I am fascinated by Nuns. There, I said it – always have been. Everything about them is fascinating to me. The veil and habit, the convents, the various different orders that they belong to. The more well known ones: the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, the Dominican Sisters, the Franciscans, the Benedictions. The lesser known but equally as fascinating: the Presentations sisters, the Servite nuns and The Poor Clares among others. The Poor Clares traditionally went to take their vows dressed in wedding dresses and left in black habits – there is a whole lot in that sentence to take in…
Turns out that I am not the only one with this fascination – I found entire Pinterest boards dedicated to Nuns! In popular culture of course there is Maria von Trapp, The Flying Nun, the terrifying penguins from The Blues Brothers and my very favorites – the sisters of Nonnatus house from Call the Midwives.
As a kid I was raised Catholic, I went to Catholic school, my mom worked at the Catholic hospital in town, pretty much everyone I knew was Catholic. I was vaguely aware that other religions existed, but we were all Catholic. There was a Jewish temple 4 doors down from my house growing up. That building was an endless source of speculation and imagination during my childhood. (I had a pretty vivid imagination). I grew up in the 70’s and the heyday of Nuns in America was already over. At the school I went to there were only 2-3 nuns left, there were a few more working at my mom’s hospital. There was a convent at my school, at its peak they had a full house. The Nuns that lived in the convent were teachers and nurses who worked hard and long in the service of others. Those days are long gone and the convent is now used for classrooms. The majority of nuns have given up the Habits and dress in street clothes.
At least 2 of my Great-Aunt’s were nuns and I have done a little research about them. 2 of Adam and Theresa Pfundstein’s daughters joined the order of the Dominican Sisters. The Dominicans have deep roots in Germany. In 1835 4 Dominican Sisters arrived in New York and were mistakenly left on the docks upon arrival. They were taken in by the Most Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn – Adam’s family’s church. I just love when things intersect like that!! In no time, the Dominicans made their mark as teachers in America.
In the early 1900’s woman didn’t have too many life choices. PIcking out careers wasn’t an option for most. Many married and raised families just as their mothers did. If a woman wasn’t interested in the life of wife/mother, there still weren’t a lot of options open to them Even if a woman was a teacher or nurse, they very often were expected to stop working when they married. Becoming a nun was probably a valid option. By going into a convent a woman would be able to have a career and not have to worry about housing, food, etc. For a generation of women who watched their own mothers bear and raise several children and struggle to make ends meet, the convent probably didn’t look to bad. Woman were able to grow and pursue education and hold leadership positions.
Sister Augusta was born Clara Pfundstein in Oct. 1896 the 4th child of Adam and Theresa. She took her vows in 1919 at the age of 23. She became a teacher and worked at several different schools: St. Michael’s and Bishop McDonnell High schools Brooklyn, and St. Agnes College, College Point. She served as the Principal at Good Shepherd in Brooklyn and St. Pius in Jamaica and served as Superior of the Mary Immaculate Convent and Queen of the Rosary Convent. She sounds pretty amazing! St Agnes College and Good Shepard still exist today. St. Michael’s high school was a girl’s school and classes included: Spanish, Business Law, Religion, Typing, Shorthand, Bookkeeping, and Business Arithmetic. Sister Augusta retired in 1971 and lived out her life at the Queen of the Rosary Convent in Amityville, NY. She died in 1979.
Sister Miriam Claire was born Augusta Pfundstein in July of 1901, the 7th child of Adam and Theresa. I absolutely love that the sisters took each other’s names for their vows! The Pfundstein’s sound like a close family. Sr Miriam Claire took her vows in 1928 when she was 27yrs old. My favorite find for her was in a book of enrolled voters. Women were granted the right to vote in 1920 – Sr. Miriam (then known as Augusta) was a registered Democrat in 1922! I think she rocks too!! Sr. Miriam Clare was also a teacher and taught at various schools in and around Brooklyn. She celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1953. She also retired to Queen of the Rosary in Amityville and died in 1976. I like to imagine she and her sister spending their time together, just a couple of girls hanging out in the convent.
Even though my Grandmother lived several hours away the siblings were able to get together fairly often. I have included a couple of pictures of my Grandparents (Ida and Ed) visiting the convent. There wasn’t a year on the pictures but they are likely from the early 1960’s.
I am proud to call these 2 smart, dedicated woman my Great-Aunts!
Reddington, B. (2015). The East NY Project. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
Our Preaching. (2009, September 1). Retrieved December 1, 2015.
City Record Supplement: Transcript ofEnrollment books. Borough of Queens. (1922). New York, New York.