From high society to a higher calling

ADAIR LARA

The San Francisco socialite had it all 10 children, friends, wealth but she traded it in for life in a convent. Fifteen years later, Ann Miller remains steadfast in her vows of seclusion, poverty, chastity and obedience.

Ann Russell Miller was a wealthy San Francisco socialite — her father was the chairman of Southern Pacific Railroad; her husband's father founded what became Pacific Gas and Electric. She lived a crowded, gregarious life — chaired benefits, yachted in the Mediterranean, had separate glasses to match many of her outfits, and went to Elizabeth Arden four days a week. She had 10 children and 18 grandchildren.

Not the woman who would be voted most likely to join a convent.

In 1987, at two separate lunches at Trader Vic's — one for her five daughters, another for her five sons — she announced that she was joining a convent in two years. And not just any convent, but the strictest one of all — a Carmelite monastery — a cloistered and ascetic order. When word got out, some friends wondered why she didn't choose one of the more modern orders, or just retire and lead a quiet life filled with good work. But not her children, who today range in age from 56 to 38.

The youngest, Elena Caruso of Hillsborough, said of her mother's choice, "She would eat the whole carton of ice cream or none of it."

During the two years while Elena finished college, Ann used the time to travel and "do everything she wanted to do," according to her oldest daughter, Donna Casey, 56, who lives in San Francisco.

Then she threw herself a going-away bash at the Hilton hotel. "The first two-thirds of my life were devoted to the world," she told 800 friends as they enjoyed music from two orchestras and tucked into caviar, coquille of seafood and fine wines. "The last third will be devoted to my soul." It was Oct. 30, 1989, her 60th birthday.

Marie Gallo, of the famous wine-making family, was a close friend. She said Ann wore a flower crown and had tied a helium balloon to herself that said, "Here I am," so friends could find her to say their goodbyes. Speeches were made, friends cried, wine was poured — and then the balloon was moving through the throng, and she was gone.

The next day, she flew to Illinois and knocked on the door of the Carmelite Monastery (the contemplative Order of Discalced Carmelites) in Des Plaines. According to Gallo, when the door opened, Ann said, "Here I am. Trick or treat."

Neither she nor the Carmelites would give interviews, then or now, but the mother superior observed tartly at the time that there was no story in someone entering a convent. The story was in staying in one.

Ann Miller has stayed. For her final vows in May 1994, she wore a flower crown over her veil, like the one she'd worn at her going-away party. Most of the family flew in to see her consecrated to God.

To understand what a triumph of will and devotion it is for the former Ann Miller to be celebrating her 15th year of this austere life, it is necessary to know who she was before she became Sister Mary Joseph, and the challenge posed by each of the vows she took — seclusion, poverty, chastity and obedience.

"For a few years, I expected a phone call saying she's on her way back," said her son Mark Miller, 39, who lives in San Diego with his family. "The convent is the antithesis of everything she was on the outside. She was always on the go, always planning the next event."

  

Seclusion

St. Teresa of Avila, the founder of the order, said that the desire of the Carmelite is "to be alone with the alone." These are not the sisters who go out among the poor or even shop for milk in town. Sister Mary Joseph and the other 16 nuns in her order stay behind the cloister walls, forever. The Carmelites spend much of the day praying — they get a newspaper to know what to pray for — and speak to one another only when necessary.

Ann Miller was never alone. She took a gang of priests, celebrities and children on every trip. She counted Loretta Young, Nancy Reagan and Phyllis Diller among her friends. There were often 40 for dinner at the Millers' nine-bedroom mansion on Divisadero between Pacific and Broadway in Pacific Heights. Ann's husband Richard (who was active socially himself, as chairman of the Opera) was so desperate to watch "Mission Impossible" on Sunday nights that he finally wrote it on his wife's calendar.

A tireless fund-raiser and do-gooder — she founded the Northern California chapter of ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists), an organization that raises money to support students — Ann at one point served on 22 boards at the same time. She spent five hours a day on the phone — so much that she once gave it up for Lent.

The monastic life means giving up more than your phone or seats on boards. It means never seeing your children unless they come to the convent, and never touching them. Sister Mary Joseph has not touched her children since 1989, and the 12 grandchildren born since (making 30) not at all.

  

Poverty

Sister Mary Joseph sleeps on a wooden plank covered by a thin mattress in a cell. She wears lisle stockings, Birkenstock sandals (discalced means barefoot or sandal-wearing), a coarse brown habit. The sisters don't eat meat, (though they do supplement their diet with the salmon and shrimp Sister Mary Joseph flies in from Swan Oyster Depot twice a year).

When she was Ann Miller, she seemed to have taken a vow to spend as much money as possible. She thought nothing of taking the whole crowd skiing in Austria over Christmas or renting an RV so the whole family and entourage could go river rafting. Mark said her shoe collection — Versace, Givenchy, Armani — made Imelda Marcos' "look pitiful by comparison." Donna thought the sheer volume of spending might be something her mother felt she had to atone for.

