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BENEDICTINE NUNS ENJOY SEASON OF TOGETHERNESS AND DEVOTION

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No one believes that Christmas is a time for family more than Sister Mary Zenzen, a Benedictine nun in Ogden. But her family is bigger than most. Rather than siblings and cousins, it has expanded to include other nuns, priests, parishioners and anyone in need this holiday season.

Like most people, love is at the center of her celebration. But that love is a little quieter, calmer and more focused."The Advent season is preparation for Christmas and the holidays, but it is a little bit of a penitential time - prayer time and time to reflect on what this is about. It's different from the full-time socializing some people do. Every Sunday for four weeks before Christmas, we come together for a common prayer service and invite people in the surrounding area to come."

Although she and other sisters in the Mount Benedict Priory gather at some time during the holiday season to eat together and share gifts and prayers, the most important part of the holiday, for her, is the anticipation.

The sisters are not dreaming of ordinary gifts, however.

They are waiting, quietly, for "this great gift that is going to be presented."

The Christ child.

Nuns across the state share the hard work and heartfelt rewards of the season. They seldom get a chance to gather for their own "family" celebration on Dec. 25. They have too many obligations in the parish. But sometime during the holiday season, they gather with other sisters from their orders and share prayer and food, swap stories and gifts and enjoy each other immensely.

At St. Ambrose Convent, associated with the St. Ambrose parish in Salt Lake City, the two resident sisters "try not to let too many of the worldly, material kinds of things" into their celebration, according to Sister Miriam Joanne.

"During this time, we have a special time of personal and private prayer. In preparing for Christmas, of course, we decorate. Then we get together with other congregations of sisters."

The Sisters of Holy Cross, of which Sister Miriam Joanne is a member, was started by a priest in France. Later, priests brought four sisters to the United States to settle in Indiana. And 119 years ago, some of them came to the Salt Lake Valley to take care of miners in the mining camps. They built Holy Cross Hospital and the old St. Mary of the Wasatch girl's college. They also operated St. Ann's orphanage, which is now St. Ann's school.

When Holy Cross Hospital was sold, they could have left Utah. But they saw needs and decided they wanted to continue ministering in Utah. Now they reach out in particular to undocumented and underinsured men, women and chil-dren.

Sister Miriam Joanne's relatives are in other states, but her family is here in her Catholic Church community. She will get on a bus and visit her mother in Cheyenne, Wyo., after Christmas. But the day itself - and the weeks leading up to it - will be spent with her church family. They will minister to the sick, visit people who are lonely, go to midnight Mass together. They will gather to celebrate the holiday.

The sisters are her sisters, her family.

Although Sister Rosario does not live in a convent with other nuns, she will not be lonely at Christmastime. A decade ago she lived in a convent, and the season bustled with decorating and cooking and general preparations.

She loved it, but she doesn't miss it.

A Victory Noll sister, her energy now goes to her parish. Besides reaching out to people in the many church services that mark the season, the nuns have bustled about making sure that the needy are taken care of at Christmastime.

"My particular ministry is visitation to the sick and bereaved. Especially at Christmastime, people need a lot of help because they get so depressed. That's one of my joys, being able to help people cope during the holidays."

Her real joy, though, is "preparation for the coming of our Lord. We are not expecting him as a baby again. He is risen. But we do expect our hearts to be new again.

"We are so involved with the parish with the preparation for Christmas. As you travel through the religious life and make the journey, you come closer and closer to God. You see more clearly what life is about. Things we were engaged in in the secular world - and we do still get our share of lovely gifts - they don't make that much difference any more."

Still, her family of sisters loves to gather sometime during the holidays. This year, she and Sister Lorraine are going to Moab right after Christmas to visit other nuns in their order.

"We consider ourselves a family. This congregation is my family. I have left my other family to join with this particular family because they have the same goals I have."

Utah is home to about 10 different orders of nuns, according to Sister Miriam Joanne. Nationally, there are hundreds of different orders.

Long ago, a sister would select her order based on her interests and vocational goals. Some orders emphasized health care, others were primarily teachers or worked with the poor and the oppressed.

"Years ago, it was the work you were doing. We looked at those options and said, `Where do I want to spend my life?' We choose what we feel, but God really takes the initiative. He chooses us. He puts this desire in us because he knows this is where we're going to be the happiest. It's not because we're the big gift of God to the people."

Many people have what Sister Miriam Joanne describes as misperceptions. "They think we were jilted or unhappy so we joined a convent. It's not that at all. Giving God the love we would give to immediate family is not a lonely life at all. Time with the community is very, very special with us. It's a priority to get together often. We need to take time to celebrate together, but if anyone finds it lonely, maybe it's by choice. We outreach so much."

If the convents and orders have gotten somewhat smaller, one thing has only grown larger.

The devotion. And that, they say, is truly the reason for the season.