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The black nun from Detroit whose story you don’t know

Sister Marie Lutgarde, believed to be the only black nun in a centuries-old convent, followed a path from westside Detroit to an order of lifelong service.

“All For My Beloved Jesus” reads the handwritten note in a box of shorn hair that once crowned the head of a native daughter of Detroit. The trimmed locks are a treasured keepsake for the kinfolk of Sister Marie Lutgarde, a black nun who was killed in a 1994 train collision near her convent in eastern Canada.

“My sister had long, gorgeous hair,” recalls Lois Wheeler, 78, in a phone interview about her only sibling, nee Phyllis Rae Johnson. “The nuns cut it off when she took her vows in 1951. My mother attended the ceremony and brought the box of hair home with her. I’ve had it all these years.”

The eldest child in an industrious west side Detroit family, Johnson studied ballet, delighted in stargazing and adored candied apples. “We’d sneak them in when we went to the movies,” Wheeler says, “but we couldn’t bite them because they were rock hard.”

A graduate of Wayne State University, Johnson, raised Episcopalian, envisioned a teaching career. But a chance reading of The Seven Storey Mountain by Trappist monk Thomas Merton prompted her to convert to Catholicism and pursue another path.

“Phyllis was engaged to a nice fellow she’d met in college,” Wheeler says. “He went on vacation and came home to news from my sister that she’d fallen in love with another man: Jesus. He was shocked, but said he’d wait a year.

“But she’d been inspired by Merton’s book and decided to join a convent,” Wheeler continues. “Mama and Daddy cried like babies. I wouldn’t see my sister again for 20 years.”

The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, has been hailed as a landmark religious text. The volume details the quest that led Merton – a New York college professor and jazz enthusiast – to forsake secular life and become a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Sister Lutgarde outside the convent church. Photo courtesy of Lois T. Wheeler.

Trappists adhere to a strict regimen of prayer and manual labor within a cloistered community. Unlike active orders (i.e. Domincans or Jesuits), they do not teach, preach or otherwise engage in the outside world, such as serving at soup kitchens or performing community service at homeless shelters. (But Trappists are especially noted for their fruitcakes, beer, honey, preserves and other self-sustaining projects.) The Seven Storey Mountain triggered a deluge of applications to convents and monasteries during the 1950s and ’60s.

Johnson longed to emulate Merton but was unable to secure entry to an American convent. “I think racism might have been involved,” ventured Wheeler. Undaunted, she instead “took the veil” with an order of cloistered Trappistine nuns at the French-speaking Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Abbey in Rogersville, New Brunswick.

Then age 24, she stands as the only known black woman to join the nunnery that traces its roots to 19th-century France.

Living by the code

Down from about 40 nuns when Johnson (who’d studied French in college) entered the convent, the abbey is now home to just seven nuns who practice their faith in an ambience of sacred prayer, music, work and silence. They support themselves through the manufacture and sale of communion wafers. In keeping with the Trappistine tradition of hospitality, the order also welcomes women of all creeds for private retreats.

Re-named in honor of St. Lutgardis, a 13th century Flemish nun, Johnson took the name of Sister Marie Lutgarde and shared news of her arrival at the 300-acre abbey in a letter dated Nov. 15, 1951. An excerpt reads:

Dear Mama, Daddy and Lois,

I hope by now that you have stopped crying. … (The convent) is more beautiful than I had ever dreamed. So white and new and holy.

She goes on to describe her postulant’s attire (“a black dress and bonnet of black crepe”) and her surroundings. “The animals here are cows, chickens, sheep, cats,” she wrote. “The cats have very clean white coats, not at all like city cats.”

Wheeler would explore the landscape when, traveling with her mother, she made her first visit to the abbey in the early 1970s. However, she rankled at rules that restricted her contact with Sister Lutgarde.

Named after a 13th century Flemish nun, Sister Marie Lutgarde, “bride of Christ”  during her early days at the convent with her mother in background. Photo courtesy of Lois T. Wheeler.

“She sat on the other side of a counter behind a grill,” Wheeler says. “I was so upset. When I returned to Detroit, I wrote a letter telling the nuns how hard it was for loved ones not to be able to hug their family members.”

Wheeler says she rejoiced when Trappistine rules eased and her sister, clothed in her nun’s habit, made occasional visits home.

“We’d go out for hamburgers and french fries because the convent food was mainly vegetarian,” she says, with a laugh. “One time I took her to see Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. She covered her face during the first part of the movie, which is kind of racy. But she liked it. I sent a copy to New Brunswick for all the nuns.”

A tragic end

During a retreat last summer at the abbey, I met with Sister Jean Marie. Now in her late 80s and frail, she remembered with fondness the nun who “danced with plates in the dining hall.”

“Sister Lutgarde had a lovely voice and sang beautiful gospel hymns,” said Sister Jean Marie. “She also liked to paint, knit and crochet. She brought a lot of joy to our community.”

By the 1990s, Sister Lutgarde had been at the convent for forty years. On May 9, 1994, she was en route to a medical appointment when, within yards of the abbey, a train slammed into the car she was riding in. At 67, she died instantly. The driver, 62, survived.

Accompanied by her husband David, Wheeler flew from Detroit to attend her sister’s funeral mass and burial in the convent’s picturesque graveyard. She also made a hospital visit to the woman who’d been driving the car.

“She felt so guilty, she hadn’t eaten for days,” Wheeler says. “I took her hand and told her the accident wasn’t her fault. She ate that day.”

Interestingly, Wheeler had once ambled along the railroad tracks where Sister Lutgarde perished. “During my first visit to the abbey, I wanted to walk through the cemetery but wasn’t allowed,” she recalls. “The railroad tracks are on an incline that runs parallel to the convent.

“So, I went up there and got an excellent view of the cemetery,” she continues. “There was no whistle but I could feel a train coming. So I got off the tracks.”

Zoned as part of the convent’s private property, the railroad crossing provides the only access to the abbey. The site is not marked (then or now) by guard gates or flashing signal lights. Such railroad safety measures are not legally mandated at private crossings in Canada.

A youthful Phyllis Johnson enjoying the summer sunshine. Photo courtesy of Lois T. Wheeler.

Bertrand LeBlanc, a former mayor of Rogersville, says that frequent train traffic in the area had resulted in numerous deaths. He credits Sister Kate, another nun at the abbey, with initiating changes that have decreased fatalities.

“After the tragedy of Sister Lutgarde, we worked together to have the trains sound their whistles when they pass through town,” he explains. “Now people are more aware of the danger.”

To be sure, I heard the distinctive blast of train whistles during my retreat at the convent.

Today, Lois Wheeler takes comfort in the cache of drawings, letters and small gifts that Sister Lutgarde dispatched home from Canada. And she is grateful for the kindness of the nuns who returned, after her sister’s death, the $200 dowry that the “bride of Christ” had paid to join the convent.

“A check arrived in the mail,” she says. “I was floored.”

Reflecting on her sister, Wheeler adds, with palpable pride: “Phyllis stepped out of the life planned for her. She stepped out of her religion, out of her culture, out of Detroit, out of her country. And she made a difference.”

EVELYN C. WHITE IS AUTHOR OF THE BIOGRAPHY ALICE WALKER: A LIFE. SHE LIVES IN HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA.

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