ANNA SALE: When did you first have the inkling that you might want to become a nun?
SISTER JOSEPHINE GARRETT: Uh, it was not an inkling. It was like a, like a - like a brick in the face.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
Sister Josephine Garrett was a vice president at Bank of America when she first started thinking about becoming a nun. And the idea wouldn't go away.
JG: I started to freak out. Like, (laughs) like I can't stop thinking about nuns. I don't know anything about nuns, but I don't want to be a nun.
AS: And when you say freaking out, were you like telling friends of yours like, oh my god, I'd had this thought and it isn't this crazy?
JG: No, no. Uh freaking out meant, I told no one, like I put it in the vault and I went and got a therapist. That's what freaking out looks like for me. Like I was like, I need to see a mental health professional because I think I might be going crazy.
Sister Josephine talked with me from a convent in Dallas. At 38, she's one of just a few younger nuns in her community. Which is common across religious orders in the U.S. today. In fact, in 2009, there were more American nuns over the age of 90...than under the age of 60.
JG: I definitely didn't feel like I fit the, you know, the sisterly stereotype.
AS: What for you did a nun look like?
JG: A nun was like someone who's never done bad things. A nun was someone who has no personality. A nun is someone who's boring. A nun is someone who's not living her best life.
Sister Josephine grew up in Houston. Back then, she went by Toni — Josephine is the religious name she's adopted. She was raised Baptist, singing in the church choir, serving as an usher.
JG: And we were there a lot, because Baptist people go to church a lot. Um, so we were there on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday. So it was like, I mean, it was a big center point in our lives, that church.
AS: Was it primarily a black church?
JG: Yeah, everybody was black. It was one of those places where we're like, when a white person walked in, we like politely tried to be casual. (Laughs) Like everybody was black.
She went to Baptist church until she left Houston for college, at a small Catholic university in Dallas. But Sister Josephine didn't really connect to Catholicism there, and after she graduated, she stopped going to church all together.
She got a job as a teller at Bank of America. And quickly worked her way up the ranks to eventually manage a couple hundred employees.
JG: I loved working, like I wanted to grow in banking and I did that. I, like I was excited about the idea of being like a career woman -
AS: Uh huh.
JG: You know, that excited me, um, and it felt like great accomplishments to have.
AS: When you were a vice president at a bank where, where were you living? What did your life look like?
JG: I was living in Dallas and, uh, had an apartment and so it was a lot of hours. I worked a lot. And so, I was single and you know, got a dog and hung out with friends and um I loved that show Criminal Minds. I'd watch some Criminal Minds.
AS: Uh-huh. And as you, as you were promoted from a bank teller up to a vice president, what did you spend your money on?
JG: (Laughs) Cigarettes and -
AS: Really? (Laughs)
JG: - going out. Yeah. Cigarettes, going out, uh clothes. I mean, I did all of that. That was me. When I stopped smoking, I paid my car note with the cigarette money. Okay? (Laughs) It was like -
AS: (Laughs) Was it like - could you articulate that there was something that you felt like wasn't enough in your life or - or you were stuck?
JG: I think at the time I was just taking it a step at a time, but when I looked back and like found myself in that grind, right, of going to work, chasing after the next promotion, or the next, you know, wink from the boss or um, whatever. It's just like constant chasing. Um, little by little, I was slipping into depression. Working more and more, and then when I got out of work, like how I was using my free time, like, yeah, I'm grateful for my friends and you know, Criminal Minds, but I don't know if God made man for the Netflix binge. Right?
JG: Um, and so it's like (laughs), and - and so I can look back now and see that I was desperate for more.
So, in her mid-20s, Sister Josephine thought going back to her religious roots might help her find what she was missing.
JG: I realized that I wanted to take more responsibility for my faith, um and and grow in my faith. I started reading some more books, found some people who had the same goals, started going to study groups.
But instead of going to a Baptist church… she started attending a local Catholic one.
JG: I loved the quiet, um, 'cuz you know, Baptist church is turned up like the volume is turned up, every, you know, things are turned up right?
AS: Uh huh.
JG: And so, there was something about that quiet that was helpful to me. And then I loved, because growing up when we'd get out of church it would be like, oh, preacher really preached today, or choir really sang. And church was good based on the programming or based on the pastor or based on how entertained I was. Um, what I saw in the Catholic church is that church was always going to be good no matter those variables because of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the blessed sacrament, like in the bread and wine that we receive.
JG: So it didn't matter if the programming entertained me or pleased me, or was satisfying to me, it would always be satisfying because of God. That was very helpful to me because I know that all those other things will eventually fail, um because they're temporal.
