By Catherine Walsh, Features Writer
When Sister Patricia “Pat” Coward was in the 7th grade, she never thought she’d become a sister. And she wasn’t sure what to tell her friends when her 18-year-old sister, Sister Donna Marie Coward, joined the Sisters of Mercy. “Although I was proud of Donna, I had to be cool,” Sister Pat says. “It wasn’t cool to have a sister who was a sister!”
Sister Donna laughs. After all, less than a dozen years after she became a Sister of Mercy in 1965, Pat did too. And look where they are now.
Sisters Donna and Pat relish their lives as “sister-sisters” more than ever. They joyfully talk about “growing daily into the calling,” as Sister Donna refers to their life.
As a junior in high school, young Donna found the sisters more compelling than her “steady” boyfriend. A retreat she attended her senior year sealed the deal to enter religious life.
A vivid memory for Sister Donna was when Holy Thursday Mass was celebrated in English when she was a first-year novice. As the priest intoned the liturgy’s sacred words “On this night…,” she had goosebumps. “It was a powerful moment and we all talked about it afterwards.”
Sister Pat, who graduated from high school two months before Sister Donna’s final vows ceremony, recalls with a laugh. “Obviously, my graduation was the secondary event!”
But this gregarious student-athlete who served on a statewide student-government council couldn’t help but be moved by the sisters at her high school. “I was attracted by the nuns’ availability. They didn’t go home to their husbands,” Sister Pat reflects.
She was urged by the sisters to earn a college degree before considering religious life and “live fully and love lots.” After graduating from college with a degree in physical education and health and a minor in English, she spent a year teaching at a Catholic school in Mobile, Alabama.
And then, on July 4, 1976, Sister Pat entered the Sisters of Mercy. She was the first woman in Baltimore in six years to become a Sister of Mercy. One of the sisters joked, “How ironic that in this Bicentennial year, the country is celebrating 200 years of independence as you are kissing yours goodbye!”
Over the years, Sisters Donna and Pat have served in diverse ministries in the South while supporting each other in the special ways that sisters who are nuns can do. For a while, they lived together in a convent with other nuns in Savannah, Georgia, while teaching at different schools.
“As blood sisters and religious sisters, there’s a space that we can share that we can’t share with other people,” Sister Pat says, noting that they “participate in common things” like attending international gatherings and serving on committees.
“And there’s that time when you are finished with your work and all your meetings, and you can talk candidly, about your frustrations and joys. It’s nice to have a sister who is a sister!”
For Sister Donna, being a vowed religious woman alongside Sister Pat is also about being a witness to God’s love in a particular way.
“What tugs at my heart is that [as vowed, celibate women], we are called to witness to the universal love that God has for all people, just as married couples are called to witness to the individual love that God has for all people,” she says.