I draw a quiet breath and place my right hand on the flat surface of the platter-sized newel post. I do this every time. Right before I take the first step down. A moment of mindfulness. I usually take the elevator up to honor my cranky left knee. Yet I always, always walk down this grand wooden stairway.
This is it, the last time I will descend this staircase.
I don’t recall my first encounter with the central staircase of the Motherhouse that spans the distance between four floors. Several inquiries as to the type of wood used to build the stairway have come up short of information. No matter the wood, it’s grandness is in its simple elegance. An elegance that often beckons me to make the climb rather than take the elevator. I imagine I climbed the first time not knowing where the elevator was located or if it was indeed accessible to the general public. My best guess is that I was taking a yoga class or a class on Buddhism.
When I ascend, I look up at the wood-slatted underbelly of the steps above me and the spherical finials dropping from the base of the newel posts. The solidness of the dark open staircase, supports my journey. Light from the windows at each landing illuminates my way as I move step by step, to an experience of self-transformation, be it through yoga, massage, meditation. My hand glides along the 6-inch wide banister as I move closer to those meetings with myself, reaching higher to a greater understanding of the place within, where the true answers lie.
My first visit to River’s Edge Spiritual Center was at the turn of the century. This century. It amuses me—that time reference—that my life has bridged a century turn. Yet a turn so painfully marked that we now refer to that time as “before 9/11.” The country had plunged into war overseas and I had come to hear U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich speak, sharing his vision for a Department of Peace. I was one of hundreds who had gathered in the sanctuary at River’s Edge, a ministry of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The sanctuary, a modern, open layout with rows of chairs rather than pews, seemed more ecumenical than Catholic and I soon came to understand River’s Edge as a progressive community of the religious and the secular. This particular ministry, part of a complex of buildings, houses retired Sisters, offers programming for the “journey to personal transformation,” and shares land with St. Joseph Academy for girls. The Sisters of St. Joseph are social activists so it was fitting that Dennis, the local uber-liberal politician, was speaking here.
I wondered at this place, tucked back from the road, perched on the edge of the Rocky River, on the west side of Cleveland. Just before the turn of a previous century in 1898, Mother Theresa Fitzmaurice, the superior general of the St. Joseph congregation, selected and purchased these 52 acres of old farm land and took it upon herself to learn to read blueprints so that she could supervise the designing and construction of a new Motherhouse. The new Motherhouse served as the home of the St. Joseph Academy before the adjacent school was built in 1928.
Felicia and Rita Petruziello, sisters who became Sisters, envisioned River’s Edge to “offer hospitality, peace and justice, wellness, a new consciousness, and service to the poor.” In 1989, Felicia started the Wellness Center at the Congregation of St. Joseph and later expanded the program to reach out to those in need by creating the Women’s Outreach Center at Franklin Circle Church. Rita joined her sister and in 2005, River’s Edge was created to unite the two ministries.
The diverse programming of River’s Edge takes place in the various rooms and spaces of the Motherhouse. The sanctuary is located in a newer wing, between the Motherhouse and a small village of modern apartments, where the retired Sisters reside. Socially and environmentally conscious, outside there are dedicated parking spaces for them and several fueling stations for those who own alternatively powered cars. And since the summer of the 2016 Republican National Convention, the Sisters continually sponsor Stand for Peace demonstrations around the Cleveland area.
On this chilly winter day of my final descent, I am coming from my monthly massage on the third floor. Over the past 15 years I have frequented this floor, practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation. I’ve dipped my toes into Tai Chi, Neurofeedback, Cranial Sacral Therapy, and Reiki. Others come for spiritual counseling and other wellness programming. U.S. Congressman, Tim Ryan, graced this floor in support of the mindfulness training for Cleveland Police Officers, offered by one of the counseling staff.
The yoga/meditation and bodywork rooms line a short hallway that ends with a screened-in porch which juts out among the trees surrounding the building. I’ve passed time there reading and sharing chocolates with the elderly ladies from the Wednesday morning yoga class.
“Take two, always two,” the sweet lady said as she held out a bag of Dove bite-sized candies.
From the porch I can almost see the cliff edge, high above the river, just beyond the cemetery garden. Small stone crosses, weathered and worn and etched with the names of Sisters who have passed, stand in rows, in an old graveyard. Beyond that garden is another, the Memory Walk, a wide circle of flat stone markers, each marking a year dating back to the time the Motherhouse was built, and memorializing the Sisters who passed in that year. I have often walked the path around these stones in meditation.
