Marie’s Story


February 2013

My name is Marie Sheahan Brown ~ Sister Marie Ursula ~ widely known as Bear Brown since birth. I believe my call to religious life is true. I have been growing into this identity for decades. Others have recognized this, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s not an external identity that I put on like a habit but an internal awareness that I seek to affirm and manifest in a more public way. I also need and desire the grace received through a sincere profession of vows as I understand them.

As a sign of identity and intent, I have professed the equivalent of vows of Obedience to God, Simplicity of Life, Celibate Chastity, and Service According to My Gifts, as a Sister of the Metolius.

July 16, 2010, was the fitting day.

How I reached this passage on the trail

Genes make me more a reporter than a co-foundress of a religious order. Writing The Way of the Sisters of the Metolius, I tried to describe the principles God has taught by leading me through the experiences of my life. I trust that if God is, indeed, gathering women to this community, he will have given them companionable insights through their own lives.

I’ve always been amazed to look back on my life to see how God prepared me for the next things. My life is all about connections, and I love how all of these continue to work together.

My father, Joseph Brown, married my mother, Leslie Tooze, in November 1955. My identical twin, Leslie, and I were born October 5, 1956, in Central Oregon. At birth, our dad named us “Bear” and “Bird,” which everyone in Oregon, and many others elsewhere, still call us. We have two younger brothers, Edward and Joseph, and a younger sister, Catherine. Beloved dogs and cats and, sometimes, horses were always part of the family. Through our father, we are members of the Chinook Indian Tribe, whose traditional lands are at the mouth of the Columbia River.

The Metolius River Basin in Oregon is home for me. We lived in a ponderosa pine forest in a cabin beside the river, next door to our grandparents’ summer cabin. My family still owns the Tooze cabin as well as some undeveloped acreage on the Lower Metolius.

Our father worked at home writing whodunits. Our mother was principal and upper-grades teacher at the two-room Black Butte School in Camp Sherman, which Leslie and I attended through third grade. It is my favorite alma mater.

When we were nine, our parents bought the Cashmere Valley Record, a weekly newspaper in Cashmere, Washington, a town of 1,800. Leslie and I enjoyed helping out at the paper. Later, we worked during the summers at KPQ Radio in Wenatchee, Washington, first as keypunch operators and then as advertising copywriters. Leslie and I owned horses for a few years and joined 4-H. We attended Cashmere public schools, being graduated from Cashmere High School in 1974. (We had identical high school GPAs and overall SAT scores.) In high school, we played on the tennis team for four years and participated in many other activities together. Senior year, we co-edited the high school newspaper.

In fall 1974, Leslie and I began studies at the University of Washington. We joined Chi Omega sorority and lived there during our four years of college. (Years later, I served as scholarship advisor for the Chi Omega chapter at University of California, Davis.) I majored in French language and literature for sheer enjoyment and interest. I was graduated in spring 1978. Leslie majored in philosophy and was graduated in spring 1979.

Meanwhile, at the UW, I had met a graduate student whom I married in October 1978. We moved to Sacramento, California, where his father had retired. My dad had always advised, “Major in whatever interests you; learn bookkeeping and you’ll always have a job.” He was right. I took a nine-month accounting course at Heald Business College in Sacramento and, in July 1979, began working in the reimbursement and audit department for the local Mercy hospitals.

I was surprised that a Catholic hospital would hire me, an agnostic. I had been baptized as a toddler in the Episcopal Church, but our family attended only occasionally while I was growing up. The mission and philosophy of the Sisters of Mercy attracted me immediately, I began to experience the possibility of God, friendships with the Sisters began, and I felt attracted to the Catholic faith ~ enough to hover around the edges and attend Mass when I could.

In 1982, I transferred to the corporate office, Mercy Health Care Organization (MHCO).   I eventually became executive secretary for three directors, leaving that post reluctantly in 1983, when my husband went to work for a defense contractor in Los Angeles. I became a secretary in the quality assurance department at Saint Joseph Medical Center (SJMC) in Burbank, one of several major West Coast hospitals sponsored by the Sisters of Providence. My main job was documenting the activities of several medical review committees. I learned much about the inner workings of hospitals. Meanwhile, I was drawn to friendships with the Sisters and priests who served in the pastoral care department.

In May 1984, my father died at home in Cashmere at age seventy-seven. The remarkable circumstances and consolations surrounding his death strengthened my belief in a loving, providential God. Soon, my mother moved to Portland to help care for her aged mother, and in 1990 she retired to Camp Sherman and Sisters, Oregon.

While at SJMC, I had kept in touch with friends at MHCO in Sacramento. The vice president of communications, a superb mentor of mine, alerted me to a new position as communications specialist, writing and editing various corporate publications and working closely with her. I applied and was hired in August 1985. In December 1986, MHCO and Mercy Health System, Burlingame, merged to form Catholic Healthcare West (CHW). I helped orchestrate the founding event at the Burlingame Mercys’ Kohl Mansion. When the CHW corporate office moved to San Francisco in 1987, several co-workers and I decided not to go ~ a difficult decision for all of us.