The shedding of worldly goods for a young postulant from a modest background might consist of giving a younger sibling her room and her cat. Ann's was a lengthier, more complicated affair. She grew up rich in San Francisco as the only surviving child of Donald Joseph Russell and at 19 married Richard K. Miller.

"They were the Rockefellers of the West Coast," said old friend Albert Bartridge.

As the time for leaving her old life neared, Ann gave her parasols covered with Hermes scarves to friends and distributed her jewels among her daughters. She had the children draw up wish lists and take what they wanted from the house. Everybody wanted the portrait of their dad at age 13 that Donna got. She sold the rest at a garage sale and then sold the house itself, taking part of the proceeds as her convent dowry and giving the rest to charity. The house is now owned by Kirk Hammett of the heavy-metal band Metallica.

Nuns don't own property, and they don't have money. Ann arranged a trust headed by a "commission" of three daughters to run "The Island," a 660-acre family spread in San Mateo County near Half Moon Bay that includes 80 acres of redwoods, several houses and a working cattle farm. Richard Miller had left it to his children, but had given Ann a life interest. The trust would pay for the upkeep of the Island and a house in town kept for visitors and the like. And it would ensure that her wishes for its use were carried out, even as she disappeared behind the cloister walls.

  

Chastity

Richard Miller died in 1984. Like Ann, her husband, whom everyone called Dick, shared her devotion to the church. According to son Mark, the two made a pact that one or both of them would eventually take up the religious life. "She and my father always mentioned it as a joke," Mark said. "He would join a Trappist monastery, which is also very cloistered, and she would join a Carmelite monastery — as long as they allowed conjugal visits."

Mark Miller remembers visiting the convent once with his mother while his dad was still alive. Dust covered the visiting book, and each page covered about a three-year period of time. He watched as she wrote, "Ann Miller, San Francisco, CA, save a place for me."

She did have a suitor, George "Corky" Bowles, whom she had known since childhood. According to Mark, on the day his parents were married, Bowles gave the glowing young bride a kiss on the cheek in the reception line, gripped her hand tightly, and said, 'I will wait for you.'

"With my father standing right there!" Mark said.

Bowles never married. The year before Ann entered the convent, said Mark, "Corky took her and her inevitable entourage on a cruise of the northern Mediterranean and the Aegean on a yacht." Anyone who's been to the Aegean can imagine the scene — the slap of the wine-dark sea against the boat, the warm breeze off the bow, the tinkle of conversation from inside.

By then of course everyone knew Ann's thoughts were fixed on quite a different sort of bridegroom. But a man who has waited 40 years has to try, at least.

"One evening at sunset," Mark said, "he led her to the back of the boat, knelt and said, 'Ann, will you marry me?' She said, 'Oh, don't be ridiculous.' "

Donna confirms the story. Bowles did not return calls.

  

Obedience

Sister Mary Joseph has had to kneel to ask forgiveness of the Reverend Mother for infractions so often, she told her children, that there's a divot in the concrete from her falling to her knees so much. She's in charge of the order's German shepherd, and had to beg forgiveness for throwing a stick at him.

Gallo said getting used to following rules wasn't easy for her friend — Ann liked to drink hot water with lemon, and the nuns made her switch to coffee.

On a visit before she went in, Ann had asked the reverend mother what she used to get her skin to glow like that, Donna recalled.

"Soap and water," came the answer.

"No, really," Ann insisted. "What do you use?"

"It's the regular hours," said the Reverend Mother.

Donna said her mother "anticipated rising through the ranks." The sisters vote for a new mother superior every three years, but Sister Mary Joseph has not yet made the cut.

Gallo can guess why. "She's too bossy."

In her previous life, Ann Miller was known to be bossy — several people said she could lead her own army — but she embraced the strict Catholic dogma with zeal. Donna said her mother started to go to Mass daily when her first grandchild, Donna's son, fell ill as an infant.

Ann was never just a gadabout who lived on the high end of retail: She always had another side. Her friend Marie Gallo remembers being at a party at the Miller mansion — movie star Mary Martin was there, and Bob Hope's wife Dolores. "It was this la-di-da evening," Gallo said by phone from her home in Modesto. That made it all the more surprising when Ann drew her friend upstairs to show her a special altar where she prayed.

"That's when I knew this is not your everyday woman," Gallo said.

Ann always wore a pin — ordered from Tiffany — that said "Try God," attended Mass daily, and said the rosary before any car trip that was to take more than 10 minutes. She nailed Stations of the Cross in the redwood grove at the Island.

Ann's Catholicism was as uncompromising as it was deep. She and her husband, Dick, both refused to meet the spouses of three of their children who married outside the church — and would not acknowledge those grandchildren. When Donna asked her father why her brother Dick's second wife was not welcome at the family retreat, he said, "We feel the woman he married the first time is his wife."

