Digging into her spiritual roots: Sr. Marcia Allen

During the November 2013 congregational Assembly, Sr. Marcia Allen, right, congratulates Sr. Alexsandra da Silva on completing a yearlong program of English study at Kansas State University. (Sarah Jenkins / Courtesy of Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia)

Concordia, Kansas — Sr. Marcia Allen stores a lot of history in her head.

It doesn’t take much, really, for her to start you on a guided tour of the Sisters of St. Joseph’s story: how and where they lived in 17th-century France, or what their various ministries where when – a few generations later – they came to the United States.

Allen speaks softly but decisively, calling up these historical details with surprising ease – or surprising until you realize you’re talking to a lifelong history buff whose affinity for such details runs deep.

“I majored in French and history, so my first loves are right there,” she told me as we sat in a cozy room on the first floor of the Nazareth motherhouse in Concordia, Kan. Allen doesn’t live in the motherhouse –she lives and works in the Manna House of Prayer, a retreat center run by the Sisters of St. Joseph a few minutes across town – but as president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, she makes frequent visits.

Allen, 74, is a Kansas girl at heart. As a teacher and school administrator in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she lived all over the United States, and in her post-teaching ministry as a retreat leader and consultant, Allen’s traveled over the world. But she was born and raised in Kansas – in Plainville, about two hours west of Concordia – and even when she assumes the role of president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious this summer, she will continue on in her role as president here.

“I grew up in western Kansas and love the broad plains and valleys, the vast horizons, the endless sky,” she said later in an email. “So, of course, I have a special affinity for Kansas. Geography has a lot to do with one’s inner makeup. I think that Kansas has shaped my imagination and whole manner of being.”

For one thing, growing up on the plains made Allen open to adventure. She was an active and athletic child, but as the oldest of five children (she has two younger brothers and two younger sisters), she also took on a lot of responsibility; she helped her mother around the house and also helped take care of her brothers and sisters. Allen was also creative, likely because both of her parents valued art. Her father, who was completely deaf, was a poet and an artist. Allen says her mother was an artist with the needle and sewing machine.

“She made all of our clothes, even my father’s suits. She designed quilts and was famous for her quilts, which she continued to make until she was 95.”

Allen entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia in 1959 with her parents’ support. Before entering, Allen says she explored both a contemplative and a missionary order “just for the diversion,” but she always knew she wanted to be a Sister of St. Joseph; she thought life with them would be an adventure and she was eager to get going as quickly as possible. She professed her final vows in 1963, believing that she knew – more or less – the path her life as a woman religious would take. But the Second Vatican Council was about to turn Allen’s world on its head.

After the Vatican’s 1965 call for renewal in religious communities, change came quickly for the Sisters of St. Joseph and left many of them reeling.

Sr. Marcia Allen, center, explains the history of the stained-glass windows in the Motherhouse's Sacred Heart Chapel during a tour on Jan. 15. With her are novices from other Sisters of St. Joseph congregations who spent two weeks in Concordia studying. (Sarah Jenkins / Courtesy of Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia)

“It was like going from the horse and carriage to going to the moon all in one leap,” Allen said, with a laugh. “Our community went from habits yesterday to plain clothes today. We went from regularized prayer to personal prayer in 24 hours.”

And of course, for the first time, individual women religious were also making decisions about what work they were prepared to do and where they would do it.

“These were gigantic, monumental changes for people who had never done anything but get up in the morning, follow a regular schedule, wear the same clothes day after day and go where they were told to go,” Allen said.

The young and newly professed Allen navigated the changes by seeking out the wisdom of older sisters in her community. In particular, Sr. Bette Moslander (who, incidentally, would also eventually serve as president in Concordia and of LCWR) helped Allen dig into her spiritual roots, teaching her to cling to the community’s charism of reconciliation as a way to weather the transition. It was a lesson Allen wouldn’t forget, which was good, because more transition was in store for her.  

In 1967, Allen finished her undergraduate studies in French and history at Marymount College in Salina, Kan., but it wasn’t long before she would find herself working toward a master’s in school administration at Kansas State University. The reason, as Allen puts it, is that she kept being appointed principal of schools and her background in French and history wasn’t going to “cut it” anymore. She graduated in 1971, and eight years later, she was elected vice president of her community.

It was her first congregational leadership position, and it would kick off a 16-year stretch in leadership; after her first four-year term as vice president, she served another, followed by two four-year terms as president. From 1991 to 1994, Allen also served as a regional chair of LCWR and as a member of the group’s national board.

Meanwhile, Allen began to see the need for a more spiritually based leadership, so in 1995, at the end of her second term as president, Allen joined the staff of the Manna House of Prayer and also began working on a doctorate in applied spiritual ministry at the Graduate Theological Foundation in Mishawaka, Ind.

“What I really wanted to do was get an organized perspective of the development of spirituality,” she said, “because, as a matter of fact, the people of the world are yearning for spiritual depth rather than religious traditions.”

