By Anne Marshall
Photos by Mickie Winters
Louisville Magazine – May 2018

Do nuns retire? Not really. Meet three centenarians still going strong in Nazareth, Kentucky.

Down a highway that rolls like loose ribbon and across a railroad track, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth campus rests in the wooded folds outside Bardstown, Kentucky. On a chilly April morning, dogwood and redbud trees cautiously wake to spring. Tulips call for attention. Candles flicker inside St. Vincent de Paul church as sisters make their way to the pews, back pillows marking where a few elderly nuns must sit to ease aches during daily mass. In the church’s south tower, bells named for congregational virtues — humility, simplicity and charity — often ring, an elegant, audible nod to the legacy here.

Since 1812, women have come to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN) community to dedicate themselves to religious life. “It is a place of love,” Sister Evelyn “Evie” Hurley says. She recently moved to the SCN Motherhouse after serving in active ministry for 64 years as a teacher in South Boston, then several more years in a Boston convent that dwindled in size from 27 sisters to 15 to just Hurley. She is 103 years old.

Sister Evelyn “Evie” Hurley and Sister Luke Boiarski joke around in Hurley’s room at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Motherhouse.

Hurley has light blond hair and dull blue eyes. She walks briskly, without the aid of a walker or cane. Stairs aren’t a problem and her memories remain organized and intact. She often pushes the wheelchairs of those who are 20 years her junior and today, like most days, she’s a stylish presence — simple silver jewelry, lavender pants and a purple embroidered blouse. “My mother told me lavender and orchid were flattering. Some people need all the help they can get,” she says with a laugh that scrunches her face and allows an eager smile to part crinkled, pink cheeks.

Hurley and I attend mass and sit down for lunch together in a basement cafeteria. “Have you ever met a centenarian?” she asks me. I tell her I haven’t, and in her New England accent she says, “Well, now you’ve met three.” Because seated at our lunch table are Sister Alice Teresa Wood, who is 101, and Sister John Ann Kulina, who will soon turn 101.

Left to right: Sister Evelyn “Evie” Hurley, Sister A Teresa Wood and Sister John Ann Kulina.

I find myself at a loss. What should I ask these women? They’ve lived a really long time, decades beyond what most would consider a good, full life. And like all orders of women religious, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth don’t waste time. Their
“foundress” is Sister Catherine Spalding. Under her leadership, the SCN worked in military hospitals during the Civil War and opened medical facilities and schools, including Nazareth College on the SCN campus. It closed in 1971 and later became Spalding University in Louisville. (Former dorms on SCN’s campus now function as affordable housing for elderly and disabled people.) Spalding and fellow sisters also opened Presentation Academy, the first Catholic school in Louisville, in 1831. In recent decades, SCN has helped create the House of Ruth, a nonprofit that supports HIV/AIDS patients. With 550 sisters missioned in America, Botswana, India, Nepal and Belize, the sisters commit themselves to issues like poverty, education, the environment and racism. So where do we begin?

It should be noted: Nuns knot me up. My daughter is named Maria and a certain precocious singing nun did indeed influence that decision. I admire nuns’ service, their assured lack of materialism. Sure, there are the prickly ones, but most I’ve met have a good sense of humor. When I ask an almost 70-year-old nun who looks more like late 40s for the SCN’s secret to youth, her response: “No smoking, no drinking, no sex.” (Some totally drink, though. They’re Catholic.)

When photo time comes, Hurley, Wood and Kulina rise from the chairs they’re sitting in and loop together as one. Hurley locks her arm at Wood’s elbow; Wood grips Kulina’s hand, reinforcing any weakness or dizziness that may creep up. Kulina has a two-week-old pacemaker in her chest and Hurley and Wood are especially protective of her these days. Side by side by side, the trio clasps tight, grinning for the camera. “Cheese, cheese, cheese,” Wood repeats in a near-whimper. A fellow sister looks up from the newspaper she’s reading and says, “Three cupcakes.”

Hurley had an aunt who lived to 88 years old, but no one in her family has come close to 103. Other than problems with her vision and hearing aides in both ears, she’s tip-top. “I never sit down a lot. I’m down then I’m up for something else. Some people have been so careful all their lives — what they eat, how much they exercise. I’ve never been careful about any of that,” she says as she pats butter on her baked potato and adds a light flurry of salt. “I guess I don’t worry. I’ve never worried. A lot of times what you worry about doesn’t tend to happen.”

In 1915, Hurley was born to an Irish Catholic family in Boston. Her father was a city councilor and her mother was a young homemaker, just 18 years old. SCNs taught Hurley in grade school and high school. They left an impression. Much to the surprise of her family and friends, Hurley announced that she would enter the SCN community right after graduation. “I didn’t do much thinking as a teenager,” she says with a smile when remembering the pull toward religious life. “(When I) told my friends, ‘I’m going to the convent!’ they couldn’t believe it.” Having never been farther from home than New York, she headed south to Kentucky and ultimately devoted herself to education. She taught in Kentucky and Mississippi before returning to Boston, teaching at the same parochial school for 45 years. Despite having classes that sometimes numbered 84 students, Hurley fondly remembers her decades teaching. “At 80, I felt like had as much energy as I did when I was 40. But I thought I better get out while I’m ahead,” she says.

Unlike Hurley, Wood and Kulina opt for traditional garments that nuns have not been required to wear since the late ’60s. Kulina wears a shoulder-length white habit, and a navy bonnet covers Wood’s head. Wood, who was born and raised on a farm in Hollywood, Maryland, also took her first vows as a teenager. Kulina, an Ohio native, waited until she was 28. She was 13 when her mother died. Her father considered putting her and her eight siblings into an orphanage. But Kulina offered to drop out of school and assume the role of mother. Once her three sisters married and five brothers joined the military, she followed her heart to SCN.

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