The Jesus Cage

A Friendship, A Separation, and a 50-Year Search

In 1972, Patricia Koval received a phone call from a friend — a religious sister — with whom she had taught. Sister Eucharista told Patti she was going to join a cloistered monastery. But she wouldn't say where or which order. Patti searched for her friend, to no avail.

Nearly five decades later, Patti reached out to me in October of 2017. She wrote, "Dear Ms. Reese: I am thanking you for writing DEDICATED TO GOD, for a very specific reason." Patti shared a bit of her friendship and her search, then closed: "Amazing that it took this many years to locate her, and more amazing that you chose her as one of the storytellers.  I thought you'd be interested to see how your research has helped me in my search for my dear friend."

We emailed several times before deciding to meet so that she could share the story of her friendship, the decades of separation, and the conclusion of her search.

In the past 13 years, I've learned about the lives of cloistered nuns and women considering entering a cloister; I've heard about the unique demands of cloistered life and the predicament for loved ones when a daughter or sister or friend joins a cloister. But I hadn't heard a story quite like Patti's. I'm sharing her story here, along with my interviews and photographs.








"I was brought up Catholic, very strict Italian Catholic. I went to a Catholic school shared by the Irish church and the Italian church. I think the school was owned by the Irish church but the Italian church paid to have the Italian kids go to it. I basically grew up on my knees.

In 1967, I started teaching at St. Stanislaus, the Polish Catholic school in Johnson City, New York. Across the street was St. Anne’s, a Slovak school. I had 13 children in my class, which is very hard to teach; you need more stimulation in your classroom. I was the only lay teacher at the school.

I met Sister Eucharista when I walked into that school, cold turkey. She taught first grade right across the hall from me. The second-grade teacher, Sister Provincia — I can’t believe I remember her name — was older than old; she was really elderly. I taught third grade. I also taught history to seventh and eighth grade while that sister went downstairs and taught religion to my third grade. It was a wonderful experience.

That fall, Jimmy and I got engaged. I walked into my classroom one day in October with a ring on my finger and over the next week all my little third grade girls came in with 'diamonds' on their fingers. It was hysterical!

Sister Eucharista and I shared a lot in the three years that I taught at that school with her. I think we grew close because we were close in age. She was a great lady, just a wonderful woman. She loved the children. She taught me a lot because I was brand new, twenty years old and right out of school. When Jimmy and I were newly married, Sister Eucharista actually stayed one weekend with us during her vacation. She took off her habit, which was amazing to see. I thought, You can do this? She goes, 'Yeah, I can do this.' Mom had a pool and we went there, had a picnic, and Sister Eucharista swam.

Her mother was already gone by the time I met her. She was very concerned about the health of her father, and she finally left the school and went back to Buffalo because of her dad. I never saw her after that. We communicated occasionally.

I always felt that she was searching. I don’t think she was content in her life. Great teacher, enjoyed the children — all of that — but I really think she was looking for more.

When Sister Eucharista called me and said she was going to join the cloister, I remember specifically that she said, 'I called to say goodbye.' She cut it off. This was it. This was the end. 'I called to say goodbye.' I said, 'Why? What are you doing?' She said she’s joining a cloister and would not be able to contact me at all. She said, 'I won’t be able to communicate with you.' She said it so very gently. She never told me where she was going. That was her decision, her choice. If she was going to do this, she would start a whole new life. I really believe that’s what she did.

I suspect we ended the conversation saying something like we’d never forget one another. I was really upset. I remember going to my mother and saying, 'I just cannot believe she’s doing this.' I never understood. I really never understood. I thought she was running away from something. She wasn’t. But I think that’s the initial thought we all have: Why are they doing this?

I called the Felician motherhouse I don’t know how many times and asked for information. They wouldn’t give it to me. I know she told me she was going somewhere in Illinois but she never told me where. She left me kind of hanging. There was no other way I would have been able to contact her unless the Felician motherhouse gave me a lead but that was a dead-end.

Sister Eucharista was never on my mind on a daily basis. If she did pop into my head it was, Gee, I wonder if she’s happy; I hope she made the right decision. Sometimes you go through life and some questions are not answered; they are never going to be answered.

It had been many years since I really looked for her. Every time I open the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I look at her card that tells me to read and reread this book because Jonathan reminded her of me. I keep the book upstairs. This past August, after many years, there was that book. I opened it again and I said to myself, You love research so much, why don’t you try again? Maybe you’ll find her.

