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A virtuous vow: Mitchell nun celebrates 70th year jubilee

The Sisters of St. Francis of Our Lady of Guadalupe community in Mitchell from left, Sister Nancy Dwyer, Sister Loretta VonRueden and Sister Marita Pfau gather for a photo in front of the Our Lady of Guadalupe wall plaque that hangs in the entry way of their home in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

With a serious face, Sister Nancy Dwyer turned to her fellow sisters to ask a question.

"What do they call a nun who took the bar exam?" she said, staring and awaiting their answer. "A sister-in-law."

Followed by chuckles and a wave of the hand, Sister Marita Pfau and Sister Loretta VonReuden took the joke in stride.

"You've always got those up your sleeves," VonReuden said, shaking her head in response.

Jokes and laughter are commonplace inside the home of The Sisters of St. Francis of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mitchell, where the three nuns have lived for the past 26 years.

Settled inside their immense home on 1417 W. Ash Ave., the three women have a daily routine they stick to, which includes several prayer times and attending mass. But the three longtime sisters also know how to have a good time.

"People think that we having a boring life, but we certainly do not," VonReuden said, smiling.

Always ready to celebrate

The Sisters of St. Francis know how to party.

In early August, the three put on a large celebration for VonReuden, who celebrated her 70th jubilee since taking her vows — a rare feat for Catholic nuns, 88-year-old VonReuden said.

With 139 people in attendance, their immaculate three-story home was filled with decorations, food and happy faces. And while the entire event, from setup to tear down took three days, the biggest celebration was on Aug. 4 — exactly 70 years from when VonReuden took her vows.

"If you hit 80, good luck," Pfau, 76, said with a laugh.

And the celebrations are never ending. While there was no party this week, the sisters celebrated exactly 26 years since moving to Mitchell on Nov. 14. Their religious community originally began in Gettysburg in 1969, but in November 1991, the sisters decided to build a new home in Mitchell.

Neither too big nor too small, Mitchell seemed the perfect fit for the Sisters of St. Francis, who wanted to find a town where they wouldn't be in competition with other nuns, as well as build a motherhouse. A motherhouse serves as a principal home within a religious community.

So with their own money, they funded the construction of their new convent in Mitchell. The three-floor mansion features a full basement with a family room, a library, furnace room and storage room. The main floor houses a large bedroom for a chaplain, living room, dining room, a kitchen, two offices and an enclosed patio. On the top floor sits laundry space, a smaller chapel, bathrooms, a sewing room and 10 bedrooms. To finish off the home, an elevator was installed to allow easier access to each floor.

In less than a month, the home will be filled with several volunteers, decorating the place floor to ceiling for Christmas, and the three sisters can't wait. Proud of their decorations and home, the sisters love to have guests, especially in the winter when visitors don't stop as frequent as in the summer.

And they're already thinking about the large amount of visitors and guests anticipated for 2019. Fewer than two years away, 2019 will call for many celebrations in their Mitchell home as it marks the 60th jubilee for Pfau, the 35th jubilee for Dwyer and the 50th anniversary since the formation of their community in 1969.

"It'll be a big year," Pfau said.

The religious garb

If the sisters want to go "incognito," Dwyer said, they simply don't wear their habit.

The habit is the religious garb the three women don each day. Navy in color, the women find the clothing comfortable and practical.

"You know who we are, it makes us realize who we are and we don't have to look for what we're going to wear for the day," Dwyer said. " ... For Halloween I told people I was dressing up as a nun, because I said if I came dressed up T-shirt and slacks, you wouldn't know me."

And hanging around their neck is a unique medallion they designed specifically for The Sisters of St. Francis of Our Lady of Guadalupe community. They also wear a ring, indicating their commitment to their faith.

Stomping on stereotypes

Sister Dwyer still remembers the day a child asked her if he could bring her to show-and-tell at school. She also easily recalls another time when a child pointed to she, Dwyer and Pfau, telling his mother, "Look mom, there goes the three penguins."

While their garb often attracts a lot of looks and pointing fingers, the sisters are used to it, and often don't mind the attention.

"I don't even know what would happen if we walked into a casino," Pfau said, laughing.

The sisters said there are many stereotypes around their way of life, and they often find themselves explaining and clarifying the differences.

And despite their wardrobe, home and daily prayer time, they're just like most people, they said, adding that "I Love Lucy" is often playing on their TV in the family room. Avid card players, the nuns also enjoy playing games for entertainment.

"We do all kinds of things," Dwyer said. " ... And people think we're afraid of the dark or something. It's crazy. When we first moved down here and we'd go out to eat after dark, people would ask us if we were supposed to be out."

But these stories often have the sisters laughing, never angry and they love to share them with each other. In the decades they've been together, the Sisters of St. Francis have become like family to one another.

"When you join the community, people think you leave family but you don't. We become each other's sisters, like blood sisters ..." Dwyer said. "We have a lot of prayer, we have a lot of laughter, we have a lot of tears and we're here for each other."