Saying goodbye to ‘Nun Grandma’: The San Francisco philanthropist, widow and mother of 10 who gave it all up to spend her last 31 years in a Des Plaines monastery
JUN 13, 2021 AT 2:29 PM
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“It’s kind of like ‘The Great Gatsby’ turned into ‘The Sound of Music,’” said Jane Gubser, a granddaughter and Evergreen Park native.
The woman formerly known as Ann Russell Miller was a railroad heiress, born in 1928, who married young, raised 10 kids, was a board member for dozens of philanthropic organizations, cofounded the northern California chapter of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation and entertained friends at the nine-bedroom San Francisco mansion on Divisadero Street that she shared with her husband, Richard Kendall Miller, a prominent energy executive and arts patron.
The deeply religious couple made a pact that, if one died, the other would join a religious order.
Richard and Ann Miller in a photo taken for their 35th wedding anniversary on June 15, 1983. Richard, known as Dick, died the following year. (Miller Family)
When Richard died of cancer in 1984, Ann Miller did exactly that, giving away all her riches and joining the Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph in Des Plaines, five years after her husband’s death.
She entered self-imposed withdrawal by joining the contemplative cloistered order, able to leave only for medical treatment. As the world emerges out of quarantine, Sister Mary Joseph’s family celebrates the life of a woman who chose it — despite millions of reasons not to.
‘The last third will be devoted to my soul’
Ann Miller commemorated her 61st birthday on Oct. 30, 1989, with Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco followed by a lavish hotel party for 800 friends and family members — some traveling from as far away as Great Britain and Hawaii. It was the conclusion of her lay life, which followed the shedding of her belongings. Even her San Francisco mansion was sold — to the lead guitarist for the band Metallica. The day after the party, she flew to Chicago and moved in with the Carmelites, who spend the majority of their days in prayer, wear sandals and are not allowed to touch outsiders — including family members — and can only meet with them in person from behind several rows of grated metal bars, which lock them inside their convent. “The first two-thirds of my life were devoted to the world,” she told the San Francisco Examiner. “The last third will be devoted to my soul.”
(San Francisco Examiner, April 15, 1990)
Miller was raised Catholic by her father, former Southern Pacific Railroad Chairman Donald J. Russell and mother, Louise Herring Russell. Her only sibling, Donna, died at a young age. Miller and husband Richard, known as “Dick,” were active in the church and a variety of lay religious orders after eloping in 1948.
The birth of a grandchild with a medical condition, however, strengthened her commitment to faith, according to her oldest child.
“When my son, who will be 50 now, when he was born he had a serious health problem so he needed an operation. They weren’t sure he was going to live,” said Donna Casey. “And my mother said, ‘I made a pledge to the dear Lord that if he made it, I’d go to Mass every day for a year.’ And that was 50 years ago. So I’m sort of blaming my son for this whole idea.”
From then on, Miller attended Mass daily. It was not unusual for a priest to accompany her to events and on vacation for this reason. She was an active traveler and outdoor explorer who called herself “the world’s oldest living female scuba diver,” went on archaeological digs in Israel and received a card from a grandchild that said, “Grandma can’t come to the phone; she’s hang-gliding.”
Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity, formerly known as Ann Russell Miller, receives a visit from seven of her 10 children in celebration of her 90th birthday in 2018 at the Carmelite Monastery in Des Plaines. (Miller Family)
‘Moderation was not in her vocabulary’
Miller’s 10 children — in birth order, Donna, Douglas, Richard, Janet, Marian, Leslie, Donald, David, Mark and Elena — each had their own reaction to their mother’s decision to leave her lay life, which she shared with them over lunch at Trader Vic’s on two separate occasions in 1987 — first with her daughters, then with her sons. A spectrum of emotions affected their relationships with her and each other during the past almost four decades.
The reactions ranged from complete support:
“I was delighted. I think she made the right choice for herself because moderation was not in her vocabulary,” Casey said. “She did everything full-bore, and it was not going to be easy for her to do much of anything. I think what she planned on doing was getting there and becoming the reverend mother immediately and running everything.”
To bitter feelings of abandonment:
“Another brother said it was going to be like having two deceased parents, so it was definitely a mixed reaction all the way around,” said Mark Miller, the ninth-born of Miller’s 10 children, who says he became an uncle for the first time at the age of 5 years old.
Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity, formerly known as Ann Russell Miller, in an undated photo at the Carmelite Monastery in Des Plaines, Ill. (Miller Family)
He took to Twitter last week after hearing about his mother’s death. His impassioned yet simply written thread about his mother’s life and his complicated relationship with her immediately went viral — gathering more than 200,000 likes — to the chagrin of some of his siblings.
Miller kicked Mark out of her home when he was 18 because she didn’t approve of the relationship he had with a woman who lived in San Diego. His mother told him if he traveled to see her, then he should not come back to her house. She also told him he would no longer have contact with his mother and siblings if he pursued the relationship.
“So by the time I was called to the lunch, it was probably the first time I had seen her since that day,” Mark said.
Friends and even Miller’s own mother — who lived to be 99 years old and died after Miller entered the monastery — resented her decision to become a Carmelite. A longtime friend reportedly proposed marriage while they were aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean Sea — she turned him down.
“She made the right choice for herself. A lot of people thought it was selfish to leave her mother and her children, but I don’t think it was selfish,” Casey said. “I think she really needed this change in her life and she got it.”