That started it. Having nothing to do that afternoon, I sat down with my iPad and typed in Sister Mary Eucharista. A lot of women have taken that name, so there was a long list on Google. None were her. But way at the bottom, in tiny, tiny print, it was something. It didn’t say her name but it was something. I clicked on it out of curiosity. I had to blow it up because it was little and I read about a woman who was in a Felician order in Buffalo, taught in another place, her father was still alive, and I’m thinking, Holy cow. Then I read she had rheumatic fever as a child and I thought, This is her. But it said her name was Sister Clare. I thought, But I think this is her.

Alongside, low and behold up comes a title of a book, the author, and I saw a picture of a monastery. Then I thought, Okay, I think I found her.

I have a Kindle and everything goes into the Kindle. I downloaded a sample of the book and I said to myself, This isn’t going to do it; I bet there’s pictures. Instead of buying the e-book, I ordered a hardcover from Amazon.

I wrote to the monastery and about two weeks later, I get a note card in the mail with counter cross stitch on the cover. It was from Mother Dominica. She said, 'Your Internet search has paid off, Patti. You found her. This is where Sister Eucharista — now known as Sister Emanuel — was. Is.'

Mother Dominica wrote about Sister Eucharista’s love of gardening, her love of counter cross stitch. But then she wrote that Sister Eucharista had passed away. She wrote a little bit about how brave she was, and how she fought. It was so gentle, the manner she told me. It was kind of bittersweet. I found her. I got my answer. I got my answer after all these years. She was happy and she led a good life and found where she needed to be. As sad as I was that she didn’t know I was looking for her, I think she does know somehow.

This is peculiar and kind of spooky. When I get a book I look at the front and then I look in the back, and then I open it up. The book arrived from Amazon and I opened it right to Sister Eucharista’s picture. Talk about goose bumps. It’s like, I got the message. I said, 'Okay, Lady Jane, I’ve had enough over here.' It did freak me out a little bit. I did say to the picture, 'That’s enough, I got the message.' That’s basically how I feel. It was all these steps to get to that point and then I see this picture and I’m thinking, That’s enough. I got it.

Why it opened to that picture when I newly got the book I’ll never understand. When I told my friend Norma at home, she goes, 'That’s enough.” She said, “You know, now I’ve got goosebumps.' It was all divine intervention as far as I could see it.

Now I’ve marked the page that has her photograph. Jimmy said, 'Is that really her?' I said, 'That’s absolutely her.' The picture in that book tells it all. You don’t need to explain anything to me at that point. She was very content in that picture. Very happy. That sealed it. That face told me — because I know her face.

I have to admit I didn’t read all of your book but I read quite a bit of it. I went to the monastery’s website and saw their agenda for the day and thought about it for a while. What some of the sisters said to you gives a different viewpoint, of why they’re there. Finally, after all these years I feel differently about it now.

Their life is absolutely incredible. I think it’s truly a calling, something we don’t understand. I’ll never understand it because I’m not called to it. But it is, I think, a calling. Something is pulling them. We don’t know what that is. I was telling Jimmy last night how they get up at midnight to start their prayers. It’s amazing. I don’t think I understood until I started reading your book and started reading the monastery’s website. I understand now. And knowing her, I really understand.

That’s where I said you need to let this Abbie Reese know what’s going on. I should probably let this author know what she did, because you were instrumental in me finding her. I never would have found her had you not gone through all that hard work to write the book, to interview these sisters, to go there, and so that’s why I wrote to you. I’m very grateful because it kind of ended something that had been left hanging. I won’t wonder anymore. I know. That’s where my gratefulness to both you and Mother Dominica come into play because you brought the journey to a very nice end for me.

It was very weird for me that this was how I found her. All I did was put her name in the Google search. I didn’t type in Sister Emanuel because I had no clue that was her name. It’s just my interest in research and the internet that tells me everything I need to know about anything, I thought I’m just going to try that. That’s where the spookiness comes in, that her story would turn up the way it did, that I would actually go in and read it. That’s what was so peculiar. I sit here at 71 years old and think about what’s happened since August, and it’s amazing. I really believe that Sister Eucharista is the catalyst. I think that’s what Mother Dominica was saying to me — this was my Sister Eucharista’s way of letting me know all went well.

I sent a donation to the monastery in memory of Sister Emmanuel. Mother Dominica said she was certainly a gem. She wrote, 'May God bless you for your kindness.' Mother Dominica really eased me through the burden of accepting the fact that Sister Emmanuel is now gone. She did it in such a gentle way that I’m not sad; I’m actually happy to know all went well for her. That’s all I really was trying to find out. I wasn’t trying to communicate with her. I just wanted to make sure that someone I cared about so much was okay. And I know she’s fine. I know she’s better than fine. I suspect she engineered this find because I could finally find her in a way that she wanted to be found. I’m very at peace with it. It just took her a long time to let me know!

