Lacey nuns, friends celebrate founding member

Staff photographer

There were fresh flowers, candles and a tiered cake.

And the guest of honor, Sister Damaris Zander, wore a corsage on her wrist.

After all, it’s not every day that members of St. Placid Priory in Lacey get to celebrate a member’s 70th jubilee, marking 70 years since she took her vows.

“How often do we get to celebrate 70 years of anything, other than a birthday?” said Sister Laura Swan. “It’s wonderful.”

Zander took her first monastic vows July 11, 1945, at St. Benedict’s Convent in St. Joseph, Minnesota. She is one of only three remaining founding members of St. Placid and has the most seniority.

“I never thought I’d be there at that spot,” said Zander, 89, of her seniority.

Sister Maureen O’Larey, 62, said the priory’s members renew their vows every year, but they try to make the big anniversaries extra special. About 75 people, including friends and family members from Arizona, Minnesota and North Dakota, attended the jubilee celebration on Saturday at St. Placid. It featured hymns, prayers and a signing ceremony at which Zander formally reaffirmed her vows in the chapel. It was followed by a reception.

“We’re celebrating her,” said O’Larey, who has been at the priory since 1993. “It’s a huge witness, to us and the outside world, of that stability and love.”

Zander was the second youngest of 21 children and grew up on a farm in North Dakota.

As a young girl, she began attending daily Roman Catholic Mass with her parents at their parish in Mandan, North Dakota. That’s when she said she fell in love with the prayerful life.

At age 17, she inquired about joining a convent.

“Nobody really told me, or encouraged me, until I went to them and said, ‘How do I go about joining the religious life?’” Zander recalls.

In 1943, she entered as a postulant — an opportunity to sample the life before committing — at St. Benedict’s Convent in St. Joseph. After taking her first vows in 1945, one of her first assignments was working in a nursing home in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

“I always wanted to be a nurse,” Zander said. “That was my dream.”

But eventually she would be sent West.

St. Benedict’s sisters were first sent to Washington in 1892 to evangelize and minister to families who migrated to the area. They have worked in Tacoma parishes and founded grade schools at Holy Rosary, Visitation and St. Ann’s parishes in Tacoma, as well as at Puyallup’s All Saints Parish.

In 1952, Zander was chosen to be part of a group of 35 Benedictine sisters who were sent to establish a permanent foundation in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

“They were pioneers,” said Sister Sharon McDonald, 72, St. Placid’s prioress. “They left what was familiar to minister in these parishes.”

For about 12 years, Zander worked at several Tacoma area schools and parishes, while also obtaining her nursing credentials.

At Holy Rosary, Zander recalls moving boulders and landscaping the convent grounds. One winter, it snowed, and she and some of the other sisters went sledding with a few of the kids.

“We went out and slid down the hill, which was a dangerous thing to do,” Zander said with a laugh.

She also served as a founding member of St. Placid Priory, which was initially located on an undeveloped Delphi Road property that “included a chicken coop, which the sisters turned into a dormitory,” according to some historical information provided to The Olympian by the priory.

In 1961, with a lot of fundraising, the sisters were able to secure enough money to open a new convent and Catholic girls high school in Lacey. Zander said she moved to Olympia in 1964, when the priory was next door to its current location, at what’s now Northwest Christian High School.

After the school closed in 1985, the priory’s focus became spiritual retreats.

“The ministry of a spirituality center is to provide silence, a beautiful environment for prayer and for teaching people how to pray,” McDonald said.

Zander began working as a licensed practical nurse at Providence St. Peter Hospital in 1971. She worked there part time for 16 years.

“And there are people up there that still know her,” O’Larey said.

At St. Placid, Zander helped establish the priory’s annual rummage and Christmas sales. She also knits and creates homemade items with the Priory Knitters and Spinners, a group that sells items at several South Sound holiday bazaars.

“It helps us put groceries on the table,” Zander said.

She said she loves the community at St. Placid; the priory at 500 College St. NE has about a dozen women who have taken final vows and a few others who are trying the monastic life or are lay people involved with the spiritual center.

In some ways, Zander said being a sister hasn’t changed much. For decades, she has lived in a monastic community with women, following St. Benedict’s nearly 1,500-year-old rules of prayer, work, community and hospitality.

“Our motto is prayer and work,” Zander said.

However, after Vatican II, when the church relaxed some of its rules, St. Placid’s members opted to drop the tradition of wearing habits. Instead, they dress simply.

Zander said she was happy to give up the signature white coif and black veil. The ones she had to wear in Minnesota, in particular, were wool, hot, uncomfortable and difficult to keep clean, she said.

Zander said strangers would move out of their seats on buses or try to give her special treatment because they could tell she was a nun. And when she wore a veil with her white nursing uniform, patients treated her differently too.

“I always felt, ‘I’m no different than you are.’ That always bothered me,” Zander said. “I felt the clothing put you apart — you weren’t part of the community.”

Kevin Myles, 71, of Vancouver said he wouldn’t have missed Zander’s jubilee celebration. He was a monk at the nearby Saint Martin’s Abbey for 22 years, and served as St. Placid’s chaplain for 11 years.

Myles said Zander encouraged him to go into nursing.

“She’s always been full of compassion — full of love,” he said. “She has just been a rock of strength and support to me all these years.”

Karin Bickham, who is the priory’s bookkeeper, said Zander has many talents, including floral design, and she serves as an example to the priory’s members, workers and visitors.

“She’s very, very prayerful,” Bickham said. “And she lives what she believes. You can tell this is her life.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433