My friend Ruth Nierengarten, OSB, died on Sunday night at the age of 87. Although her health was delicate and she had been living in assisted living (St. Scholastica Convent in St. Cloud) for the last two years, this was still unexpected. In the past week, as so often, I’d been assembling questions I wanted to ask the next time I got a chance to talk to her.
Sister Ruth radiated warmth and intelligence. She was always soft-spoken, and a video interview I did with her had trouble picking up her voice. In fact, photos I took of her, like the one at left, often turned out blurry (how I wish I’d been able to capture her in the red suspenders her brother gave her one Christmas). She is and was hard to capture in a single shot.
I particularly loved her stories of growing up in St. Cloud, prowling the woods behind their house when St. Cloud was a small town. I also loved her stories of growing up as a Catholic family in a Lutheran town in Minnesota, and how her brothers won over the town with their sports ability. At some point a whole team of Lutherans were wearing St. Christopher medals to help their chances on the basketball court.
When Ruth decided to become a nun, she first wanted to join the Maryknoll Sisters. Her mother sobbed and said, “I could let it if you became a Benedictine, but if you become a Maryknoll I’ll never see you again.” She agreed and joined the community where she’d attended high school and college. She learned over the summer from an article in the diocesan newspaper that she’d be teaching art to college students in the fall. Some of the students in the class had been in class with her just the year before. She said she got through it by recognizing who was the best at various techniques and encouraging them to help each other. What a lesson to learn early– how to recognize talent and encourage it. No doubt this is what made her such an excellent teacher.
She taught high school and was the dean of students at St. Benedict’s Academy, the high school operated by the Sisters, overseeing its closure in 1974. She was also the vocations director and then novice director during the difficult years of the early 1970s, when few were entering religious life and many were leaving.
She loved teaching at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud and living in the large teachers’ convent there. She talked especially about the parties. One game she described consisted of the teachers standing behind a large sheet with holes cut out for them to put their noses through. You had to guess who they were by only their noses! (And, I suppose, their height!) It is easy for me to imagine how this “challenge” came about, and also the Sisters making the preparations necessary to play the game. When you “stood behind” a habit in your daily life, recognition came down to faces, but she agreed it was a very hard game!
Sister Ruth was a very talented artist. She made portraits of all the bishops of the St. Cloud diocese (after Bishop John Kinney saw her portraits of the bishops of Fargo, North Dakota). They are quite lovely and detailed, and she’s done other portraits, of prioresses and the Sisters who went to China and others, that grace the halls and archives of Saint Benedict’s Monastery. But I loved her liturgical line drawings, including this drawing of St. Scholastica which I had up near my desk, the (probably mythical) twin of St. Benedict. She herself had a twin brother. It is of course terribly “old fashioned,” but for me it says so much about what is passing away as these older Sisters die. We will not see their kind on this earth again– oh yes, we will see many other forms of kindness, intelligence, faithfulness, creativity, and all the rest. But there was something very special about this particular incarnation of the faith and it is so difficult to capture.