GENEVA TOWNSHIP – Sisters Evelyn Varboncoeur and Marie Mason make you forget everything you ever thought about nuns.
Varboncoeur is the nun in charge of the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary, where a convent, business office and retreat center are set back from the road, right next to The Holmstad on Batavia Avenue in Geneva Township.
With her feet clad in flip-flops, toenails arrayed with red nail polish, Mason is in charge of vocation ministry, welcoming novitiates and organizing retreats.
Nobody wears habits or wimples and nobody has been called Mother Superior since Vatican II, Varboncoeur said.
“We are a small order,” Varboncoeur said. “At one time, we were in 11 states, but now we are only in Illinois right now. We are an international community. ... We started in France in 1860 and came here in 1889, so we are celebrating 125 years this year.”
Although its provincial center is in Kankakee, the local convent is known as a community, Varboncoeur said. Its particular calling is to be a formative community, meaning women who think they want to join the spiritual life of a sister live there and try it out.
“That is our reason for being here,” Varboncoeur said. “If a woman is interested in joining us, she would most likely begin right here.”
Varboncoeur herself was in the original group of novices who came to the convent in 1956. She left to go to Kankakee where she worked in a hospital as a medical technician before coming back to the Geneva Township convent in 2003.
“My official work was formation directress, working with women who would be interested in joining the order,” Varboncoeur said. “For women to learn about the congregation, religious life, spirituality, deepen her spirituality. All the things that would prepare her to be able to make vows at some point. ... It’s kind of like the orientation years.”
Their days begin with individual prayer. Each is responsible for her own breakfast and lunch, and they take turns making dinner. They eat their evening meal together.
“Then after dishes, we have our prayer in the chapel [using] the official prayer of the church,” Varboncoeur said. “There are prayers for each day of the week for four weeks. And then we start over again. And for special feast days – Christmas and Easter – there are special prayers for those.”
Sometimes nuns have outside jobs, such as when Varboncoeur worked at Mercy Center and ministered there. Now she works at the convent in vocation ministry, which includes going out to schools and colleges to share the vocation with young women.
“We tell everybody – every single person, every Christian – [they have] a call from God. And the call is about living a particular way of life,” Varboncoeur said.
“The most common call, in our world, is marriage. And we have people who are single, that is another call. And a call to religious life – consecrated religious life – or a call to ordained life – that’s priesthood or permanent deacon,” Varboncoeur said. “Every single person is called by God to one of those ways of life.”
Among the programs the nuns host is the Servant Companion of the Holy Heart of Mary, for women who want to live in community with the sisters for up to five years.
“We’ve had a couple of women who participated in that program – one who stayed for four years and one for one year,” Varboncoeur said. “And then they went back to their own homes.”
Mason said the program is meant for women who want to deepen their spirituality and are interested in the religious life – but not permanently.
“We continue to try to find ways to share the gift that we have of our spirituality,” Varboncoeur said.
Another relatively new program available for men, as well, is called Consecrated Laity. It is for a single, widowed or divorced person who is called to make a vow of celibacy. Four women ranging in age from 30 to 80 are in the six-month preparation period for this, Varboncoeur said.
“I thought in our culture, this is not going to work. But these women are so committed to the call to experience ... this vow,” Varboncoeur said. “It’s a private vow for a year at a time. At the end of a year, they wouldn’t have to continue.”
The community shares everything in common. Mason, who is the community treasurer, explained that when sisters work outside the community, their salaries are contributed to the congregation. And when they retire and receive Social Security, that, too, is contributed.
“Everything is belonged in common,” Mason said. “We do not own anything individually. If one community does not have same kind of revenue coming in to assist in taking care of the bills, then it is supplemented by another community – because it all goes into the same pot.”
Among the changes and challenges the church faces, Varboncoeur said: “There are many different perspectives, from the far left to the far right. In my frame of mind, the church is broad enough to encompass all of those.”
And the possibility of women’s ordination? “Maybe,” Varboncoeur said. “I don’t know that it will happen in our lifetime.”
Mason said the church’s issues are something to pray about.
“If you don’t talk about these things, you’re not going to grow,” Mason said. “We do both, pray about it and talk about it. And we try to do what we can [to help] others in our environment to become holy. That’s our job. That’s our purpose – to help one another reach heaven.”