Penny Postcard Memories

Priestly Persistence Pays Off

The following articles are written by Sisters whose experience with penny postcard changed the trajectory of her life. If you have a similar penny postcard experience, email your story to for possible publication in Sinsinawa Spectrum.

by Elizabeth Sully, OP

Elizabeth Sully, OP
Elizabeth Sully, OP

My mom had always wanted to become a Catholic Sister. Fortunately for me, she didn’t know how to go about it. In her early 20s, she and Rudy wanted to marry, but Rudy’s father, being the president of Lutheran-based Dana College, and Rudy’s mother, a determined woman, met my mom’s mother—they nixed the marriage idea. Again, fortunately for me. Then my mom married Joe and had eight children, me being the fifth child and the first girl. Growing up, I learned that we “belonged” to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Fort Calhoun, NE. Being both Baptist and Catholic seemed a peculiar arrangement to me; did St. John even know he was Baptist and Catholic? The church was a mission parish, and some Sisters from Omaha who wore black habits came each summer for two weeks to teach us catechism. The Sisters had a custom whereby a 3rd-grade girl would be dressed in a miniature habit, lead the first communicants into the church, up the aisle, open the communion rail gate, receive communion, and then usher in the other first communicants. Being the only girl out of the three students in my class, I was the chosen.

Just prior to the big day, the Sisters wanted me to try on the habit to see if it would fit me. I began to feel terribly anxious about this fitting. It was the early 1940s, times were tense, and money was scarce. Everything was focused on the war effort. My oldest brother enlisted in the Marines; we collected milkweed pods along the railroad tracks, the fluff used for something; we pounded out the glass in Mom’s precious zinc jar lids, zinc being needed; went barefoot all summer to save on shoe leather. My little tattered undershirt was riddled with holes and, elastic being unavailable, my underpants were held up with safety pins. I was old enough to be really concerned about what the Sisters would think when they saw my ratty, little underwear. But when I went to try on the little habit, they did not even seem to notice. Right then, a thought was indelibly engraved in my memory: “I want to be like that.”

PostcardSuddenly it was my senior year in high school. Dad liked to go to confession every two weeks, so I drove him to the church seven miles distant. After Dad came out, I went in, and at the end, as I was about to leave, Father Ed (brother to our Marie Patrice O’Donnell, OP [1927–2019]) asked a familiar-sounding question, “And what are you going to do now that you’ve graduated?” “I don’t know,” I answered. Earlier in the summer I’d seen an ad to apply to become an airline stewardess. I’d filled it out, sent it in, and waited. But so far, no response and summer was running short. Fr. Ed said, “I think you have a vocation.” I wasn’t at all sure what that meant but replied, “Well, if you don’t hear from me in two weeks send in an application for me.” Two weeks passed, and Dad wanted to go to confession again. When I followed as usual, Fr. Ed seemed a bit grumpy—“I didn’t hear from you.” “Well, I said that if you didn’t hear from me in two weeks to send something in.” He left and went to the rectory, returning with a smile and a postcard that he asked me to fill out, saying, “Just write your reason for wanting to enter, and sign it.” I wrote a holy one-liner that Fr. Ed suggested, but my real reason was, “I want to be like them.”

France is Calling

by Mary Paynter, OP

Mary Paynter, OP
Mary Paynter, OP

When I was 7 or 8 years old, a friend of my father who was a salesman for Scribner Publishers gave me a big, beautiful, illustrated book called Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I loved the pictures and the stories, and I would sit on my grandfather’s lap and carefully read it to him, pointing to each detail in the colorful drawings. The Colossus of Rhodes was my most favorite, although the Hanging Gardens of Babylon came in a close second. I think he gently pointed out to me that most of these wonders were long gone, but wonders still were to be found in the world, and maybe, one day, I would see them. That sounded wonderful, although terribly far off, but I really wished in my heart that some day I could sail under the spread legs of the great Colossus and enter the great city of Rhodes just as I thought the ancient peoples did.

Time passed, as time will do. I went to high school, then college, then on to graduate school. And what next? I thought, as I prepared for my master’s degree exams one August afternoon. As I sat in the University of Wisconsin library, tired of reading, I looked around at the shelves nearby. I was in the reference section, and one big, blue book caught my eye—Universities of the World. It was a rather prosaic-for-academics book, but I pulled it off the shelf and began browsing. At the time, I had a cousin working for the French Embassy in Paris, so I cast an eye on the French universities section. To my surprise, a footnote mentioned that scholarships were offered by the French government to American students—one scholarship for each state. Intrigued, I read the fine print—and found that a person need only apply through a French embassy or consulate. Well, why not, I figured. I carefully copied the information and decided to write to the French consulate in Chicago.

When I got home, I looked for an envelope and stamp, but I could only find a postcard. So, what the heck—I dashed off my name and address and requested an application. One week later, application papers arrived in the mail, with a formal letter stating that the Wisconsin scholarship was indeed available (presumably whoever had received it originally had recently turned it down), but I needed to apply at once. I did, and, VOILA! By mid-September I was on a Holland-America ship headed for France for study at the Sorbonne, and for a year’s exploration of the City of Light—truly one of the Wonders of the World—and it all began with a little penny postcard!

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