Across from where I now stand, at the top of the stairway, is the Sycamore Room. I began my first classes in Buddhism there. Yes, Buddhism taught by a Buddhist nun, here at a Catholic ministry, another testimony to the progressive nature of River’s Edge programming.
Past the Sycamore room and through a set of doors is a hallway of tiny rooms that once served as sleeping quarters for the Sisters. Those rooms house overnight guests on retreat, furnished with little more than a single bed and nightstand.
To my left along the wall is the library. Visitors check out books, on the honor system, by filling out a slip of paper and filing it in alphabetical order by title, in a small plastic file box. Books on all things spiritual: Catholic theology, yoga and meditation, cosmic consciousness, memoirs, and newer age thought. Every day a new inspiration appears on a dry erase board, propped up on a table. Words from the likes of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Mary Oliver, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, Teilhard de Chardin. I stop to read each time I visit, sometimes checking the library shelf for the source of those words of wisdom.
I descend mindfully on each step and pause at the landing. The wine stain is still visible. I remember and smile.
Just weeks after I had retired from teaching, I attended a week-long spiritual retreat with Jan Phillips, a visionary thought leader. As a young woman, she had entered the convent but was subsequently turned out and was never able to take final vows. In her words she explained, “I was like a union organizer in a Walmart.”
Along with two close friends, I sat in the Sycamore Room in a circle of chairs with twelve other women, only two, I believe, under the age of fifty. We had gathered to be inspired by Jan to use our creativity for social change. Introductions around the circle began in the opposite direction from me. I would be at the end of this sharing. One by one each woman spoke of whence she had come and what she might be seeking. By the time it was my turn, I was in a mild state of panic. Half of these women were nuns! Nuns who didn’t look like nuns and called themselves by their first names only. Sisters of St. Joseph from Illinois, Michigan, and Newfoundland. What was I doing in the company of nuns? What could I possibly have to share with women who have dedicated their lives to a love of God? Would this be like adult catechism?
Previous to this retreat, I had not personally engaged with Sisters of the Congregation in any of the programming I attended, which at that time was limited to yoga and Buddhist dharma classes. I had greeted them in passing as I made my way through the Motherhouse to meeting spaces, but never imagined I would be sitting in a spiritual circle with such sacred Sisters. I attended Catholic school at the very beginning and the very end of my education—1st grade and 12th grade. My experience with those nuns were of strict obedience. During my teacher training, I was assigned to observe a 2nd grade class at St. Jude’s in Elyria. Sister Judith was not like any other teaching nun I remembered. She reminded me of the Sisters that Whoopi Goldberg encountered in the movie “Sister Act.” I looked forward to that assignment each week. She ran that classroom like a well oiled machine making the most of every minute. I delighted in watching her hand out percussion instruments—tamborines, rhythm sticks, small drums, and bells—to each student and then stand before them conducting as if she were standing before a full orchestra.
I took a deep breath and presented my humble self to the circle, not knowing where I was headed.
During the coming week, we shared stories, sang, wrote poetry, and created new rituals together, and I fell in love with each and every one of these ladies. Especially the Sisters. They were funny, thoughtful, compassionate. I was curious about how their lives worked. It was so different from what I remembered as a child—stern women in black habits, their faces barely showing, stiffly wimpled in white. Creatures I obliged with a fearful respect.
I spent part of an afternoon in the center’s heated pool with Sister Jackie. I chuckled to myself—I’m in a pool with a nun in a bathing suit. Jackie was probably the youngest of the Sisters in attendance that week. We chatted as we treaded water in the deepest part of the pool. In response to my curiosity, she shared with me how life for Sisters changed after Vatican II, when they were able to shed veils and wimples and opt for more modern dress. They still live communally and are allotted a living allowance— part of which covered the cost of coming to this retreat. They were women still seeking personal transformation. And they enjoyed their wine and “spirits”—actually providing such libations for the group in the after-hours of the days’ workshops.
Late into the night on the last evening of the retreat, my friend Sally and I decided to roam the Motherhouse. We had been encouraged to make ourselves at home. The place was quiet, as most had retired for the evening. With a glass of wine each, we climbed a back stairway to the fourth floor to sneak a peek at the administrative offices.
There was little there besides the offices so we descended by way of the grand staircase, giggling like schoolgirls breaking curfew…and spilling wine on the linoleum of the landing between the 3rd and 2nd floor. We had some tissues in our pockets to sop up our spill, but a stain remained despite our efforts. We wondered what the cleaning staff would make of this mysterious red splotch. Continuing down to the 2nd floor we passed a small wooden door in the wall. Like cats, our curiosity would not be tamed. We unlatched the door and found only a small length of rope. Merry with wine, we could barely muffle our bemused laughter. Sister Angelina…on the staircase… with the rope.
