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Former nuns start retirement community for spiritual exploration

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2004

ABINGDON, Va. (AP) When she was a nun, Dene Peterson had expected to grow old in the convent, in the care of her other Roman Catholic sisters.

But she left her vocation and learned that retirement would be different on the outside. Peterson's contemporaries seemed to spend their final years contemplating nothing more than shopping or golf.

''I saw 'Leisurevilles' everywhere,'' Peterson said. ''You could be rich and have leisure and entertain yourself if that's going to mean anything to you or you could just plod along and then eventually someone will put you in a nursing home.''

Peterson would have none of this. Instead, she reconnected with other former nuns, women who had left their order as she did, over various disagreements with church leaders. Together, they started planning a retirement community dedicated to communal living and a serious exploration of the human spirit, which they regarded as the best parts of convent life.

''People should be able to have more choices than those anonymous rest homes you see all over the place,'' Peterson said.

They called it ''ElderSpirit Community.'' And this time, the former nuns were determined to run the place their way.

The 29-unit retirement community will sit at the foot of a wooded hill on the outskirts of this Appalachian mountain town. When completed next year, ElderSpirit will be open to men and women of all religions. There will be rental homes available for people with low incomes.

Even before the foundation has been laid, all but a few of the 29 homes have been reserved, an unexpected response that has Peterson considering building another ElderSpirit as soon as the first is completed.

Residents will be required to spend four hours a week helping neighbors. And they'll share a common house where Peterson hopes for some heavy discussions.

''One of the important things we'll do is get people to face that we are all going to die,'' she said. ''And so what does that mean to you? And what do you want it to be like? And what do you hope to do before you die?''

The process of building a community is clearly invigorating for the 74-year-old Peterson. She spends much of her time in a converted home along Main Street, buzzing about an office cluttered with blueprints.

''I think we'll only have about one meal a day together,'' Peterson said. ''Maybe we'll have a little happy hour, at least some of the time. You may as well drink in public instead of alone!''

Most of the former nuns who joined Peterson remain practicing Roman Catholics, but their new community will welcome those of all faiths. The years out of the convent gave each a greater respect for different religions, said ex-nun Catherine Rumschlag, and including other viewpoints can only make discussion more interesting.

''We have a really good group,'' said Rumschlag, 77, who has met many of the future tenants. ''They are people who want to grow spiritually, who want to help their neighbors.''

The five women involved in Elderspirit Peterson, Rumschlag, Monica Appleby, Anne Leibig, Jean Marie Luce were once Glenmary Sisters, part of an order dedicated to serving the poorest regions in Appalachia. In their gray habits, the nuns were an odd sight in a community where few people had ever known a Catholic.

When the church started modernizing in the 1960s during the Second Vatican Council, the Glenmary Sisters suggested altering rules so they could fit in better in the community. Church leaders, however, were unmoved. After prolonged dispute about attire and other rules, about 100 Glenmary Sisters left.

Some married and started families, others continued serving the region on their own and 44 created the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS), which sponsors community programs in the region.

Ten years ago, Peterson approached FOCIS to see if other ex-nuns would be interested in retiring together. Former Glenmary volunteers and other FOCIS members ultimately raised $3 million to develop ElderSpirit.

Some time next year, the former sisters look to make their final move to a place of lively debates, potluck dinners and hours of quiet meditation at home.

''I don't know if this is the last chapter of our lives or the beginning of a new phase,'' Peterson said with a laugh. ''You never know.''

On the Net:

http://elderspirit.net



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