Sister Evelyn Ovalles reflects on Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and home
Sister Evelyn Ovalles, a native of the Philippines, currently ministers as director of the Tribunal and judge for the diocese of Gary, Ind.
What does home mean to you?
“Home is the place that goes where you go, yet it welcomes you upon your return”
Michael J. Rosen
This is among my favorite quotes about home. I certainly carry “home” with me wherever I go. A turtle carries its home on its back; I carry mine in my heart. But home is not simply a place. It is a state of being. To be home is to be yourself; to peel away the masks because you know you are safe and accepted and loved. It is an attitude of mind and heart of deep, deep gratefulness. To be home is also the ability to see the holy in everything around me that makes my heart sing.
How is Saint Mary-of-the-Woods home to you?
The Woods, in a way, is my haven, my security, my sanctuary. It is a place where I can relax, be rejuvenated; in short, a place where I can let my hair down so to speak. I feel relaxed and inspired as my creative spirit is immersed and enfolded in the beauty and serenity of the Woods. I enjoy spending time with the sisters, sometimes playing cards or scrabble with them or visiting them in health care. It is where I feel nourished in mind, body and spirit. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods gives me that sense of wonderment for its beauty and peace.
When did Saint Mary-of-the-Woods become a home to you?
I first saw the Woods when I came for a discernment weekend April 18-20, 1996. As I was walking back from St. Joe’s lake I had this uncanny feeling, sort of a sense of place or recognition that this is where I belong. I guess I could say that was the beginning. The formation years helped foster that sense of home. As I traveled a lot from one ministry to the next during postulancy, the Woods was my safety harbor, a haven in between travels. But it was during my canonical year while living and ministering here that I started to grow roots. I found my favorite spots; I call them my “secret gardens” where I could quiet my mind and feed my heart. So after I left the Woods, ‘coz we cannot all stay in the nest as MTG [Saint Mother Theodore Guerin] said, the Woods went with me instead. And it welcomes me home when I come home.
How has emigrating from another country and living in many different locations affected your vision of home?
I’ve always thought that the whole world is my world, not just the four corners of a house. So I feel at home wherever I go. According to Joseph Neal, “Home is where the heart is.” It has become a cliché but I can relate to it. I certainly loved all of the places and locations I had visited. I appreciated the culture, the traditions and the people I had met along the way. And I love the beauty of creation all around us. I guess I am a true child of the universe (and, I’d like to add) rooted in Providence.
What does “coming home to the Woods” mean to you?
It means comfort, rest and security. When life seems pulling me in different directions or when I feel stressed or somehow stuck, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is the place to go. It’s home, it’s sanctuary, it’s a very tangible legacy of St. Mother Theodore to us. It means being imbibed by the legacy of St. Mother Theodore and those who have gone before us. Some author said that home is an “oratorio” of memories. Certainly, every part of the Woods hold many memories. Coming home to the Woods then means growing roots and strengthening bonds with the sisters and with creation. I experience the holiness of this place. This is holy ground and I know that’s what other people say about the Woods, too. So, seeing and experiencing this sacredness all around me brings feelings of peace, love, contentment, joy.
What do you love about SMW?
There is nothing not to love about the Woods. It is holy ground, sacred space. Home is supposed to mirror who we are and what is important to us. I see that every time I come home…in the sisters’ relationships and caring for one another, in our practices, the little “sanctuaries” in every nook and cranny, in the beauty of nature surrounding us, in the Church, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, in the cemetery, the reflection garden, St. Joe’s lake, I could go on and on and on. You experience the holy in this place.
I love the four seasons in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. A few years ago in winter when the Woods was covered in snow, Sister Terri Boland and I took a walk on the nature trail. It was beautiful! The snow was so pristine and the place quiet and peaceful. Last year on the feast of St. Stephen I went sledding with Sister Mary Montgomery at the ravine by the grotto.
What are your favorite things to do at the Woods?
I think I sound redundant but the Woods is a place where I can relax and be rejuvenated. When I am home I enjoy nurturing my creativity.
The computer room is a place for me to unwind, especially after driving 2 ½ hours from work. But it is also a place to meet and visit with the sisters. I love surprises and you just don’t know who will find in the computer room…sisters coming for their LGU or some other meeting or, like me, just visiting and enjoying the peace and serenity one finds in this place.
I also visit sisters in health care. Last time I was there, I visited Sister Jane Bodine and she shared with me her family album. I also visited Sister Ann Kevin O’Connor and then met her roommate, Gloria Nudd, mother of Sister Roe Nudd. Opportunities for connecting and widening the tent, one of our themes in the past, are valuable to me and we sure have such opportunities here.
I grew up in an island so I love water and enjoy spending time in St. Joe’s lake. It’s restorative to be around water; it just washes away physical, emotional or spiritual fatigue. Sister Mary Pat Peacock taught me how to fish a few years back and at times I practice what she had taught me. I still am not good at casting and I wouldn’t know what to do if I ever caught a fish. The reflection garden is among my favorites too. I can be found there in the early mornings or late afternoons with a camera. Not only is it a place for reflection, it is another place where I indulge in restorative play with my camera. I have a favorite photo of a frog taken at the reflection garden.
I have a passion for life. I love beauty, music, the arts. I love photography and the Woods is very photographic. So, the Woods is the canvas as well as a playground to me. You’ll find me in the most unexpected places maybe down on my knees taking a photograph of a blade of grass or my body glued to the trunk of a tree as I try to take a photo of its crown or maybe just enjoying a leisurely walk or sledding on the ravine in the winter. I have photographs of the Woods at different times of the year. Each season offers a different flavor but each season is just as lovely and enticing.
What feelings do you associate with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods?
Serenity, peace, acceptance, welcome, security, love, joy.
I want to say I feel at home wherever I am. I think that feeling comes from the knowledge and awareness of the many blessings I have received and continues to receive for which I am deeply grateful. Still, SMW has a special place in my heart. I love coming home to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. It is a holy place. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” I hope the Woods is shaping me.
(This article reprinted from the Summer 2013 edition of HOPE)