She had a true calling. I didn’t believe that all those years ago. But now there’s no doubt in my mind. This is what was meant for her. She wasn’t running away. She was finding her way. There’s a difference. It was obviously her choice to cut off that old life — keep it with you in your heart but cut it off. That’s what she had to do. If it brought contentment and happiness to her, then God bless her.

I think the whole story — Mother Dominica, her kindness toward me, the whole nine yards — it goes beyond what you can describe. I could never write the feelings that I’m feeling. I don’t think anyone could.

All those years I wondered if she was okay, I now have my answer. I would never have known. And now I do know. I know she’s in a place she worked hard to get. I’m sure she’s at peace and happy, whatever happens after this life is over."






"Sister Emmanuel used to speak about Patti. They taught together at school I think in New York. They were buddies.

I don’t recall that Sister Emmanuel said a whole lot but she would bring her name up periodically. Say when talking about teaching, she would bring up Patti’s name, 'that was my favorite teacher partner.' They got along real good together. They were on the same staff and you knew that they were friends. But why she didn’t tell Patti that she was going to a cloister with the Poor Clares, I don’t know!

It might have been — maybe she thought that Patti would not understand, or whatever. I don’t know. Not many people were rallying for people going to the cloister, so maybe she felt, well, maybe Patti might not appreciate it much.

Another thing could be that after Sister Emmanuel taught in that school she was stationed somewhere else; I think she worked in the orphanage with the children. A lot of times when you’re an active sister and you move from one mission to the other, you don’t always keep connected with everybody, even though you were close at that other mission.

All of a sudden this year I got a letter from Patti saying, 'Do you have a sister by the name of Sister Emmanuel in your community?' She mentioned something about having contact with you.

When I saw the letter was from New York and that it was from Patti, and then when I opened it up and saw, “Do you know Sister Emmanuel,” I put the connection right away. I could draw the line because I’ve heard it enough times that I would recognize the name.

I wrote her back and I said, Yes, sorry to say she had died two years ago but she was a member of our community. I gave Patti a picture of her — one of the ones we really like a lot — and some cross stitch that Sister Emmanuel had done, unbeknownst to us that she really likes cross stitch a lot. So that was a nice connect. She was good at doing cross stitch, and so that was a nice memento. And it is nice Patti finally found her answer.

Sister Emmanuel could have written to Patti at Christmas or Easter. She could have connected with her while she was here. But sister wasn’t really a writer. It was hard enough to get her to write her family. She just didn’t write. She’d say she has to write these letters and she was all excited about writing the letters, but she never got herself down to writing the letters.

Her sister-in-law Judy would say, 'You have to write more.' And she said, Yes, yes. She was gonna, gonna, gonna. But she never got to it! She was just one of those people; she just didn’t write that much.

Sister Emmanuel was sick for so many years before she died. Every once in a while, though, she would reminisce about teaching, and she would bring up the name Patti, so she had it — even in Alzheimer’s — she did have the connect with Patti once in a while, which was very interesting. That tells you that was a significant part of sister’s life at one time."





"It's been a journey for me. At Catholic school, the nuns were very strict. Very strict. My upbringing was fear of God. If I didn’t do something I was going to be really punished. I was afraid not to go to church. I was afraid not to do anything off the line. I stayed straight arrow, took it all to heart. I think my parents were a little concerned about that by the time I entered sixth or seventh grade. They gave me the choice to go to junior high school in the public school or to stay at the Catholic school. I chose to leave. It’s probably a very good thing. But I stayed straight arrow, still fearing God, kind of afraid of priests but always holding them up on a pedestal.

When I taught at St. Stanislaus the sisters had me to dinner at their convent. The parish priest was very strict with them and wouldn’t let them have a car. Sister superior — Sister Josephina — would take me on my lunch hour and I’d drive her down to Johnson City, which was part of the triple cities we lived in, so she could buy candies. She was a very sweet lady.

My rosaries mean the world to me. They’re always in my purse. I don’t say them but I don’t leave home without them. What has happened to me with this new freedom is that I feel I can sit on my back porch up in my mountain in upstate New York and I can absolutely adore what God has given me — the trees, the land, the animals, all of it. The world. I have a new much more comfortable faith than I ever had and I feel so free and so comfortable.

Then this came along and happened — finding Sister Eucharista — and what it’s done for me, Abbie, it has just renewed all those things I’d been taught all those years, all those beliefs, the good stuff, the faith and the rewards and the love and all of that stuff that I was really beginning to question.

You know, my world is not a very large world. But it’s all brought together now where I’m content again. This really helped. It really, really helped. I don’t know that I can put into words how much it helped."






Copyright © Abbie Reese, 2018