It’s when I step off the steps at the second floor that the finality of my descent overtakes me. A lump crowds my throat. It’s here where I start taking pictures with my iPhone, realizing I will not be returning. I begin to turn in a circle, taking in what is on this floor.
The main entrance to this gothic brick building, with its peaks and gables, used to be on the second floor opposite this staircase, mirroring the front doors of the Academy across the courtyard. The doors and the outside stairway of the Motherhouse are long gone and have been replaced by a large window. Two cushioned chairs on either side of a potted plant now sit on the original tile floor in the alcove.
To the left, runs the hallway to the parlors, where once the Sisters most likely met with family and visitors. Three rooms are furnished with upholstered chairs and carved credenzas. The largest room has a massive dining table. I’ve never seen these rooms in use but no one has ever stopped me from wandering through and I imagined the quiet conversations that must have taken place during those visits.
The Founders Room, a large meeting space with blue stained glass windows is at the opposite end past the alcove. Often retreats begin here. I’ve spread my yoga mat and situated my meditation cushion in this room on many occasions grateful to return to a place of peace, reclaiming a bit of tranquility.
It is that serenity I take with me as I continue down, step by step, in a moving meditation.
I remember the River’s Edge tag line and mission statement. A Place of Reflection and Action: River’s Edge exists to support you on your journey to personal transformation. Our environment and programming foster whole-person wellness and spirituality that ripples beyond our individual selves into our communities, our earth and our world.
This staircase carries me forward from a place of personal reflection toward mindful action each time I descend. And I catch myself smiling every time I walk down. I cherish this feeling and always leave with the intention of being more aware of my daily thoughts and actions. I bask in the beauty of this place and the soothing energy it evokes. As my hand glides down along the wide handrail, my breath slows—inhales matching exhales—the way I was taught in yoga and meditation classes and my heart contracts as I complete my last descent and step away from the staircase onto the first floor.
Motorized carts and walkers are parked willy-nilly outside the dining hall at the bottom of the staircase. The resident Sisters are arriving from their adjoining village of apartments for their mid-day meal. I’ve dined here myself. Volunteers and other lay people who work here share this time with the Sisters, as do retreatants. It is a lovely blend. There is a small guest dining area adjacent to the main dining hall, where I’ve spent mealtimes in silence with other retreat participants, savoring each mouthful in gratitude.
The kitchen entrance is just around the corner next to the elevator. While waiting for the elevator, I always catch a whiff of what I can only describe as that of boiling potato water—a smell redolent of institutional cooking. Yet the food here is anything but institutional—rather a delicious variety offering options for all dietary preferences.
Across from the bottom of the staircase, I notice the door to the tunnel is open today. The tunnel runs underground from the Motherhouse to the Academy. I’ve never had reason to walk it but my guess is it provided a sheltered walk for the Sisters who taught at the Academy.
Ah, but this Motherhouse is closing—no longer a practical place to support the ministry and its changing needs. With its old radiators and wiring, and the grand wooden staircase a potential chimney in the event of a fire, it has become too costly to maintain.
A new, more cost-effective facility has been built on the acreage to better serve the needs of an aging Congregation. St. Joseph Academy and the Congregation plan to work in partnership to renovate this old building for re-use by the school.
My heart aches as I walk through the first floor parlor, past the fish tank, the piano, the historical photos of the Motherhouse and its property, photos of the outreach work to women and girls both local and global. There’s a large photo of Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, speaking at a past event, most likely advocating for the end of the death penalty. Several Sisters are walking back to their apartments and I share with them my sadness at leaving this place for the last time. They smile and nod and acknowledge the sentiment but assure me the new facility is just as beautiful and welcoming.
My steps slow to a walking meditation as I make my way out of the building. I am dawdling, trying to capture every last ounce of calm and compassion. I consider myself blessed to have been embraced and nurtured by the grandeur of this Motherhouse, this hive of spiritual activism.
My belief in something grand and mysterious heightened the moment I turned my car onto the property, as I entered the building, made my way to a place of “reflection and action,” and again when I exited the building. A building that now exists in the past for me but my experiences will be ever present.
As I drive away, I pass a Stand for Peace sign along the exit roadway. The sign has been there since the first “Stand for Peace” in 2016. I’ve not yet made it to one of the “stands.” Yet the sign reminds me now to Stand for Peace each day, in every action.
I make a silent vow.