Becoming a nun hadn't yet occurred to Sister Josephine, but she decided to convert to Catholicism. She started taking Catholic education classes after work and on the weekends, and going to confession.
JG: It's so overwhelming at first because when you're an adult becoming Catholic, that first confession is a general confession. And so you sit down and you try to reflect on all the sins that you can remember. So I had, we had a lot to talk about, me and Father.
AS: Uh huh.
JG: His name is Father Rudy. Father Rudy and I had a lot of talk about because it was my whole lifetime.
AS: Like did you make a list beforehand in a journal, like how do you prepare for a general confession?
JG: I did that. You don't have to do that. But I did that, you know, I just did like a reflection and was writing things I could remember. So going in, I think I was just kind of stunned, you know, and just like, I'm going to go in here and do this. So, you know, because it - it - it felt like a lot. But once I was finished talking, I'll never forget, he said to me, um, you are the daughter of God. Um, after he heard uh 20, was it 24 years of sin? He said, you are the daughter of God, and your heart will be restless until you rest in God, and I thought he was a genius when he said that. I later learned that it was Saint Augustine who said that. (Laughs)
JG: That Father didn't come up with that. Um, but that's all he said to me. That's all he said to me, um.
AS: And after you became a Catholic, was it disappointing that that conversion wasn't enough? Like what was it like to realize that didn't feel like enough?
JG: I can't, and that's the thing, I don't, 'cuz like I converted and then I did what I could do at that time which was go to mass every Sunday. That's what I could do at that time and if I committed serious sins, I went to confession. And so it wasn't like it it wasn't enough. It was like at that time, it was what I could do. And then when it was time to do more, I did more. Um, and I think even your question, Anna, says a lot about what we struggle with, you know. We hate to be on the journey, you know, and I think that's why people have problems with God. We want everything fixed now. And becoming Catholic wasn't gonna put a bow on my life and say, the seal, done, check. It was a step in the journey.
But the next step… still took Sister Josephine by surprise. She was volunteering at a retreat for some Catholic kids one Saturday…
JG: The kids were on a break and praying and I started to thank God. I was like, you know, just, thank you God for me choosing to, giving me the graces to choose to be chaperoning youth on a Saturday, you know, instead of being with my friends or smoking my cigarettes. And then I thought, it would be so cool to be a sister and like minister in the church. And my eyes popped open and I felt shocked by the thought, like I had like a, "Who said that?" kind of moment. Um, and right then a sister walked by me, like she just walked right in front of me.
AS: A woman wearing a habit who was visibly a sister, walked right in front of you as you had that thought?
JG: Walked right in front of me, mmhmm. Um, and from that moment on I couldn't stop thinking about sisters. What do they do? What are they like? What's that like? It flooded into my mind and I was overwhelmed.
Coming up, after a few years of hashing it out in therapy — Sister Josephine becomes a nun. And so far, she doesn't regret leaving behind the possibility of marriage or kids.
JG: Probably in my mid-forties I'm going to get hit with that. Right? Like a Mack truck, but it hasn't hit me.
JG: It hasn't hit me very hard.
Big work transitions can be just as life changing as the ones that happen in our personal lives. I've been thinking about that a lot as I get ready to go on my second maternity leave. And it's also something Sister Josephine ran into when she decided to leave her secular life to become a nun.
Next year, we're going to be talking about all the ways that work transitions can affect our lives and our identities — whether it's quitting, getting fired, asking for a raise, navigating tricky relationships at work.
But for now, I want you to take a picture of something that represents a big work change for you. Maybe it's the diploma that you finally got, that's hanging on the wall. Or the new shoes you bought for your first day at your new job. Or the business card that you made after you started that new venture. There's a picture on the Death, Sex & Money Instagram right now of MY first business card when I moved to New York to freelance. I dealt with my crippling fears by putting my name in ALL CAPS.
Send your pictures to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the next episode, a listener named Andrea talks about the lessons she learned about sex growing up in evangelical purity culture.
Andrea: Don't be alone with a boy, don't dress in ways that might cause him to stumble. That message is I think burned into my brain.
Anna: Stumble is the word.
Andrea: Yeah, stumble.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
Today, Sister Josephine Garrett lives in a convent along with six other nuns. It's attached to a hospital, where some of them do their ministry.
JG: One sister serves as a chaplain in the hospital, two of the sisters serve as, uh nurses in the hospital.
AS: How old is the oldest person that you live with?
JG: The oldest person I live with is in her early eighties.
