All members of the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns leave worldly things behind for a life of quiet contemplation. But Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity might have left behind more than most.
Before she became a nun, she was San Francisco socialite Ann Russell Miller. Mrs. Miller was in her 60s and had wealth, connections and 10 children when she decided to enter the cloistered Carmelite monastery in Des Plaines.
She traded a comfortable home for a monastic cell. She was enveloped in silence — her order focuses on prayer and silent attentiveness to God. Discalced means unshod, so she traded fashionable shoes for plain sandals.
When friends and relatives visit, there’s no touching. Her son Mark Miller said her family could only see her through a metal grill.
He tweeted that when she died Saturday at 91, she had 28 grandchildren, “some of whom she has never seen. She has more than a dozen great-grandchildren as well; none of whom she has held.”
“She was kind of an unusual nun,” he said. “She didn’t sing very well. She was frequently late to her required duties around the convent. She threw sticks for the [community] dogs, which was not allowed. Also, she was my mother.”
She grew up Mary Ann Russell, daughter of Donald Russell, chairman of Southern Pacific Railroad. According to a death notice, she attended the exclusive Spence School in New York and Mills College in Oakland before marrying Richard Kendall Miller, an executive with Pacific Gas & Electric.
Her calendar was filled with charity work, opera, cruises, skiing and getting glamorous at the Elizabeth Arden salon, according to newspaper accounts about her life. Mark Miller once told the San Francisco Chronicle his mother’s shoe collection made that of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, “look pitiful.”
She smoked and drank and socialized with prominent Catholics including actress Loretta Young and Dolores Hope, comedian Bob Hope’s wife.
The Russells’ faith was “the center of their marriage,” according to her death notice.
Wherever she traveled, she made sure to attend mass, said Donna Casey, her eldest child. When her children got a dime in spending money, they were expected to put a nickel of it in the church collection basket. Once, when a grandchild needed surgery, she promised she’d attend mass every day for a year if he survived. He did, and she did.
After her husband died in 1984, she decided to become a nun, according to her daughter. By then, her youngest child was 22 and in law school.
She had a going-away party at a Hilton hotel with hundreds of friends.
“The first two-thirds of my life were devoted to the world,” she announced. “The last third will be devoted to my soul.”
Three of her children continue to manage a family trust, her daughter said. But she relinquished many possessions. Casey said Lars Ulrich of Metallica eventually wound up buying a San Francisco Bay home where her mother once lived.
Her friend Marie Gallo of the Gallo wine family told the Chronicle she knocked on the door of the monastery and said, “Here I am. Trick or treat.”
She joined the other nuns in making rosaries from rose petals, the craft that helps support the order. They hand-roll flowers to compress them into rosary beads.
Asked whether it was hard not to hug during visits, her daughter said: “Not really, we could wriggle our fingers through the grill — with permission, of course.”
Sister Mary Joseph had witnessed society’s buffeting of the mores of 1940s and 1950s Catholicism. Some of her children’s marriages ended in divorce. A 2012 article in the Chronicle suggested she’d sometimes been an inflexible and dogmatic parent.
But to her, “Everything was black or white, and I think she made a good choice for her,” her daughter said. “We didn’t practice our faith the same way she did.
“She felt it truly was her job as a mother to make sure her children got into heaven,” she said. “And, as far as she was concerned, she was going to pray for us.”
Sister Mary Joseph is also survived by daughters Janet Abbott, Marian Miller, Leslie Schemel and Elena Caruso, sons Dick, Donald and David, 28 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. A service is planned at the monastery Wednesday.
When she became a nun, “Many of her friends were furious at her for doing it, and they felt she’d abandoned us and them,” her daughter said. “Her decision triggered a great deal of unease in them because they had to look at their own spiritual conditions.
“One of my brothers said: ‘You’re not losing a mother. You’re gaining a sister.’ ”