The ‘unusual’ sister: The socialite who gave up the wild life to become a nun

Sister Mary Joseph spent her last 32 years in a Carmelite monastery. But before that she was Ann Russell Miller, a socialite who had hundreds of friends, went on scuba diving adventures, and hobnobbed with popes and presidents, writes Nathan Place

Friday 11 June 2021 16:26
<p>Ann Russell Miller lived the last 32 years of her life as a Carmelite nun at a monastery in Illinois</p>

Ann Russell Miller lived the last 32 years of her life as a Carmelite nun at a monastery in Illinois

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On 6 June, a 92-year-old nun named Sister Mary Joseph died in Illinois. Her son marked her passing on Twitter.

“She was kind of an unusual nun,” wrote Mark Miller, a cemetery administrator in San Diego.

That was an understatement. In fact, his mother had only spent the final third of her life as Sister Mary Joseph. Before that she was Ann Russell Miller, a San Francisco socialite who had ten children, hundreds of friends, and a social life that included hobnobbing with presidents and popes.

Then, one day in 1989, she gave it all up.

“She used to joke with us in the family that when the youngest of us was grown, she would enter a Carmelite monastery,” Mr Miller recalled. “We all took it as a joke… But yeah, she did.”

When Ms Miller was 58 years old, three years after her husband Richard died, she told her children her plans. First at a lunch with her five daughters, and then at a lunch with her five sons, she asked each of them what they planned to do when they turned 60. After hearing their answers, she told them her own: She would become a Carmelite nun.

“She said, ‘Look, I’ve devoted 30 years of my life to myself, and the next 30 to you children, and the last 30 I’m devoting to God,’” Mr Miller said.

It should be noted that even among nuns, the Carmelites live an especially austere life. They spend most of their days in silence, and never leave their monasteries except for emergencies. At the convent Ms Miller had her eye on – Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Des Plaines, Illinois – the nuns converse with visitors through a metal grate.

Though some of her children couldn’t believe it at first, Ms Miller made good on her promise. On her 61st birthday, she had a going away party at the San Francisco Hilton, which Mr Miller says 800 people attended.

“Many more did not make the cut because we were at the fire marshall’s limit,” he recalled.

Worried she might get lost in the crowd, Ms Miller tied a Mylar balloon to her wrist that floated six or seven feet above her head, reading “Here I am.”

The next morning, she flew to Chicago to join the monastery. Bringing nothing with her except a prayer book and a pair of Birkenstock sandals, she moved into a small, bare room with a wooden bed, and began a quiet life of praying and making rosaries.

It was a startling change of lifestyle, especially considering what had come before. Looking back decades later, Mr Miller recalled his mother’s life as a bon vivant.

“She was on the phone two, three hours a day speaking with friends. She was traveling constantly,” he said. “When she decided to become a nun, she resigned from like 20 boards of charities and community organizations.”

The Millers also owned 565 acres of farmland just south of San Francisco, including an 80-acre retreat in the redwoods where they entertained guests and dignitaries. They attended fundraisers for Republican candidates, and met presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. When Ms Miller’s husband died, Richard Nixon sent condolence letters.

There were also many “extravagant” outings.

“She was always, always planning – ‘Oh, let’s go to Hawaii, I hear there’s this great place to scuba dive. We’ll rent helicopters, go down for a dive and come back, who wants to come?’ Or, ‘I saw some beautiful pictures of this river. Let’s all go float down the Snake River for four days, camp out in the wilderness.’”

Even back then, Ms Miller was a deeply committed Catholic, and went to mass every day. So to keep up her faith while in the wild, she would bring along friends and family – and a priest.

“I got pictures sent to me in summer camp of her, the older siblings, the coterie of friends, and the obligatory Catholic priest,” her son remembered. “They helicoptered to a crater and went scuba diving.”

Mr Miller said his mom “was not a proselytizer,” and never imposed her religion on her friends. With her family, however, it was a different story.

“Within her own family, she was very strict about the rules,” he said. “If somebody got married outside of the Catholic church, in her mind that marriage did not exist. The children of that marriage were not welcome in her home. The spouses of those children were not welcome in her home.”

Sadly, this harsher side of Ms Miller’s personality eventually caused a falling out with her own son. When he was 18, Mr Miller recalls, his mother disapproved of a relationship he was in with an older, divorced woman. One day as he got ready to visit her, his mother confronted him.

“‘If you decide to go, do not come back,’” he says she told him.

Mr Miller started packing his things.

In the end, he said, the relationship didn’t last, but the damage to his relationship with his mother was permanent. She disinherited him, and they seldom saw each other.

“For the five years before she went into the convent, I saw her three or four times,” he said.

Years later, Mr Miller took his three children to see her at the monastery. By that time she seemed more distant, like a “great aunt I hadn’t seen in a long time.” Even so, he said, she seemed happy.

“She was equally as happy as a nun as I ever saw her on the outside,” he said. “I mean, it was an absolute 180 in every other aspect of her life, except her happiness. She was not a miserable person on the outside, and she was not a miserable person on the inside.”

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