Ann set up a commission of three daughters to administer her trust that allowed them to continue banning spouses from non-Catholic marriages. In a letter to son Mark in 1990, his mother wrote, "While all our children and grandchildren were and are always welcome in our house and at the Island, what we consider to be their adulterous relationships were and are NOT." The carrying out of these wishes caused a lot of anguish for the children, some of whom did not speak to one another for years. Donna refused to serve on the commission.

Their mother had been a huge presence in all their lives — Mark remembers freezing at the sound of her whistle — which she blew when she came into the house. Ann's strict interpretation of Catholicism had given them strong values and made them into high achievers, Mark acknowledges, but the friendly face she showed to her friends was not the one her children saw. "She was very demanding, not really of our time, just demanding of our perfection," he said. He said his mother threw him out of the house when he was 18 because he was seeing a woman older than he was and refused to stop. He had 20 minutes to pack and did not see his mother again for years.

When their mother said she was entering a convent, the children had mixed reactions, but even the most supportive ones didn't try to talk her out of going. "We're all a lot better off with her gone, and I think everybody would admit to that," Mark said.

Donna Casey thought it was selfish of her mom to dump everything and go off like that, but later felt relieved. "I allowed myself to grow up when she went away," she said.

Mark believed that the vow of obedience would be the hardest for his mother. He half-believed the nuns would put his strong-willed mother on the next plane to San Francisco. None of the kids remembers their mother as the sort of person who would drink coffee if what she wanted was hot water and lemon. "It was her way or the highway," Donna said.

  

The convent

Sister Mary Joseph, 76, has kept her vows. Her sisters have not shipped her home. She leads a simple, almost medieval life. According to the beliefs of the order, every step she takes, everything she does, is a prayer. She tends the roses used to make rosary beads, prays silently in her cell, reads spiritual texts.

She has frequent visitors. Most of her children have been to see her, and several of the daughters go frequently.

Visitors go to a bare room — called the Speak Room — with chairs set up and a crucifix on one wall. "After a few minutes, you hear a little commotion in the next room, then the curtains part," her son Mark said. The visitor talks though a set of double iron grills. "You can't see very well."

They have no trouble seeing Ann Miller beneath the new outfit.

Marie Gallo and her husband, Bob, visit twice a year. Marie said her old friend was so bursting with life the last time she was there she wore Marie out. "She asked for a copy of my calendar for the month, so she'd know what I was doing," Marie said. "She knows more about my life than I do!"

Sister Mary Joseph told her daughter Elena that many of her old friends in San Francisco have written about their troubles and asked her to pray for them. "If I were back there, I'd have the scoop!"

Many of Sister Mary Joseph's visitors leave the convent with lighter wallets. "She always seems to extract a check from them," Mark said. He said that before his mother joined, the convent received about 60 percent of its revenues from the Archdiocese of Chicago. "Now they not only take care of all their own expenses, but they take care of five other Carmelite convents."

And she is not at all times alone with the alone.

"Let me just say, she loves the fax,'' said daughter Janet Abbott.

Donna has bundles of letters written in her mother's dense black script, with red underlinings and lots of exclamation marks, religious cards falling out like magazine subscription cards. Many of the letters contain instructions to the commission about the Island.

The former socialite has so many correspondents that she's taken to photocopying her letters — underlining different sentences for different people.

She receives a lot of mail and passes it around to her enthralled sisters, who entered as postulants in their teens or 20s without being married or with children — the youngest of them is 40. It's a situation that reflects the plight of convents in general, as many leave and few young women come in to replace them. The result is a median age for American sisters estimated at 66 years. The mother superior at this convent, Marie Andre, is celebrating her Golden Jubilee this year. It's unusual for a convent to accept a postulant who has a family, but this one was persuaded to.

Is she happy? It depends on whom you talk to.

Mark took his second wife to meet her two years ago. He married his present wife in the church this time, but has not told his mother that. "I don't want to give her the satisfaction," he said.

"It was not like visiting one's mother at all. From the minute we sat down to the minute the curtains closed, she talked nonstop the entire time, not random, but a well-organized stream of consciousness. It was just like speaking with Mom when she was out in the real world. She must be just bursting when a visitor comes.''

When the visit was over, he went outside and cried. "My tears were out of pity for her, knowing she's still the same personality, so gregarious and outgoing, but now sort of trapped in this convent."

Others say they've never seen her more at peace.

"The word 'enthusiastic' comes from 'full of God,' " Donna said, then added, "I don't think it's easy. Not what she expected. But she'd never admit she made a mistake.''

She doesn't think her mother will come back. "She never said anything out loud she wasn't going to follow through on," she said.

Ann's choice was an act of faith, said daughter Janet Abbott, now 51. "It's like that saying — for those who believe, no explanation is necessary, and for those who don't believe, no explanation is possible."

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Adair Lara, "From high society to a higher calling." San Francisco Chronicle 27 March, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the San Francisco Chronicle.

THE AUTHOR

Adair Lara is a staff writer with the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go: a Mother, a Daughter and An Adolescence Survived a memoir about raising a teenaged daughter. Adair Lara may be reached at alara@sfchronicle.com.

Copyright 2005 San Francisco Chronicle


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