‘Sister Alice lives in a palace’

She entered the convent in 1936, taking the train from her hometown of Rock Island, Ill., by way of Chicago. Sister Mary Alice Chineworth walked through the doors of the Oblate Sisters’ motherhouse at age 19 to begin her vocation, 15 years after deciding to dedicate her life to God. Yes, she knew she wanted to be a nun at age 4. Almost 90 years later, she continues to teach us with her life.

The second-born of four children of Alexander and “Mitzi,” she was named Innocent Victoria Chineworth at birth. She learned racial discrimination early in life when she was told as a high school student that she could not join the religious order that educated her, the only order of religious women she knew and loved. But she persistently researched and, after inquiring and acceptance, joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Despite rejection, Sister Alice has taught persistence throughout her life. She eventually became the superior general of her order and president of Mount Providence College. She remains pretty active as she approaches her 94th birthday in July and her 75th anniversary as an Oblate in August.

To know her is to love her. Sister Alice is a study in orderliness. “All things in their place,” she likes to say. Her office and room are always exceedingly neat, we are told. She is a voracious reader, constantly poring through books and sharing what she read in conversation. She writes with the smoothness of silk, every word well chosen, every sentence inviting you to the next.

Sister Mary Alice has the energy and endurance of a person far younger than her years. Our trip to Maine with her four years ago, to celebrate her 90th birthday, nearly wore us out. She energetically visited with her grandnieces and grandnephew and their children, patiently sitting with them, posing for pictures and listening to the goings-on of their lives.

She is loved by many for her great intellect, her warm sense of humor, her steady ideas and attention to her committee work, and her good friendship. We love her most, though, for the way that she loves us and our family. When our granddaughter, Sylena, was born, it was Sister Alice who insisted that we bring her to the motherhouse and it was there that Sylena was first presented to the Blessed Mother. Sister Alice has “gently” encouraged us to bring Sylena for visits, so much so that Sylena’s first rhyme was “Sister Alice lives in a palace.”

And of course, Sister Alice does live in a palace, of sorts. She regularly tells us how much she loves “living in community” at the motherhouse. She enjoys the rituals of daily prayer, the monthly spiritual retreats, delivering the morning papers and running some of the weekly errands necessary to keep all manner of business running smoothly. But she also loves ice cream, a good sizzling steak at Fleming’s, sharing in our family celebrations, traveling to all ends of the country to spend time with her own family and a really well-staged theater production.

When we have talked about some of the sacrifices that come with religious life or a particular difficulty she has encountered, Sister Alice sums it up with, “Well, what’s this compared to eternity?” By this she conveys that whatever the challenge, it is nothing compared to the promise of eternity in the afterlife. Here we must say that while Sister Alice does not look forward to her own demise, she does speak of it from time to time. She does so with a calm assurance that, upon her death, she will in fact be welcomed into God’s kingdom. We believe that it was with this same confidence that she decided at age 4 to become a nun.

And we’re very glad she did.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.