AS: What's that like living with someone in her early eighties?
JG: I love, I mean, I love it. It was, I didn't think about it a lot before I entered the convent, which is strange because I could see, you know, there were sisters who were older. Um, but it's been one of the greatest gifts of the past seven years is sharing close space, living space, um, with people who are in their 80s and 90s. Um, because they have, they have persevered, right? So they're not talk. They have lived, they have ministered. They don't know how to use their cell phones and computers and things like that, okay, and so (laughs) we have to step through that. Uh, but I have enjoyed it. I have enjoyed it.
AS: And then is there, do you share, um, household duties? Is it like having a bunch of roommates?
JG: I would not say it's like having a bunch of roommates, it's, um - because with a bunch of roommates you guys are kind of like, you're able to like be passing ships in the night. Um so we share house duties but we also pray together and we have our meals together and we once a month take retreat together and so it's really um more of like a family life model in the sense of shared life than like a roommate type of thing.
AS: How does it get scheduled, like who's cooking dinner what night, and who's doing the dishes and who's cleaning?
JG: We have a calendar for all of that. It's a very, it's - it's a remarkable creation.
JG: (Laughs) But it keeps us from from being like on, you know completely on top of each other and so it helps us. It's a spreadsheet. Thank God for the person who made Excel.
Since moving into a convent seven years ago, Sister Josephine has taken her first vows — a promise to live a life of poverty, obedience, and chastity.
AS: For you, as a woman in your early thirties at the time, did you struggle with, with letting go of the possibility of traditional marriage and and motherhood?
JG: Not as significantly as I hear other women struggle with it. I felt like I didn't feel like I was, um, losing that significant opportunity or needed to grieve that. Like I felt like God built me for this, like built me for being a sister.
AS: Did it feel like you had to give up on the idea of romantic love being a part of your life?
JG: I did. Like, I guess like, yeah, in the way that we we think about it, yeah. That, if that, if anything was harder, that was harder, right? Like letting go of romantic love because I am like, I do have a romantic heart and I am a romantic. So that was a bigger struggle. Um, but it's like you sit it down, like it's not give it up, um, for a different way of loving. Um, and so I'll tell people celibacy is not, it's not like a closing off of my heart or like a closing off of myself. It's actually a bigger opening up. Um, and so I do experience love in my life. Um, I experience love from the sisters. I experience love in ministry and from family. Is it like sexual love, the way we understand it and how we sometimes box romance into that? It's not that. Um, it's appropriate for celibacy. Um, and so it meets my intimacy needs, um, but I had to really learn that.
AS: Was there something that was difficult to give up from your life, living in your apartment with your dog, with your car, with your - ?
JG: Oh my God. My time. To be the sole decider of how I dispensed my time was one of the most difficult things to give up, and then my job, which I didn't see that coming, you know? So eventually I did have to you know let go of having my own money and, and work with the sisters on my needs and what money I would need to do certain things and I let go of my clothes, I let go of my car. Um, for some reason, I thought those things would hurt more than the job, but the day I left the job, I was crying so hard that I had to pull my car over because I couldn't see.
JG: Um, and I was so shocked by that. Yeah, I didn't think that I would, that it would be so hard to lose. But now I know that being a successful, you know, bank person, that I had, uh that had become such a huge part of my identity. Um, and so it was like death, um, to - to walk away from that, to become something else.
AS: Did those moments of uh, grief make you doubt your decision?
JG: Those moments of grief put me in the chapel. Um, I didn't have doubt. I can count, like I can count, there have been two times where I was like, I gotta go. (Laughs) In the past seven years, there have been two moments of like crisis where it's like, I don't know if I can do it, uh, but with the job, it didn't make me think I've done the wrong thing. It made me go pray.
AS: When - when was a time when you thought, I've got to get out, this actually isn't right?
JG: I mean to look into, to think back to it now, I smile because it was so petty. I was mad at the sisters because I sent an email and I didn't feel like they responded to me fast enough. Okay, (laughing) I was trying to get something done and there was a sister I was getting very close to and she was doing a class with me on the catechism and so we started class and I'm feeling closer to her and so I'm telling her I'm so angry with the sisters and she didn't take my side. Um and so we started to argue. And I had never argued with her before. Um, and so she finally, I said something very rude to her and she says, you know, Toni, let's just start the class. Right, and I said, okay, so then I looked down at the book we're studying and I start crying. (Laughs) So I tell her, I don't want to be here with you right now, like I'm upset and she said, okay, fine, we don't have to have class. And so that day went on, I thought, I don't know that I can do this. I don't know if I can work things out with women I don't understand, if I can work things out with people I didn't choose, you know, if I can do that day to day relationship stuff with people so wildly different from me. Um -
AS: Well, I want to, I mean Sister Josephine, you do have a different personal history than most of the women that you are in community with now. You, you're not only much younger, there are not many African American women. Um, there are parts of your life I imagine that many people that you live with have not experienced or understood. Um, has that felt - has that felt lonely? Has that felt like, you know what, sometimes I get to be frustrated that - that I'm different?