Nuns at the Carmelite Monastery at River and Central roads in Des Plaines work in their garden under the supervision of "Carmel," the community's handsome watch dog in October 1963. Work is another form of prayer for the Sisters of Carmel. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)
‘Save a place for me’
Prior to making the Carmelite Monastery in Des Plaines her permanent residence, Miller visited it several times at the urging of a friend, the Rev. Regis Norbert Barwig.
She struck up a friendship with its prioress, Mother Agnes, who founded the monastery in 1959. It’s the only convent of its kind in Illinois and the 61st Carmelite monastery in the United States. Mother Agnes gave Miller and her husband a tour of a new wing before it was consecrated. Miller was so impressed by what she saw there that several people say she pointed out which cell, or room, she’d like to occupy and signed the guest book, “Save a place for me.”
She returned to the nunnery following the deaths of her father and husband, which occurred within one year of each other.
In a 1990 story she recalled telling the reverend mother during this visit, “’You know, I think I am supposed to come here,’ I told her and she said, ‘Yes dear, we know you are.’”
Mother Anne, the current prioress over the 18 Carmelites in Des Plaines, has lived at the monastery since 1966 and remembers Miller’s arrival.
“She was just a lot of fun. She had all kinds of stories from her past life that we were happy to hear,” Mother Anne said. “She would just regale everybody with stories of her travels.”
Miller became known by her new name, Sister Mary Joseph of the Holy Trinity, on May 1, 1990. A five-year novitiate period followed in which — at any time — she could decide to leave or have her superiors make that decision for her. She remained and was veiled in a beautiful ceremony that took place in the monastery’s chapel in June 1994. The event was national news, but her celebrity quickly faded as she devoted herself to the order’s daily chores, prayers and contemplation.
‘Like opening up a magazine and all those subscription cards would fall out’
Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity, formerly known as Ann Russell Miller, was a prolific letter writer during the 31 years she lived at the Carmelite Monastery in Des Plaines, Ill. Since she had so many friends and relatives to correspond with she would often make a copy of her original letter then add a personalized greeting or message — often in red ink — at the top or on the back of the letter. (Kori Rumore/Chicago Tribune)
Unable to speak frequently with those outside the monastery’s walls, Sister Mary Joseph began a letter-writing campaign in which friends and family could share their intentions with her and they would be added to the Carmelites extensive prayer list.
“She got 300 letters a month,” Casey said. “People were writing her about prayers and they were telling her their problems.”
With so many admirers, Sister Mary Joseph would make copies of an original letter then personalize portions of it — either at the top or on the letter’s back page — often in brightly colored ink. Each letter was accompanied by colorfully designed pieces of paper featuring Bible verses, notices of upcoming novenas (special prayer days) and other ephemera.
“It was like opening up a brand new Time or Sports Illustrated,” Mark Miller said. “There would be all these leaflets, prayer cards, things like that. It was like opening up a magazine and all those subscription cards would fall out.”
Sister Mary Joseph’s letters to her family became immediate keepsakes, sometimes.
“The one she wrote me for my wedding very much spoke to me and who I was as a person, what she saw in me, the importance of marriage and how to not take that for granted. How it truly is a blessing,” Gubser said. ”Her letters were always very intentional and spoke to important beliefs that we shared and wanted to impress upon us.”
Other times, well, her words created deep wounds.
Upon the birth of Mark Miller’s oldest daughter, he phoned his mother to share the good news. Sister Mary Joseph refused to accept the name he and his wife had chosen for her. Instead, she said, he should name her Josephine and even told him, “Listen, I want you to pray with your wife about changing the name.”
”So about three months later I got a letter, ‘Dear Mark, my wife’s name, (son) David and the as-yet unnamed daughter,’” Mark Miller said. Following that letter he said, “Sometimes I just let my wife read them and would then ask her if there’s anything in there worth letting me know.”
Families and their emotions are complicated — even when your mom is a nun.
This letter from Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity in 2015 included a prayer card and information about Saint Therese of Lisieux and her parents in advance of a novena, or nine days of prayers, event to be held at the monastery's chapel in their honor. (Illustration by Kori Rumore/Chicago Tribune)
‘She said that she could find my father in heaven’
The letters ceased when the formerly whip-smart Sister Mary Joseph’s health declined in late 2020. A series of TIAs, or mini strokes, were the cause, Casey said.
No one was allowed to visit the monastery due to the coronavirus pandemic. Public Masses were canceled. In a desperate attempt to provide her family with updates, the community of women who don’t regularly use modern technology had a solution — a computer.
“So all of us piled on the Zoom and we had a couple of chats with her. One was about two weeks ago and another about 2½ months ago,” Mark Miller said. “Even in that time, you could see she struggled to keep her eyes open and her head up. But she was conscious and aware of everything that was being said, just less able to reply and respond.”
Casey, who waited until she had been vaccinated before traveling, had one last in-person visit with her mother the week before she died on June 5, with her fellow nuns at her bedside. Sister Mary Joseph was buried on the grounds of the monastery in a pine casket made by Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa.
“Mother Anne and I talked last week when I was there. We’re all good with the fact that she’s going to be there,” Casey said. “She said that she could find my father in heaven so it was all right.”
Though the former Miller family matriarch is gone, Gubser believes the bond between them and the Carmelites will carry on.
“I can’t image that the Carmelite Monastery will be rid of Ann Miller’s family and friends. We’ve been around for so long. So many of my relatives, my sisters, myself have developed relationships with people there, so I’m sure they will still feel our presence over the years, which I think will be a positive thing for them,” she said.
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