I went through the RCIA at Saint James Parish in Davis and entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 1987. Becoming Catholic is one of the greatest things I have ever done, a true demarcation of my life.

I enjoyed being active in the parish. I served on the RCIA team for ten years; sang in the choir; and served on the parish RENEW committee, organizing small groups within the parish in which people met weekly to reflect on scripture and share their faith.

Before I entered the Catholic Church, my difficult and painful marriage came to an end. I was surprised to learn that Canon Law considered it invalid, since my husband, though non-practicing, had been baptized Catholic and we were married outside the Church. We separated in 1986 and were civilly divorced in 1988.

The day I decided not to relocate with CHW, the director of the Sacramento-area public affairs office for Kaiser Permanente Northern California called and asked me to apply for a job with him in Sacramento. He was willing to wait for me to start in August. In June 1987, I dropped off some CHW documents in Burlingame and the next day flew from SFO to Dublin, Ireland, to begin a six-week Eurail Pass backpack adventure in Ireland, France, Germany, Greece, and Italy. I have returned to France once and to Ireland several times. In 2009 and 2010, Bird and I shared some delightful twin-adventures in Scotland ~ thanks to our mutual admiration of the inspiring singer Susan Boyle!

At Kaiser Permanente, I wrote and edited employee publications for the Sacramento medical center and Roseville medical offices, and also contributed to regional publications. There, I also learned media relations, including how to respond to tough newspaper and television reporters.

On my trail to the Catholic faith, I had moved from being unreflectively pro-choice on abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, to consciously embracing the Church’s consistent ethic of life. No one had argued me into this position; I simply began to see differently. At my parish in Davis, I served as liaison for the Davis Crisis Pregnancy Center, a mostly volunteer agency funded solely by churches and individual donors. With my supervisor’s blessing, in March 1989, I left my comfortable Kaiser Permanente job to become the second director of the Davis CPC, where I served for six years. This ministry offered peer counseling, encouragement, and practical support for women who considered their pregnancy a crisis. Early on, I was astonished that a kindly helping agency drew the ire of abortion-rights advocates because we did not refer women for abortions ~ even though women had no trouble on their own (often with pressure from others) in procuring abortions. I learned a great deal from women suffering emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically from legal abortions, often years earlier. My media training came in handy in dozens of newspaper and television interviews over those six years. I also learned the basics of non-profit fundraising. Perhaps most important, I worked closely, respectfully, even lovingly with people of different faiths whose integrity I admired.

In 1991, I helped found Catholics for Life ~ Sacramento Diocese, to support diocesan respect life efforts. At Bishop Francis Quinn’s urging, our first project was to found Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home in Sacramento, which is still going strong. When, in 1994, Bishop William Weigand succeeded Bishop Quinn, he met with Catholics for Life and eventually decided to hire a part-time respect life coordinator. The group suggested me.

I started that position in March 1995. My emphasis was to ask the pastors of the ninety-plus parishes in the diocese to appoint respect life contacts, whom teams of us would train. A team of us also started Project Rachel in our diocese, offering post-abortion healing to suffering women and men. The respect life coordinators/directors in California work closely with the California Catholic Conference and with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. I enjoy connections with these colleagues even now.

In January 1996, my mother, sixty-five, died unexpectedly in Central Oregon. After her death, I felt drawn to carry on her involvement in the Camp Sherman community and in the care of the family cabin. In 1999, I started my own business so I could spend summers in Camp Sherman. As a self-employed “Laborer for Life,” I would do short-term projects for individuals and non-profits ~ anything honorable that people were willing to pay me to do, on a sliding-fee scale. My first clients were a lawyer who needed a bookkeeper and the director of the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Sacramento.

These projects lasted until June 2000, and I returned to Camp Sherman. That summer, I decided to stay through the year, braving the cold winter in my family’s non-insulated summer cabin when I wasn’t pet-sitting in people’s homes. I ended up staying for three years and loved every minute of it. I volunteered at Black Butte School, aided environmental and community efforts, joined friends in leading a lectionary-based anyone’s-welcome weekly Bible study, and made or renewed wonderful friendships. I created Missionary in Nazareth, a little newsletter for friends and family in California and elsewhere, describing my adventures in Camp Sherman.

Since “Laborer for Life” went wherever I went, I could work on projects while living in Camp Sherman. I did bookkeeping (of course), edited and published elders’ memoires, pet sat, and raked pine needles for cabin owners (a big job in the ponderosa pine forest). I was a volunteer catechist at Saint Edward the Martyr Catholic Church in Sisters, Oregon; later, the pastor hired me as part-time youth ministry coordinator. During my tenure, the diocesan youth ministry director and youth ministers of the Diocese of Baker organized and led a pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Canada; 116 of us took the train round trip from Portland, Oregon, to Toronto, curling up in the seats to sleep, and sleeping on a high school floor once we got there.

