Sister Sisters

Ninety-two-year-old twin sisters and Mariah Hill natives Sister Mary Carmel, top left, and Sister Mary Carmen joined the Sisters of St. Benedict in 1944. The pair grew up being taught by Benedictine nuns at the Academy Immaculate Conception and after joining the workforce after high school, they decided to join the order at age 19. “Coming to the monastery was something I could not not do,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. Before starting a game of Egyptian rummy, Sr. Mary Carmen helped Sr. Mary Carmel button the cuffs on her shirt Oct. 19 in Monastery Immaculate Conception’s community room.

Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller

Sister Mary Carmel and Sister Mary Carmen Spayd share more than similar names.

They share the same DNA.

“Most people get us mixed up. They’ll think I’m her or that she is me,” Sr. Mary Carmen said of her twin sister, Sr. Mary Carmel.

An old family photograph of the Spayd twins, left and right, with their sister, Geneva, and mother, Theresa, on their family farm in Mariah Hill.

The 92-year-old twin nuns are used to the mix-up, especially now, since they are almost always together at Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand.

They joined the convent together when they were 19. And now, 73 years later, they have no plans of separating from the monastery or each other.

“We spend quite a bit of time together,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “The stuff we do, we generally do together, especially with flower arrangement and working outside.”

Sr. Mary Carmen continued the thought, a habit the two share. “We often work together; we have rooms just catty-corner from each other.”

They also like to stay quietly in the background.

“We don’t like to be in the limelight,” Sr. Mary Carmel said.

“People think it’s so interesting that it’s twins and that we both entered the (religious) community,” Sr. Mary Carmen said. “But I’m sure that after a while people get tired of hearing that and seeing us.”

But they deal with the interest and perceived novelty to show others the perks of living in a religious community.

“Sometimes, people don’t know what we do here,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “So I pray that what we do here is good for our community, and that they get a different perspective on religious life.”

The twins, who were born 45 minutes apart, grew up in Mariah Hill. “We could’ve had different birthdays,” Sr. Mary Carmen said with a laugh.

Sr. Mary Carmel, left, read instructions to Sr. Mary Carmen as they made peanut brittle for friends and family Dec. 6 in the activity room. “We were always outside and in the garden when we lived at home,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “Then after the academy, we went right to work so we were never in the position to cook. But for birthdays or feasts, we bake. We make a pretty good pie with homemade crust.”

Of course, their birth names are different — Sr. Mary Carmen is Luella Cyrilla and Sr. Mary Carmel is Cyrilla Luella.

“Mother heard of a sister here named Cyrilla, and she thought it was a nice name,” Sr. Mary Carmel explained. “Well then lo and behold, two came. So she wondered what she would name us.”

“Someone said Grace and Disgrace,” Sr. Mary Carmel continued. “There were other names that rhymed. But I think mother found the other name in a book.”

When they were baptized, their names got switched by mistake. “Our godparents got us confused,” Sr. Mary Carmen said.

Sr. Mary Carmel jokingly continued, “And we’ve had an identity crisis ever since.”

Their mom was very religious, and considered becoming a nun when she was younger. “Her mother said, ‘Not until you are 21,’” Sr. Mary Carmen said. “And then she just kind of forgot about it.”

The sisters’ schooling was led mostly by Benedictine sisters, including their high school years at the monastery school, Academy Immaculate Conception, later known as Marian Heights Academy, in Ferdinand. And they loved their teachers.

Sr. Mary Carmel, left, and Sr. Mary Carmen read the newspaper following breakfast the morning of Dec. 6.

“We admired them so much,” Sr. Mary Carmen said. “And they always seemed to be so kind to each other.”

At that time, it was customary for girls to join the monastery while still in high school, some as young as 15. And back when the monastery was founded in 1867, girls as young as 13 joined.

“It was a different world then,” Sr. Mary Carmen said.

The twins didn’t join while in high school. In fact, they graduated and went into the workforce: Sr. Mary Carmen at an aircraft manufacturing company in Evansville and Sr. Mary Carmel in civil service in Tell City before joining her sister in Evansville. And they had their pastimes.

“We loved to dance,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “We would rather go dancing than go eat.”

“We loved it that much,” Sr. Mary Carmen finished.

Despite their love of the Jitterbug and the Charleston, the sisters decided to join the Sisters of St. Benedict in 1944. They made their monastic profession in 1946. Their experience at home and with the Benedictine sisters throughout their education were contributing factors.

“Mother was a very religious person,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “But she never pushed us. Really, it was an innate thing.”

Sr. Mary Carmen prayed the rosary before the start of afternoon Mass on Dec. 6. “Personal prayer feeds community prayer and community prayer feeds personal prayer,” she said. The sisters wake up around 5:30 a.m. and enter into private prayer before heading to morning Mass. “St. Benedict urged a lot of spiritual and meditative reading,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “So reading is built into our daily lives.”