JG: Yeah. I mean I'm pretty, I'm one of the more vocal members of our community. So when I feel different or when I feel anything, I'm pretty, I say it, you know. Um, but I was actually talking the other day with my mentor. I have a mentor sister and I was talking with her the other day because I was coming out of some conflicts that I'd had with a couple of sisters and she and I were processing that. And as I was talking with her, I was like, you know what, I've - actually, in seven years, I've never had a sister not meet me and say, okay let's work on this. Uh, let's do this. I've definitely had conflicts. I've definitely felt misunderstood. I've definitely been frustrated. I definitely feel like I'm in company where I can express that and still be loved. Um, so like my first mentor, she watched Good Hair with me, Chris Rock's movie?
AS: Uh huh.
JG: She watched that with me. (Laughs) Um, she understands my hair, she understands my hair products. Um, you know. So -
AS: And your first mentor, was she an older white woman?
JG: She was a middle-aged Polish white woman. She was in her forties and she's from Poland and she was sitting there watching Good Hair with me.
AS: I love that. (Laughs)
JG: (Laughs) And when it ended - when it ended she looked at me and she was astounded. She was very disturbed by the whole - the whole situation and she looked at me and she said, I just really want you to know that you are beautiful, that your hair is beautiful, that you are beautiful and I said, thank you sister. I feel beautiful. I'm okay.
JG: So I mean, I know I, yeah, I'm I'm aware of my difference, but it doesn't feel like something that has to be held back here.
AS: I'm in California today. You are in Texas, so I can't see you. Can you describe for me what are you wearing today?
SJ: Our community, we have options for our habit. Um, so today I have on a black skirt and a black sweater and a white blouse and then I have my veil on which is also black and white.
AS: And when you say veil, is it like um, sort of what I think of when I think of what a nun's veil might look like?
SJ: Yes, that's exactly what it is.
AS: Uh huh. What do you like about putting it on each day?
JG: It's a great reminder for me you know, about who, who I'd like to be and who and what I've committed myself to. Um, I think in my time of wearing a veil, one of the greatest gifts I've become aware of is that when this thing is on my head, my life of ministry is not according to my own will. Um, so when people look and see this veil, they come and they demand of me um the fruits of being a woman who has taken vows as a religious sister. You know, so they'll come up in the grocery store and not even introduce themselves and say I need prayer for this specific situation. Right? So it just drops the small talk and we're right into the thick of their life and so - I don't always like that. Sometimes I want to do me. Right? That's the culture we live in. You do you girl.
AS: Uh huh.
JG: And sometimes I want to do me, you know, (laughs) but when I put this veil on I can't do me. Um, I have to do the ministry and the life that I've been called to.
AS: Can you describe for me, like, where in public you've, you've prayed with a stranger who just approached you?
JG: Sure. The last time was probably three weeks ago. Um, I went to Walmart and uh, I was in the game aisle because I do - I do therapy with children and adolescents and I needed some new games.
AS: Uh huh.
JG: And I was walking up and down the game aisle kind of like, almost like pacing, trying to decide what I wanted to get and I can see now that the woman who was standing in the aisle was just watching me walk back and forth, and then she finally said, excuse me, um, and I said yes? And she said, it's been a long time since I prayed, and seeing you, I need to pray right now. And I said, okay, is there anything you want to talk about before we pray? And she said, no, I just know that right now I need to pray. Uh, so we prayed.
That's Sister Josephine Garrett. She works as a therapist with young people who've gone through trauma, and is studying to get her masters degree in counseling.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I'm based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, CA. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Stephanie Joyce, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
And thanks to Miguel Perez for his help on this episode.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And you can email us anytime at email@example.com
Sister Josephine told me, there might have been one other reason that that stranger felt compelled to approach her in the games aisle at Walmart that day.
JG: I had in my hands the game Last Word and Would You Rather, right? So I'm holding Would You Rather and Last Word and we're praying in Walmart.
AS: Subtle. Subtle. (Laughs)
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money, from WNYC.