Carmelite nun traces path from LDS faith

'Extern' sister : Sister Mary Joseph is the link between seven cloistered nuns and the outside world.

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 9, 2009

Holladay : Barbara Whipperman was a pious teenager, a defender of the faith.

When her parents bought a can of coffee, before they even could brew a pot, she saved them from themselves.

"I tossed the whole can," the 76-year-old recalls, laughing raucously. "I was a good little Mormon girl. Oh, they were mad!"

How that good little Mormon girl from Sugar House came to be Sister Mary Joseph, a Catholic -- and a nun, no less -- is a story she tells with relish.

A member of the Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a cloistered monastery that has been in Holladay for nearly 57 years, Mary Joseph is the "extern" sister, which means she is the link between the seven other nuns and the world.

While she joins the others daily for Mass and meals, she skips the rigorous daily schedule of prayer that is the vocation of cloistered nuns.

Instead, the gregarious Mary Joseph lives in her own apartment, does the grocery shopping, tends the flowers, meets with the plumber and the neighbors and, until her eyesight got too bad, drove the other nuns to doctor appointments.

"That kind of thing goes against my grain," says Mary Joseph, who spent three years cloistered when she joined the Carmelites in 1963. "I catch as catch can. I'm not a very scheduled person."

Her conversion, Mary Joseph says, probably began at age 14, when she had the distinct feeling she should give her life to God.

Before Whipperman took her new name in the monastery, she was the daughter of a pharmacist-turned-salesman and a stay-at-home-mom-turned-secretary. She had two older brothers.

Her father had been a convert to the LDS faith, and both parents were practicing Mormons.

Whipperman didn't study much in high school and took easy classes, but after working as a billing clerk for six months after graduation, she knew she wanted an education. A counselor assessed her talents and came up with a few potential careers:

"I could be either a good car mechanic, a good plumber, a good doctor or a nurse."

Doctrinal defiance : Daunted by the fact she would need years of schooling to become a doctor, she worked as a nurse's aide at LDS Hospital and then enrolled in Brigham Young University's new nursing program. She graduated with honors in 1956.

She remembers that in her early 20s, she began questioning a core belief of her faith: that righteous men can become gods.

When an LDS professor, perhaps trying to shock his dozing students awake, mentioned that there was no scriptural basis for that doctrine, Whipperman soaked it up.

The same doctrine came up during Sunday School the next weekend, and Whipperman parroted the professor "just to be a controversial brat."

One thing led to another. Her colleagues dressed her down. She got defensive.

"I made the big, fat statement: 'I will have nothing to do with organized religion. I'll worship as I wish' ... which meant I did nothing."

While she laughs at her youthful arrogance, Mary Joseph says the period was transformative.

"I could no longer accept the doctrine, their conception of God. My God was bigger than that," she says. "Once that doctrine falls apart, everything else falls apart."

After graduating from BYU, she worked as a public-health nurse in Salt Lake City.

In a night class, she met an Austrian woman who had a St. Christopher's medal in her car. That could mean only one thing: "I thought, 'She's Catholic! That's terrible! I have a friend who is Catholic?' "

Anti-Catholic bigotry was at a peak, Mary Joseph remembers. "I'd been in on it."

But she was curious about what Catholics believed and eventually asked a Catholic co-worker to buy her the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible. She began attending various parishes for Mass each Sunday, wary of revisiting for fear the Catholics would twist her arm to stay.

"I had a big chip on my shoulder. I thought, 'I've already been hoodwinked once.' It wasn't going to happen again."

Stepping forth in faith : She began studying the catechism and taking instruction from a Catholic priest. She found she was unable to poke holes in the arguments for the faith.

When her dad discovered her Catholic materials, her parents were angry and sad. She ended up moving out of their home and into a nearby basement apartment.

By then, she had begun to worry about the implications of leaving the LDS Church and becoming Catholic. Would her parents and friends disown her? Would she lose her job? Would she be "kicked out" of the community?

One Sunday afternoon, her friends and she decided to drop by what then was the fairly new monastery in Holladay. She had no idea what the word "cloistered" meant, but she and her friends piled into her 1957 Volkswagen Beetle and "toodled," as she says, out to Holladay.

There, she met someone who gave her courage: Sister Catherine Romney Cheney, another convert from the LDS faith who was at the time the extern sister for the cloistered nuns. Catherine was the sister of LDS apostle Marion G. Romney.

"Her brother was down on Temple Square and she was here -- a nun. And that's all I needed to know," Mary Joseph recalls. "I stepped forth in faith. Blind faith."

And once Mary Joseph decided to become a Roman Catholic -- she was baptized into the church on Nov. 25, 1957, at age 24 -- she knew she would become a nun.

She assumed she would become a Holy Cross sister, since she was a nurse and that order had Holy Cross Hospital. But she didn't get along with the Holy Cross sisters.

When a priest told her she belonged at Carmel, she laughed. "I can't keep my mouth shut," she remembers telling him.

After caring for her father as he was dying from cancer, she joined the Carmelites in Sacramento, Calif., to get around a Utah Catholic leader's pronouncement that recent converts could not become nuns.

She was cloistered there, but was sick from stress and ended up returning to Salt Lake City. She joined the Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1963. Her family and friends may have been puzzled, but they did not shun her.

No regrets

Except for the first three years, she always has been an "extern" nun. That allows her, among other things, this liberty: She has a Labrador, her fourth one, that sleeps on her bed and joins her in the gardens. The first two Labs she named Inky. Her current Lab, Ebony, is the second by that name.

"I like the name, except that I keep calling him 'her.' It's a little gender problem," says Mary Joseph, who regularly accepts smooches from her pal.

Though she now uses a mechanized wheelchair because her knees are bad, Mary Joseph still orchestrates an army of 300 volunteers to stage the annual Carmelite Fair, an afternoon of food, entertainment, auctions and games that provides about 80 percent of the nuns' livelihood.

Various groups help set up the fair, including several from LDS wards.

Spread over the grass on Carmelites' 8-acre property, the fair brings the world to the monastery while the cloistered nuns remain inside, praying.

Mary Joseph says she has no regrets about her journey from Mormonism to Catholicism.

"I always say, 'The best decision I ever made was becoming a Catholic. The second best was to become a Carmelite nun.' "

Mary's favorite saint

Sister Mary Joseph's favorite saint - besides Mary, the mother of Jesus -- is St. Thérèse Lisieux, a cloistered Carmelite nun who lived in France from 1873-1897.

When she first read about St. Thérèse, whose message is about doing even small tasks with great love, Mary Joseph scoffed. "I thought, 'How syrupy.' " Once she read more, though, she realized St. Thérèse was "no namby-pamby."

"She is so real, so everyday. She's somebody everyone can emulate, though not easily."

Sister Mary Joseph likes that St. Thérèse inspires her to be less crabby. "I'm not always nice. I recognize that. I'm my biggest challenge."

A fair to remember

The annual Carmelite Fair, which began as a "tea" more than 50 years ago, is Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, 5714 S. Holladay Blvd.

Besides food, there will be games for children, live and silent auctions, gifts and entertainment. The fair supports the cloistered nuns who live in the monastery. There is no entrance fee.

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