Perhaps it was fate that brought Sister Mary Gretchen and Sister Mara Lester to Foggy Bottom. After all, Midwestern nuns are somewhat of a rare breed at GW’s medical school.
But last year, when their religious order in Michigan assigned them to become physicians, the two traveled to the nation’s capital. Now they study at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences to fulfill a vow of service to the poor, sick and ignorant, primarily through education and health care.
“If you’ve ever been in a situation where someone is hurt or sick, you get this overwhelming feeling of helplessness,” said Sister Lester, 24. “But when you’re a physician, you can really help people in their times of need.”
Though they may study as much as most medical students, there are few other similarities. The pair’s religious convictions dominate their lives. Neither sister owns a cell phone – though they do share a phone with their community – and they use a computer only for the sake of getting work done to “minimize the distraction to our prayer life.”
Sitting outside of Ross Hall in traditional habits, the sisters are an uncommon sight in a business-oriented town.
“We know we really stick out,” said Sister Gretchen, 27, who takes public transportation with Sister Lester every morning. “But that’s just not the way we look at it. We see ourselves as reminding others of God.”
The two often get double-takes on their way to class, because as Sister Gretchen said, “to see sisters in habit is unreal. People are friendly and really just curious.”
Starting their days at 5 a.m., the sisters pray for an hour and eat breakfast before most students consider rolling out of bed. The pair then heads off to Foggy Bottom, where they spend the majority of each day either in class or studying, before heading back to the communal home near Catholic University.
After dinner, the nuns in the home – 10 in all – take 15 minutes of leisure time, which often consists of throwing around a football. The sisters say their evening prayers and go to bed by 11 p.m., with another full day of study – which, as the sisters say, is service to God in itself – and prayer ahead of them.
“My classmates know that I care for them, instead of just being someone sitting next to them every day,” Sister Lester said.
Both sisters are often approached by strangers and friends alike with concern for an ill family member, asking the nuns to pray for them. At the end of the day, Sister Gretchen and Sister Lester say they are still nuns first and students second.
“My commitment to God through the church has always been first,” Sister Gretchen said. “Going into medicine is only a fruit of our prayer.”
Sister Lester entered the convent after her first year at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota. Sister Gretchen waited until after she graduated from the University of Dallas to become a nun.
With religiously oriented private schools such as Georgetown and Catholic universities only miles away, the sisters are often asked why they chose GW. Their answer boils down to two factors: the school’s prestige and a friend’s high recommendation. Both sisters were so set on GW that they did not apply anywhere else.
But while the sisters may see medicine and religion as complementary, they are still medical students at a university in one of the most liberal cities in America.
“We’re not unaffected by being in D.C.,” Sister Gretchen said. “But I’m very confident with what I believe, and being in a place like D.C. opens us and others up to dialogue.”
Their openness to dialogue follows their belief in the importance of fully understanding an issue, both in terms of cause and effect, the sisters said.
“A part of being religious is to address the problem of something, but also to address the cause of it,” Sister Gretchen said. “I think the goals of medicine and healing go hand-in-hand with that.”