Note: I interviewed Sister Mary Hawkins in May 2014. She is a remarkable lady who turned her life into one of service. Sister Mary founded St. Benedict Monastery in Canyon, Texas. This interview reflects on her life, why she became a nun and her experiences of being a teacher. This interview was part of my scholarly research I conducted for the Holy Family Church, Nazareth, Texas.
What you see is what you get with Sister Mary Hawkins. She is a gentle soul with an endearing quiet laugh and warmhearted smile. While not raised a Catholic, she attended the Nazareth nun taught school and later graduated from Shamrock High School in Shamrock, Texas. Her mother moved her and her sister because she did not want them marrying Catholic boys. Her early recollections of the country Nazareth village were the school had two classes in one room. She admitted with a smile she often learned more by overhearing the other class being taught instead of listening to her own teacher.
Growing up in Castro County, Texas she witnessed the 1929 stock crash, as well as fierce dust storms. Her immediate family did not attend church. However, her family life was centered on strong morality due to not disgracing the family. Sister Mary in those early days and years recalled you were connected to family more deeply where you did not lie, cheat, or steal. Remarkably, her family always prayed before every meal, but she noted they did not read the Bible a lot.
After attending West Texas State Teacher’s College in Canyon, Texas Sister Mary found the teaching courses to be a joke and did not want to teach. She quit college and took courses in bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand at Big Spring, Texas. From there she eventually boarded a train and headed to Washington, D.C. and worked for the Pentagon as a secretary for four years. This adventure came about after she took a government test assigning her to this position based on the test results. Her main task was writing up and checking the chemical analysis reports for inspections of ammonium nitrate plants.
Washington became a whole new world to her. While in Washington she started going to two churches – an Episcopal Church and the Sacred Heart Church just blocks apart. The former she attended for communion and the latter for the Mass. She had come to love the Catholic liturgy. During this time she was engaged, but something in her heart and life was missing. The couple later quit seeing each other and she dated others for a little while longer, but the feeling still persisted. Everything seemed futile and empty for her.
A few years later at the age of 25, she became a Catholic. The initial pointless, unfilled feelings she had eventually led her to become a nun and she entered the St. Scholastica Convent at Fort Smith, Arkansas when she was 27. St. Scholastica Convent (called a Monastery since 1986) was founded in January 1879 in Shoal Creek, Arkansas. They moved the Convent to Fort Smith in 1925.
What she related was that her parents did not object to her becoming a Catholic, but when they found out she was going to be a nun it was worse than her own funeral. It took two years for her family to reconcile to her new life. Eventually, they realized she was not an evil monster and came to hold her in high regard. Later her family came around and joined the church themselves. At one point her family asked her if Jesus was a good man or was the divine. It was a question she pondered often and she later decided he was divine and told them so.
With her newfound devotion to the Lord, Sister Mary honestly expected to be miserable all her life but found she was happy. In reality, she did not want to teach, but her superior at St. Scholastica assigned her to teach. She was surprised to find she loved every one of her teaching assignments except the year before she was sent to Nazareth. That year the Fort Smith Benedictines were sent to a school where discipline had broken down and was slowly being restored. She was forced to be a strict disciplinarian, a role she hated. The next year she was sent to Nazareth where she taught for eight years. The Nazareth school felt like heaven to her because of the order and good behavior of the students.
Sister Mary said it may seem strange to many, but she enjoyed teaching catechism because according to her our relation to God is so much more than knowing answers. It seems impossible trying to teach the experience of God. “Trying to teach kids to love God and the experience of God is not possible. You cannot teach that experience.”
She became one of the founders of the Saint Benedict Monastery in Canyon in 1971. It was founded on the principles that Benedictine spirituality is based on scripture and is a guidebook on living the Gospel within a community. Sister Mary believes this community she helped create is passing on the spirit of the Benedictine Sisters of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
While our talk kept going this was about the extent of my interview with her. She’s truly a lovely lady that’s still fully living at the monastery she created outside of Canyon.
Toward the end of our time together she offered this piece of advice, “We all could do better. We all have grace and we need to use it.” In reflection, her parting words rang in my heart. We all could do better in our own personal lives and by helping others. Great advice we all should follow from Sister Mary.
Photographs – © Christena Stephens Photography