Although I had not worked with the Sisters of Mercy since 1987, we had remained friends. I attended vocation weekends in 1990 but discerned I needed to resolve personal issues from before and during my marriage before continuing in this process. I was delighted when the Mercy Associate program began in the Auburn community of the Sisters; I became a Mercy Associate in 1993. While living in Camp Sherman, I stayed in touch with the Sisters of Mercy and Associates, although I was no longer a Mercy Associate because I couldn’t attend meetings. During this time, I began writing a fanciful fiction based on the life of Sisters of Mercy foundress Catherine McAuley, for children about ten years old.

In May 2002, a priest friend in California invited me to attend the ten-day intensive centering prayer retreat at Mercy Center, Burlingame. That retreat, followed by a profound experience during World Youth Day two months later, re-opened the Mercy question. I began monthly pilgrimages to Burlingame to do research for my children’s book, and Sisters invited me to stay at the motherhouse. I loved getting to know the Sisters better during those days. It soon became clear that I wanted to begin the formal process. I began the inquiry process in Burlingame and moved to the San Francisco Peninsula in July 2003.

The minute I landed, a Sister of Mercy friend invited me (a volunteer) to write and produce the Resident Hand-in-Handbook for SVdP’s Catherine’s Center, soon to open. This home and program for women returning to society from jail or prison ~ women who desire to change their lives but need support to do so ~ is a program of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul of San Mateo County in collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy.

I loved this new ministry and volunteered full time on various projects until late October 2003, when I accepted an invitation to join the staff. I was delighted to put into service many tools in the little toolbox I carry from ministry to ministry. My years with SVdP’s Catherine’s Center enabled me to get to know many Sisters of Mercy, their colleagues, and others on the San Francisco Peninsula. Additionally, many of my friends from other ministry and life experiences became involved as donors and volunteers. For example, the warmly generous communities of Camp Sherman and Saint Edward’s Catholic Church in Sisters eagerly participated in four-day summer retreats for the staff, residents, and alumnae of SVdP’s Catherine’s Center, held in my family’s cabin in Camp Sherman. Our alumnae mark these days as powerful turning points in their relationship with God, who revealed himself through the beauty of creation and a hospitable community.

My intense work at SVdP’s Catherine’s Center and in the formal incorporation process with the Sisters of Mercy led me to put my Catherine McAuley book on hold. I am writing it with my life.

Beginning in 2002, I moved through the stages of Inquiry, Candidacy, and the Novitiate in Laredo, Texas. In February 2008, a few key Sisters of Mercy (one from New York, one from Pennsylvania, one from California) deemed my views and experience of the vow of obedience different from theirs. I cannot say they know me well. Although a number of Sisters of Mercy who know me well interceded on my behalf, my formal process with the order ended.

This process confirmed for me that various paradigms of the vow of obedience co-exist within the same religious community. I have come to see the wisdom of Jesus’ saying, “You cannot put new wine into old wineskins.”

The day after I was officially dismissed from the order in February 2008, my Sister of Mercy friend at SVdP’s Catherine’s Center called to say they had a part-time position and would like me to apply. SVdP of San Mateo County was also seeking to hire a financial assistant to work alongside the chief financial officer. (“Learn bookkeeping and you’ll always have a job.”) The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul found me qualified for both positions and spliced them together into a full-time job. I am blessed and deeply grateful to have ministered once again within this beautiful Christ-like organization. Currently, from afar and anear, I remain in touch with many alumnae of SVdP’s Catherine’s Center.

At dawn on February 1, 2009, I awakened filled with a new vision of vowed apostolic religious life: Sisters of the Metolius. After eighteen months of true grieving, my natural joy returned during a grace-filled retreat in July 2009. I was able to move forward. I have gently tended the vision since then, sharing with close friends and with church leaders whom I respect. In January 2010, I decided to go public with this website. On July 16, 2010, with a beautiful ceremony in Camp Sherman, I professed my (equivalent of) vows amidst a group of 120 people representing various communities of my life. On July 1, 2012, I returned home to Camp Sherman to tend to the Sisters of the Metolius. God is good.

My cherished friendships abide with many Sisters of Mercy. They are the beautiful aging Elizabeths carrying the prophesy of a new vision out of long-lived experience. They bridge the old and new paradigms with their lives. I believe it possible that, through God’s leading and not my own designs, I am one of the Marys carrying the Christ-life of vowed apostolic religious women for the Twenty-First Century.

How about you?

The awakening vision becomes reality! This is a wintertime northern view of Mount Jefferson from the Motherhouse.