Most people wouldn’t think it was “cool” to have a nun in the family. For anyone who attended Catholic school, nuns were the teachers you typically revered, but mostly feared. Dressed in their long habits and stiff veils, with rosary beads in one hand and a long yardstick in the other, they could intimidate even the most pious child. For me, however, my father’s sister, a Roman Catholic nun, was one of the coolest people I knew. She didn’t scare me in the least. In fact, I admired, respected, and simply adored her.
Born on January 7, 1918 in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, a young Anna Alzo knew from the time she was 13 that she wanted to follow this vocation. Her father, John, was Roman Catholic, but her mother, Elizabeth, had been baptized Greek Catholic, but followed her husband to the Roman Catholic faith upon marriage.
On June 25, 1934, at age 16, Anna followed her calling and entered Nazareth convent in Victoria, Texas to begin her journey as a sister in the order of the Blessed Sacrament of the Incarnate Word. She chose the name Sister Mary Camilla. Mostly everyone just called her “Sister Camilla.” I called her “Auntie.”
I feel very lucky to have in my possession a scrapbook that “Auntie” kept documenting each step in her journey. On the inside cover, she wrote:
There are many photographs and other mementos and “Auntie” wrote down details and little notes for each one. It is a family treasure and I am currently in the process of scanning each page in this book. One of the mementos was a clipping from a San Antonio newspaper (year unknown) of an article entitled “Christ’s Career Women.” The article gives a brief history of the order, which was founded in France in 1625. The pioneers of the order in America arrived in Brownsville, Texas in 1853, and then in 1866 a colony of sisters founded the Nazareth convent in Victoria. My “Auntie” was the “model” nun for the photograph accompanying the article. She is dressed in her traditional garb—a white habit, with the cincture of very dark red leather. The scapular was also a very dark red color, with an embroidered crown of thorns and other symbols of the Passion. I know I’m biased, but I know they picked the right sister to be their “poster girl.” Not only was she devoted to her calling, and the most holy person I knew, but she was also a kind and generous teacher.
I’ve written about “Auntie” a few times on my own blog, The Accidental Genealogist, recounting some of my fondest memories, such as baking cookies with her at Christmas, and going on vacations in the summer, especially a trip to Canada to visit our Alzo relatives in Ontario. I loved spending time with her. Sometimes we played cards, other times we would sit in my Aunt Betty’s (Auntie “B”’s) kitchen and “Auntie” would attempt to teach me Slovak. I learned how to count from one to ten, and to say the “Our Father.” “Auntie” also loved to write letters. I have stacks of them she sent to me, and some she sent to my parents, my grandparents, and my aunt. Many were handwritten. Some were typed. “Auntie” was an excellent writer. Her letters always read like stories, and she had perfect penmanship. How I loved getting those letters! “Auntie” was also my family’s first “genealogist” although she never identified herself as such. In the 70s “Auntie” typed up a one-page family narrative based on stories her cousin, Mary Hatala, had told her, and I was able to use this account to track the details about many of my paternal ancestors. So not only was “Auntie” a positive influence on my spiritual life, but I’m pretty certain that “Auntie” is my muse—both for my love of writing and my interest in genealogy.
“Auntie” passed away in 1986. She had a difficult time during the last years of her life. She suffered for many years after something went wrong during an operation and the effects of the anesthesia left her basically unable to care for herself, and unable to walk. The sisters at the convent in Victoria took care of her. Her letters during that time revealed her determination, her unwavering faith, and her acceptance of her own suffering. She was devoted to her vocation until the very end, continuing to serve the purpose of the congregation, which is “the glory of God, and the sanctification of its members.”
In 2003, during a visit to Texas, I got to visit the convent in Victoria and speak to many of the sisters who knew my “Auntie.” I also had a chance to visit her gravesite since she is buried in the cemetery near the convent.
Whether she was “crusading for Christ” or inspiring her young niece to be a writer and genealogist, Sister Mary Camilla Alzo left her mark on the world. And that, I think, is pretty cool.