BEAVERTON — For decades, one Washington County Catholic clan saw its women join the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. And though none of their kin has entered the convent since the 1960s, the Sohlers are optimistic about their mission and oh so glad to be SSMOs.
Sister Angeline Sohler, 87, and Sister Elizabeth Sohler, 82, are blood sisters from North Plains. Their girlhood church, St. Edward’s, was a mission of St. Mary’s Home for Boys, which was operated by the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. Two nuns, Sisters Beatrice and Dorothy, would come teach the children, who were mostly from farm families. The Sohler girls were enchanted by teachers they recall as smart and kind. Each year, the family would travel to Beaverton for a fair the Sisters organized to help pay for construction of their motherhouse. The Sohler children — six girls and one boy — vied for prizes, ate a mountainous chicken dinner and saved room for apple pie baked by the Sisters themselves.
Visiting the convent was like a family reunion for the youngsters. Their great aunt, Mother Genevieve, was superior general. Later, they attended boarding school with the Sisters and gained a whole new admiration.
Sister Angeline entered the novitiate as a teenager in 1943. Her parents supported the move, and felt delighted and honored again when Sister Elizabeth came to the SSMO convent in 1950.
The sister Sisters describe a monastic existence of structured work in the classrooms and communal prayer. At Mass time during the 1950s, the large motherhouse chapel was packed with almost 200 nuns in habit.
After the Second Vatican Council, opportunity expanded and many of the outer trappings of religious life changed. The Sohler Sisters say the change was good, even though it meant a shrink in their number. The SSMO wardrobe decision was to leave behind the bulky full habit and adopt a lighter, more open modified habit, which many of the Sisters still wear today.
Sister Elizabeth sums up the changes: “We are still here.”
Sister Angeline spent more than 40 years teaching and then served in the library at Valley Catholic High School. She has also been a tutor to immigrants hoping to learn English, a major SSMO ministry. Her personal prayer includes meditation, reading and the rosary. She tries to live a sense of prayer wherever she is.
Her sense of humor remains sharp. When asked “Would you live this life all over again?” she quips, “Not at this age.”
Sister Elizabeth is a longtime music teacher who worked in primary grades. She later became bookkeeper at Maryville, the nursing home the Sisters operate on their inclusive campus. Still, she visits Maryville each day and helps feed lunch to one of the residents.
Sister Elizabeth’s spiritual practice is to allow prayer to influence the way she lives moment by moment. “It’s daily living,” she says. “It’s how you greet people.”
Next door to the Sohler sisters’ girlhood home in North Plains lived an aunt and uncle and their cousins, among them the gregarious girl who by the mid-1940s would become Sister Bernadette Ann Sohler. Sister Bernadette Ann died in August 2013 after 67 years of teaching, parish work, praying and communal life with the SSMOs, including her cousins. She was known for organizing, storytelling and succeeding with difficult children. Once, she ordered a misbehaving boy to sit close beside her. A few moments later, when she rose from her desk, she found the lad had tied her shoelaces together. Her instinctive hearty laugh defused the situation. Later, as a pastoral associate in Seaside, Sister Bernadette Ann organized regular Sunday meals for elders and anyone in need of a meal.
Another cousin was Father Louis Sohler, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland. Sister Barbara Rose Sohler, who will only say that she is older than 60, grew up on a farm and attended Visitation School in Verboort, another center of longtime SSMO ministry. She is a cousin of the elder Sohlers.
Sister Barbara Rose professed vows 50 years ago and began a long career in the classroom. She has secured grants to travel and learn about other cultures as an aid to her teaching.
Her prayer has grown into an ongoing attempt to “live in the presence of God.” Without deep prayer, religious life would not be possible, she says.
“It’s good to have family here,” Sister Barbara Rose says, gesturing to her cousins. “We know our roots.”
All the Sohlers have taken part in an SSMO tradition — traveling to teach summer religion school to rural children. They have gone to places like Dexter, Oakridge, Pilot Rock and even Skagway and Haines in Alaska.
“We liked the kids,” Sister Angeline says.
The Sohlers are not the only Washington County family to fill out the rolls of the SSMO. The Vanecoeverings sp? of Verboort? had three sisters embrace the life and become celebrated teachers, in local schools and in summer religion sessions.
Fifty years have passed since a Sohler or a Vandecoevering woman came to the convent. The Sohlers, who have nieces all over the region, can imagine the delight if younger relatives heard the call, but they are not fretting. They know God works in all kinds of ways.
“Parents today don’t look at religious life like our parents did,” says Sister Elizabeth.
“It’s OK if they don’t come,” says Sister Angeline. “They have freedom. I think God works with people in whatever way.” She does urge women to come and see what the life is like. People should get good information before deciding on their lives, she says.
Sister Barbara Rose suggests that women first ask, “What is your goal?” Then the question can become, “Does religious life give meaning to your existence?”
“You have a chance to be close to God,” Sister Barbara Rose says of the life. “You have many opportunities to pray and you have many people supporting you.”
Even if fewer women choose to join religious life, the Sohlers say the mission will endure as lay partners take up the work in partnership with the Sisters.
“Our charism will live on,” Sister Barbara Rose says.