Mom’s reaction was mixed.

“She was very happy we chose to become Benedictines. But it was very hard on her,” Sr. Mary Carmel said.

“We were very close to mother,” Sr. Mary Carmen said. “And she cried a lot, according to our brother, after we left.”

Sr. Mary Carmel had no doubt that joining the Benedictine sisters was the right thing for her. “Coming to the monastery was something I could not not do,” she said. “It was something I had to do. And I think that was God calling me, God calling us to this life.”

Sr. Mary Carmen did question the idea once.

“Before I made my final vows,” she said, “I questioned, ‘Is this what I really want?’ It was scary. ‘Is this what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life?’” She went to one of her superiors and told her about her fears. “And she said, ‘I think that’s the devil trying to tempt you.’ And she was right.”

Although the twins are in the same religious community, their lives are not exactly the same. Sure, they both went on to get bachelor’s degrees in education and master’s degrees in secondary administration. But their career paths in education did not exactly mirror each other.

Sr. Mary Carmen was a member of Vincennes University Jasper Campus’ original faculty, teaching secretarial sciences. She also taught at and was principal of St. Ferdinand High School, the predecessor to Forest Park High School, and taught at St. Benedict School and Mater Dei High School. She was director of special projects at Marian Heights, and served as development director, assistant development director and secretary to the vocation director at the monastery.

Sr. Mary Carmel taught at the academy as well as at Christ the King School in Indianapolis. She was a business teacher and then principal at Mater Dei High School, and worked as an administrative secretary before taking over the mission advancement activities at the monastery.

For them, a career in education was the obvious choice.

“This community was basically involved in education. That was the main mission and main work,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “It was only later that we diversified and went into social work, medical work, things like that. But we were basically educators.”

Sr. Mary Carmel, left, and Sr. Mary Carmen watched the ongoing construction work happening at the monastery after gardening Oct. 19. Though they’re 92 years old, the sisters still help out around the monastery with tasks such as dusting the hallways, gardening and making flower arrangements to decorate the monastery. “Nuns don’t retire. They wear out,” Sr. Mary Carmen said.

But their dedication to the monastery, their fellow Benedictine sisters and to each other are alike. Sr. Mary Carmen makes sure that her sister has her walker to get around and stands close to her most of the time for needed support. Sr. Mary Carmel repeats things others say for her sister, who is hard of hearing.

“We think alike,” Sr. Mary Carmen said. “Sometimes we come out of the same moment with the same words.”

“We can meet somebody, and I might have talked to the person first. And Mary Carmen would come along. I tell her, ‘Sister, I’ve already asked all the questions,’” Sr. Mary Carmel said, “because she would ask the same thing.”

And when they have opportunities — there weren’t very many this past fall because of the rain — they go outside to tend to flowers and cut back weeds to encourage the flowers to take strong root and sprout large.

“It’s like we are co-creators with God to make our campus as beautiful as possible,” Sr. Mary Carmen said while gazing at a small grouping of red, yellow and purple flowers blooming outside one of the monastery’s windows. “Whatever we do on this campus to beautify this campus, in a sense beautifies the world.”

The sisters have slowed down considerably from their younger years. But they still contribute when they are able, helping to decorate inside and outside the monastery.

“Some people ask us if the religious life is boring,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “I don’t think so. But we don’t need a lot of entertainment. We are satisfied with the simple things.”

“And we have a very good community here that tends to our needs. The sisters really care about each other,” Sr. Mary Carmen continued. “For instance, a simple thing like spilling something at the table. You have two or three people rushing over to help clean it up.”

Sr. Mary Carmel, left, and Sr. Mary Carmen dipped their hands into holy water before leaving the chapel after morning Mass on Dec. 6. “We think alike and do everything together,” Sr. Mary Carmel said.

The sisters also enjoy each other’s company. Sure, they have other sisters to socialize with. And there are several moments each day dedicated to personal prayer. But they share meals together, work on their flowers together and watch game shows in the evening together.

“We are a human community. We come with all of our idiosyncrasies, our rough spots,” Sr. Mary Carmen said. “And in community, those rough spots get rubbed off some.”

Neither regrets joining the monastery seven decades years ago.

“This is sacred ground; it’s holy ground,” Sr. Mary Carmel said. “When I think of the hundreds of sisters who have been here and prayed on these grounds, the retreats that have come here, the people who have come here to put their lives together. There is an aura of prayer here on this campus.”

And neither regrets joining with her sister.

We are committed to one another,” Sr. Mary Carmen said, “and to our promise of stability. We are good examples to one another. We encourage one another by our personal fidelity to prayer and this way of life.”

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