- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

ABINGDON, Va. — When it came time to retire, Dene Peterson couldn’t help but be dismayed.

The former nun once expected to grow old in the convent, free to contemplate the afterlife in the care of her sisters, but life is different on the outside — Miss Peterson’s silver-haired contemporaries seemed to spend their final years contemplating nothing more than shopping or golf.

“I saw ‘Leisurevilles’ everywhere,” Miss Peterson said. “You could be rich and have leisure and entertain yourself — if that’s going to mean anything to you — or you could just plod along and then eventually someone will put you in a nursing home.”

Miss Peterson would have none of it. Instead, she reconnected with other former nuns — women who left the order, as she did, almost 40 years ago in a dust-up with church leaders.

Together, they started planning a retirement community dedicated to communal living and a serious exploration of the human spirit — the best parts of convent life, she said.

They called it “ElderSpirit Community,” and this time, the former nuns were determined to run the place their way. They eventually raised $3 million to develop ElderSpirit.

The 29-unit retirement community will rise at the foot of a wooded hill at the outskirts of this Appalachian mountain town. When it is completed next year, ElderSpirit will be open to men and women of all religions. It will offer rental homes to people with low incomes, and everyone will be required to spend four hours a week helping neighbors.

At the front of the neighborhood, residents will share a common house where Miss Peterson, 74, hopes they will have some heavy discussions about the role of elders and their place in the world.

“One of the important things we’ll do is get people to face that we are all going to die,” she said: “And so, what does that mean to you? And what do you want it to be like? And what do you hope to do before you die?”

Even before the foundation is laid, ElderSpirit is booming. All but a few of the 29 homes have been reserved — such an unexpected level of success that Miss Peterson says she may build another ElderSpirit as soon as the first one is completed.

“People should be able to have more choices than those anonymous rest homes you see all over the place,” Miss Peterson said.

Most of the former nuns who joined Miss Peterson remain practicing Catholics, but nobody expects to proselytize or be converted to something else. The years out of the convent gave each more respect for different religions, said former nun Catherine Rumschlag.

“We have a really good group,” said Miss Rumschlag, 77, who has met many of the future tenants. “They are people who want to grow spiritually, who want to help their neighbors.”

The five women — Miss Peterson, Miss Rumschlag, Monica Appleby, Anne Leibig and Jean Marie Luce — were once known as “Glenmary Sisters,” in an order dedicated to serving the poorest regions in Appalachia.

“We were a scandal when we came down and, you know, the Catholic Church had a different God than the Baptist Church,” Miss Peterson said. “I can remember thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. What do these people think God is?’”

Interacting with the locals, however, softened her position. When the Catholic Church started changing its theology in the 1960s, the Glenmary Sisters suggested altering rules that would allow them to fit better into the community.

Church leaders were unmoved, so after a prolonged dispute about how nuns were supposed to dress and other church rules, about 100 Glenmary nuns left the order.

Miss Peterson, who grew up in a large Catholic family in Loretto, Ky., said she never regretted leaving, but the community that had been her safety net was gone.

“I gave up my social security — I don’t mean Social Security, like retirement money — but having people around you who love you and will take care of you,” she said.

Those who are interested in ElderSpirit should be warned: Don’t come if you’re not ready for some deep conversations. These are women who have spent a lifetime refining their understanding of the afterlife.

“I don’t know if this is the last chapter of our lives or the beginning of a new phase,” Miss Peterson said with a laugh. “You never know.”

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