Administrator leaves behind her habit and the convent without losing her tranquility
Dressed modestly in black, Sister Phillip Mary arranges her 68 students into two separate lines as they enter class for their first day of second grade at St. Margaret's Grade School in Bel-Air, Maryland. Once they are settled, the nun leads her students in prayer as their little voices chime together, heads bowed and palms crossed.
Over 35 years later, Sister Phillip Mary has changed her name to Linda Wanner and shifted her vocation from teaching compassion to practicing it as Blair's 10th grade administrator.
Learning a new life
Inspired by the kindness and generosity of the sisters at her single-sex Catholic high school, Wanner joined a convent after graduation. She spent her first year as a postulant, one who aspires to the religious life but has not yet been admitted into any particular order. She learned the life of a nun, waking up at early morning hours, meditating and attending mass.
The following year, Wanner entered the novitiate, a period when novices enter into the religious order and form a deeper relationship with God.
During this year, Wanner wore a white veil and kept complete silence except for one hour each day, from six to seven at night, and came to realize just how much her life had changed. "We had no TV, no phone, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines, no contact with parents," she explains.
The only contact they had with the outside world came on the 25th of each month, also known as "little Christmas," when the sisters were allowed to read their mail. As harsh as it seems, Wanner still appreciates that one year of her life, and to this day she has never quite lost the tranquility of silence. "It's actually very calming," she says. "I can go inside of myself and find a great sense of quiet, solace, peace."
In a humble ceremony following the novitiate, wearing black dresses and with heads newly shaved, Wanner and nine fellow novices took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, received their black veil and officially became sisters.
The life-changing decision
Poised and sitting upright in her chair, Wanner glances to the corner of the room as she flashes back to the 1960s, to her first day of teaching. As the neat lines of uniformed boys and girls entered the classroom, one boy ran out of line and around the classroom.
Wanner, then known as Sister Phillip Mary, immediately went to open the door and encountered a young parish priest who came in holding the boy. "Hello, I'm Father Wanner," he said. "Do you know this little boy?"
The sister consoled the teary-eyed boy as he wrapped his arms around her thick black clothing.
One girl in the class, Deidra, raised her hand. "Sister, I think you should marry Father Wanner!" she exclaimed.
The administrator laughs as she finishes recalling the day she first met her future husband. "She knows about [our marriage] now," she says, smiling.
Wanner worked with a parish and, on occasion, travelled to different churches, speaking about the life of a nun. There were two priests at the convent who spoke as well, one of whom was Father Ray Wanner. "After a couple of years, we admitted that we loved each other," says Wanner.
After asking the Cardinal in Baltimore for guidance with the situation, Wanner and her husband reasoned that they wanted to remain truthful in their lives, and they felt their mutual love would not diminish over time. "We had to lead an honest life, so we both decided to leave," she says.
Wanner is an inspiration to all, says secretary Connie Monté, who has nothing but praise for the woman she often calls "my angel." "She's a motivator," Monté declares. "When she talks to these kids, she gives them something to think about. They come out saying, ‘God, she really hit home.'"
Wanner's guidance in 1974 as an English teacher in Prince George's County changed a student's life. "It was 11th grade English, and one boy in the class was playing basketball outside," Wanner remembers. "I went outside and told him, ‘Kevin you're not a great basketball player. But, you're a great writer, and I think you could go far.'"
That student, Kevin Merida, is now an acclaimed writer for the Washington Post Magazine. Wanner's eyes become a bit glassy as she recalls their reunion. "In 1997, I saw him, and he told me ‘I took your advice,'" she says. "We all hugged and had a nice cry."
Looking back on her life, Wanner has no regrets. She learned things from her time in the convent that remain with her to this day. "I really knew myself after I left the convent," she says. "I learned to be tolerant of every single person I meet."
And her tolerance and patience clearly shows in everyday interactions with students. As Wanner discusses more lessons learned from her time in the convent, a nervous former Blair student comes to her door. Wanner immediately rises from her chair and hugs him welcomingly. "How are you?" she genuinely asks.
The student was unable to graduate last year and is seeking Wanner's advice. Wanner pauses for a moment and then offers her guidance. "You can take classes at Montgomery College or enter as a freshman at the University of Maryland, and you can get your diploma after your first year of college," she says, making a mental note to contact him later. "Call me, and we can talk about this."
The student looks relieved as he thanks her and leaves. Returning to her chair, Wanner looks at the pictures sitting on her shelves. "I love the students and the diversity of this school," she says with sincerity in her voice. "I am just always inspired by how good kids can be if their teachers or administrators really love them."
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