Sr. Marcia Allen describes the detail on a scale model of the Nazareth Motherhouse during a tour of the historic building in January. Behind the model are the original 1902 blueprints for the five-story structure in Concordia, Kansas. (Sarah Jenkins / Courtesy of Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia)
In January, Sr. Marcia Allen leads a tour up the stairs from the third floor library to the fourth floor Nazareth Center in the historic Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas. (Sarah Jenkins / Courtesy of Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia)

Allen wasn’t alone in her thinking. The concept of spiritual leadership – that is, leadership steeped in contemplation, mutuality and openness to Holy Mystery – was also gaining steam in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In fact, at the 1996 annual assembly, a year before Allen would finish her doctorate studies, Franciscan Sr. Nancy Schreck’s presidential address was rife with spiritual leadership themes.

“Imagine yourself as a leader with vision and clarity regarding the mission of your congregation,” Schreck told the audience of sister leaders. “Be willing to do the disciplined work of self-reflection, study, and contemplation, as well as group discernment so that you can be clear about what is critical for your time in leadership.”

When Allen finished her degree, she found a new calling sharing these very same ideas. Working as a consultant, she began heading retreats for new and outgoing leaders and also helping women religious around the world deepen their spirituality. Then, in 2008 Allen was elected to another term as president of Sisters of St. Joseph in Concordia, and in August 2014, she also became president-elect of LCWR.

These days, the conference is a robust champion of spiritual leadership, even publishing a book on the topic last year. Allen, who is generally opposed to talking about herself, is also reluctant to call herself a spiritual leader – although, to be honest, she’s probably the only person who wouldn’t. Openness to the Holy Spirit is perhaps the hallmark of her leadership style, which she will admit to – sort of – if you press her to talk about the tangible effects of her studies in spirituality.

“I do think it has affected my leadership because theory remains superficial unless you figure out how to integrate it,” she said. “What I’m hoping is that I really am a spiritual leader – I hope I would be that for the LCWR conference. That remains to be seen, and I will probably be the last one to know it. So we’ll see.”

And it does remain to be seen. As president-elect, Allen is already a part of the conference’s three-woman leadership structure, alongside president Sharon Holland, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and past-president Carol Zinn, a Sister of St. Joseph from Philadelphia. However, when she becomes president in August – in effect, the conference’s national face – Allen will be under a new level of scrutiny and her decisions given new weight and meaning, if not internally, then certainly externally.

All eyes will be on Allen if, while she’s president, more developments emerge from the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of LCWR. Since 2012, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain has been the conference’s Vatican appointed overseer, making sure the group addresses doctrinal issues found during a three-year investigation beginning in 2009. Sartain’s reign was initially given a five-year lifespan, but there have been hints that it will end earlier, perhaps even this year.

Meanwhile, Allen’s already faced one major event as an LCWR leader: the Dec. 16 release of the Vatican’s final report following the apostolic visitation to women religious in the U.S.

Sr. Marcia Allen, a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, and president-elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, discusses initiatives focused on bringing together men and women religious and families, particularly young adults, dur ing an Oct. 1, 2014, press conference in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Allen was in Concordia when the report came out, and she spent the morning at the Nazareth motherhouse debriefing with the sisters there. When I talked to her on the phone later that day, she said she was pleased with the report and dismissed the idea that U.S. sisters were owed an apology when I asked.

“I think the [people] who began this were working according to their light. I think the [people] who are bringing it to a close are acting according to their light,” she said. “The church is always evolving; like everything else, it’s always in a state of evolution. I think this indicates an invitational stance, so to speak, and I would certainly want to take advantage of that rather than ask for an apology.”

And that’s basically the way Allen operates both as a person and as a leader: She’s always open to the unfolding of Holy Mystery, rejecting institutional rigidity in favor of spiritual discernment.

For example, as president of her congregation, Allen was a key player in opening up the Concordia motherhouse. Following what she believed to be the Holy Spirit’s lead, she bucked tradition and helped make the motherhouse the space of public forum it is today. Additionally, in fostering a new membership program in Concordia, Allen’s central concern has been that it not become too institutionalized and regularized.

Even when Allen talks about Bette Moslander and the other sisters who helped her transition into the post-Vatican II world 50 years ago, she also talks about spiritual leadership – about the spiritual responsibility she and her generation have, in turn, to today’s younger sisters.

“I must say that most of us have come through those decades of chaos into a well-formulated and deep identity,” she said, “and so that's what we have now to pass on to these new members who are just standing at the door in line to get in. This is the charism – you can identify with it or you can't. And that would be true for Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Charities, Mercies, whatever order.”

Allen is also a woman who still delights in life’s little idiosyncrasies. She relates with glee that her mother, now 101, is still alive and “bright as a new penny.” And just before we wrapped up our interview, she told me a story about what it’s like to live in the Manna House of Prayer, a place where many people come not only for retreats, but also when they have no place else to go for food, diapers or clothing.

One night, not too long before we spoke in Concordia, there was a knock at the Manna House door. When Allen answered, she found a Romanian family who had come to the United States, fleeing persecution. The father said they needed gas to keep driving, so Allen obliged, and the family went on their way. But when she told me the story, Allen was still struck by the event.

“Imagine! How many times could a person in Concordia, Kansas, open the door to somebody from Romania?” she said with a laugh. “It’s just exciting!”

Watch this 3-minute video clip from the full interview below; click here to see another one, about conscious evolution. (Note: Sr. Marcia Allen is part of the CSJ community, not SSJ as noted in the video text.)

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report, based in Kansas City, Mo. Follow her on Twitter @Dawn_Cherie.]

Update: Sr. Bette Moslander died March 22, 2015. Her obituary and eulogy is here.