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A zest for swimming

“The pool was magnificent,” said Sister John Mary Rifner.

It was just one line in the “Important Events 1840 to 1972” in the card file in the Sisters of Providence Archives, but it caused a lot of stories to be told and memories to be relived. The line was “June 29, 1953: Permission to swim given to Sisters of Providence for the first time.”

One of those sisters who shared her memories of that glorious decision was 80-year-old Sister John Mary Rifner. Sister John Mary and her sister, Sister Martha Ann, entered the Congregation on Feb. 2, 1953. Sister John Mary was an avid swimmer prior to entering the Congregation. As children, she and another sister, Aggie, went to the city pool in Newcastle, Ind., as soon as it opened at 10 a.m. during the summer.

Sister John Mary Rifner spent many happy hours in the pool

“Daddy would pick Aggie and me up at the pool about 3 and we would go work at the garden pulling weeds and killing bugs using flat pieces of wood that Daddy would fix for us. [We went] home for supper about 6 [and] back to the pool by 7,” remembered Sister John Mary.

Sister John Mary shared that upon entering religious life, “I thought I would never swim or drive again — two of my most wonderful things.”

(Driving was permitted by the Congregation in the 1960s.)

Sister John Mary certainly remembered that June day in 1953 when word was received that swimming was permitted.

Mother Marie Helene [Franey, general superior from 1948 to 1953] came in and told the postulants and novices that they would be permitted to swim,” said Sister John Mary.

Soon the sisters received their new seersucker suits that looked like a short dress. Panties and bras were necessary undergarments to wear with the suit.

“As soon as you got into the water it clung to you,” said Sister Martha Ann.

“And when you jumped in the water, the skirt would come up over you and you didn’t know whether you were drowning or alive,” laughed Sister John Mary.

Sister Martha Ann Rifner entered the Congregation with her sister, Sister John Mary, on Feb. 2, 1953.

The seersucker suit didn’t last very long. The sisters in the Sewing Room made a blue cotton suit that zipped up the front. Wearers still needed panties and bras, but it was definitely an improvement. Sister Martha Ann described it as “more on the order of a tennis outfit.”

“It was stiffer than the seersucker,” said Sister John Mary.

“And it was shorter,” chimed in Sister Martha Ann.

The swimming pool was the pool located in the gymnasium, a building shared by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and the motherhouse.

“It was a beautiful pool,” remembered Sister John Mary. “It was gorgeous. The place where we dressed and where we took showers definitely was terrible, but the pool was magnificent. Oh, I loved it! The water was so clear. You couldn’t have wanted a better one.”

Sister John Mary remembers swimming in the evening during those first summers. The sisters had to line up and be divided into groups because so many wanted to swim. She remembers that they stayed in the pool about an hour or so.

“When it first opened, everybody wanted to go,” said Sister John Mary.

“Most of the time we just played around [in the water]. It was wonderful!”

After wearing the habit, the swimsuit was truly freeing. The swimmers’ legs and arms were free of clothing.

“In the winter, some of us had life saving [classes],” continued Sister John Mary. “The [gym] instructor from the college came over. On those occasions we wore tank suits.”

Tank suits were one piece, regular swim suits. It had no skirt and was very simple. “We were able to navigate around in the water with that one,” laughed Sister John Mary.

Eventually, Sister John Mary served as a life guard for the sisters whenever she was needed.

On mission, Sister John Mary ministered as a primary teacher. But each summer when she returned to the Woods, she would return to her favorite place — the swimming pool — almost every day. And 24 years ago when she retired from teaching and returned to the Woods to serve as a driver for other sisters, she still found time to swim. Yes, swimming was so important to her that she swam between 4:10 and 5:10 a.m. each morning, and she did this until the pool closed in 2003.

Sister John Mary definitely entered the Congregation in the right year!

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Connie McCammon

Connie McCammon worked in the communications office for the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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