Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Singing Nuns

Some of you will remember “The Singing Nun,” back in the 1960s. This past weekend I was treated to a reprise, in a manner of speaking.

This was not Whoopi Goldberg in another remake of the movie “Sister Act,” though that would be fine by me. Nor was it a performance in honor of the passing of the Pope. No, this was something so unique, so unusual (in my humble opinion), as to be a veritable one-of-a-kind event.

As the Commanding Officer of MEFREL 220 (Marine Expeditionary Forces Religious 220), it was my extreme pleasure to witness one of the officers in my unit retire this past Saturday, having faithfully served her required twenty years. This officer, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Donna Moses, is one of those very special people who had received a calling to ministry. About eight years ago she realized her vocation was to become a nun. Today she is a Sister in the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.

Now here’s where things get really interesting. I assumed my role as Commanding Officer (CO) of MEFREL 220. I say commanding officer because that is what the commanding officer of our reserve center, Captain Kristine Carlock, calls all of the COs attached to NMCRC Alameda. Conversely, within the Navy Chaplain Corps, chaplains are never in a “command” position, which is clearly defined within military dictums. It is quite true that chaplains do not wield the military judicial sword, as it were. We are staff officers, serving under the commanding officer, advising in matters of religion, ethics, morals and morale. We may be called the Officer in Charge (OIC), but that’s the extent of it. Got that?

So, anyway, CDR Donna Moses is a line officer. This means she is in position to take command. So how did she wind up serving under a chaplain? Well, once she accepted her call as a Dominican Sister, the Navy decided to allow her to serve with those who provide religious ministry. Donna remained a line officer, but she did her military reserve duty with MEFREL 220, functioning as our administration officer. She would also have served as a military lay leader for Catholics. You still with me?

The military is big on ceremony; and retirement is no exception. On Saturday, the military retirement ceremony for LCDR Moses was slated for 1500 (3:00 PM for you landlubbers). Earlier the Alameda Reserve Center was virtually overrun with nuns. From all around the Bay Area, Dominican Sisters carpooled to the Center, not wanting to miss out on one of their own receiving the time-honored military retirement ceremony. I had walked through the Center earlier in an attempt to inform the various Navy commands that we would be having special guests. The looks on the faces of some of our sailors was priceless. “Chaplain, how many nuns did you say would be here?” “About sixty,” I replied. “Sixty?” “Yup! Six Zero.” “I gotta see this!” was the typical response.

I got to thinking: Is it possible that there has ever been, or will ever be again, a nun coming out of the line officer community, having a retirement ceremony with all the military honors and folderol associated with it? Not to mention a bevy of nuns in attendance? I really don’t think so.

The ceremony began with sideboys in position and the boatswain’s mate piping aboard Donna as the retiree, me as the CO of the unit, and Captain Carlock as the CO of the Alameda Reserve Center. We then stood on the dais with the guest speaker, Captain (ret) Jack O’Neill, a Catholic priest, and Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, the Prioress General of the Dominican Sisters. Sister Rose Marie would have been called “Mother Superior” a few decades ago, but that is now Prioress General. Has a nice military ring to it, doesn’t it?

We all came to attention as the Marine Color Guard presented the colors, followed by the playing of the national anthem. Those of us in uniform held our salute as the tape recorder blared the familiar restrain. Then something happened that will stay with me the rest of my life. Quietly at first, a few of the nuns began to sing the national anthem, “O, say, can you see . . .” Then the rest of the sisters joined in, swelling the tune to its climactic ending, “. . . and the home of the brave!” It was a special moment. I didn’t want it to end!

At the conclusion of the ceremony we had cake and punch while everyone milled about, chatting animatedly with the Sisters. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle was feverishly interviewing both military personnel and nuns, clicking priceless pictures, thus capturing this moment for posterity.

It seemed fitting to end this day, Saturday, April 2, with sixty Dominican Sisters singing in full voice. It was a day when LCDR (ret) Donna Moses was retired from military service. It was also on this day that the People’s Pope, John Paul II, was loosed from his earthly bonds.

Let the nuns, and all the heavenly host, break out in song!

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