister Margaret may be the final nun to ever support a Catholic church in Lebanon County.
An 81-year-old native of Lebanon, Sister Margaret is affiliated with St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church at 120 E. Lehman St., Lebanon. When Sister Margaret came to then St. Gertrude’s in the late 1970s – not long after St. Gertrude’s had closed its Catholic elementary school – there were already four nuns assigned there.
During their heyday, dozens of nuns were assigned to most or every Catholic parish and school in Lebanon County.
“As far as I know, I’m probably the only religious sister in Lebanon County,” said Sister Margaret. “Since 1918, there has been a sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia assigned to this diocese, and I think I might be the last. It’s not a known, and that makes me sad. With fewer sisters coming into our community, it doesn’t seem like there will be another sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia. I see it (the assignment) as a grace and a blessing.
“You’re right, most religious communities are dealing with a lack of religious. When sisters retire, there are no sisters to replace them. But some laywomen have dedicated their lives to their faith. Committees of volunteers are doing some of those things now. To me, that’s a comfort, because God provides.”
Over the last 40-plus years, Sister Margaret’s roles and responsibilities at St. Cecilia’s have changed as well. At one time or another, she has taught, helped organize the church choir, assisted at Masses, visited the sick and homebound, managed the religious education program and confirmation classes and helped parish members prepare to receive the sacraments.
Sister Margaret’s work is very personal in nature.
She resides in an apartment a few doors down from the church and receives little or no monetary reimbursement for her work, but she said that her every need is taken care of by the parish and the community.
“The rules of St. Francis are the rules I follow, the rules of life,” she said. “We live a vowed life. We use our vows as a way to guide our lives. The vowed religious take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They’re different vows than the ones taken by priests.
“I think every life requires discipline,” Sister Margaret continued. “It’s as simple as: you get up in the morning, even though you don’t feel like it. I’ve made a commitment to go to Mass every morning, so I get up, get dressed and go to Mass.
“I grew up at a time and in a culture where we lived disciplined lives. We knew what we had to do, and we did it. The discipline of religious life wasn’t as much of a challenge for me.”
Born in Lebanon, Sister Margaret graduated from Lebanon Catholic High School in 1959. She took her initial vows to be a nun in 1962, and her final vows in 1969.
“I had a calling, just as you were called to be a husband and a father,” said Sister Margaret. “I was from a family that was very open to coming into the religious life. I had a sister who was an aunt, and I had a sister who was a cousin. I also had a grandmother who prayed me into this life.
“The church gives us a long time to understand if this is the life we are called to,” she added. “There was guidance from the community itself. To be honest, growing up I really felt I wanted to be a teacher. I had applied to Millersville (State College) and was accepted there. We have time before the commitment is final. I knew people who came into the community and didn’t stay.”
Sure, there have been challenges along the way, but never doubts. Sister Margaret’s faith has never wavered.
“There were challenges that later I saw as blessings,” said Sister Margaret. “They only strengthened my belief that this is where God wanted me to be. I can tell you the exact date and time, and the specifics of those challenges.
“I’m assuming people know more about religious women because our lives opened up more with Vatican II,” she continued. “Before that, our lives were a mystery to people. But I always tried to be open to people’s questions. I don’t care what people think about Sister Margaret, but I want them to respect religious women. I’ve been so blessed because I’ve never been in a situation where people didn’t think of me as Margaret Bender. One of the things my dad said to me was, ‘You’ll always be Margaret to us.’”
Sister Margaret is now semi-retired, and she shifted a bit uncomfortably in the pew when she was asked when she will fully retire.
“I can’t answer that,” she said. “I try to live one day at a time and use the blessing of that day to the best of my ability. I think too many of us live in the future and lose the blessings we have now.
“Sometimes you minister by who you are, and not by what you say and do,” she concluded. “I love talking about the work and the gifts and the graces. When I walk down the street and people see me as a nun, I see that as a blessing.
“People who wouldn’t normally speak to me come up and say, ‘I’ve never seen a nun before.’”
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