Susan Sink wanted to write a book about the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict that revealed their uniqueness and a book that would serve as a tribute to their service. She did it in just 100 words, 44 times.
The poet used their oral histories to share unknown stories about the lives of the nuns from the 1920s to the 1990s in her latest book, “Habits.” The book is a collection of 100-word stories, with some that read like poems.
From tales of how sisters get their names to stories on running a large dairy farm and hopes of greater inclusion of women within the church, the book is an intimate introduction to their sisterhood.
Sink is an oblate of St. John’s Abbey. An oblate is a layperson attached to a monastery, she explained. The 48-year-old moved to Minnesota from Chicago. Digging through the sisters’ background and composing the book was a six-month project and one she says got her excited about poetry again.
“Most of my poetry was about my life,” she said with a smile. “It was nice to shift the focus . . . I wanted to get deeper and behind the surface of that way of life.”
The Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict is the largest women’s Benedictine monastery in the nation. They arrived in 1857 to minister to German immigrants, and in time they staffed more than 80 schools, founded the College of St. Benedict, hospitals and other ministries. At their peak in the 195os, they had 1,278 members and were the largest women’s Benedictine community in the world, Sink wrote.
Sink’s connection with the sisters grew over time. She actually lives on the monastery’s former hog farm. She moved there four years ago when she got married and started working for them as their communications director. It was during that time she learned more about them. Having been raised Catholic since she was 12, this was new territory for her.
“I gained a lot of their trust (while working for them),” she said. “They told me a lot of stories. I really wanted to understand (them). They just have a sense of being so interwoven with the area . . . They’re interwoven in the culture of the community.”
Sink has a master’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. As a college student, she discovered poetry and never looked back. Composing stories with just 100-words wasn’t as hard as she thought. It surprised her how much of a story she could tell with so few words.
She hopes these 100-word stories will introduce readers to the personality and rich history of the sisters.
“I hope they (readers) have a less stereotypical image of nuns,” she said. “For St. Joseph, I hope they really recognize themselves and their experience. It’s kind of a remembrance. It makes the past more vivid.”
The response to the book has been positive. Many said they learned something new.
“I really wanted it to be a tribute,” she said.
Sink is also the author of “The Way of All the Earth,” a book of poems and three volumes of “Art of The Saint John’s Bible.” “Habits” is available for $12 from http://lulu.com, The Whitby Gift Shop and Gallery in St. Joseph, the CSB/SJU Bookstore and Sink’s website, http://susansink.wordpress.com.
Here’s one of the 44 stories from the book.
I asked for ‘Conrad’ or ‘Jean.’ Sister Lucretia said to me, “You’re getting a pretty name, much nicer than your sister’s.” (She got Sister Omer.) I almost fell over when the prioress pronounced the name Lawrence. I was ashamed to tell my parents about it. My mother always said, “Lauren, like Laura.” I went to the novice director and told her I didn’t like it. She said, “Well, just put ‘Mary’ in front of it.” As a nurse it was easy for the doctors to call for Sister Lawrence, and I got so used to it I never changed back.