How to be Good?

A Chat with a Catholic Sister

May 03, 2021 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 11
How to be Good?
A Chat with a Catholic Sister
Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person according to a Catholic Sister?

We ask Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen to share her opinion on being good according to Catholic teachings.

Sister Adele Marie joined the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon on Valentines Day in 1982 and now serves as the President of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Ministries Corporation (a multi-million dollar non-profit). In 2018,  because of how she’s lead this business, Sister Adele Marie was awarded the Portland Business Journal’s Women of Influence Award – this is an award designed to honor the region’s most influential business women and Sister Adele Marie was the first honoree in the 15-year history of the awards to come from a religious vocation. 

Sister Adele Marie has two master’s degrees, is an inspirational businesswoman, loves sports, traveling and china painting – among so many other things. This is such an open and gentle conversation about how well-rounded and active the day-to-day life of a Sister is.

If, after listening, you'd like to learn more about Sister Adele Marie or the Sisters of St Mary of Oregon, please visit

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi everyone, I'm Sarah and this is the "How to be Good?" podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world. Today I'm talking with Catholic Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen

[Podcast Theme Music]

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  0:17 
"We are so much more alike than different. And what a joy"

Sarah Buckmaster  0:24 
Sister Adele Marie joined the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon on Valentine's Day in 1982, after completing her undergraduate studies in Mathematics and Spanish at the University of Portland. She now serves as the President of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Ministries (SSMO) Corporation. Based on a 43-acre campus in Beaverton, Oregon, this nonprofit organisation includes the State's only Catholic education system serving pre-kindergarten through to high school students, as well as a skilled healthcare facility providing long- and short-term care, including an Alzheimer's unit. The corporation is also responsible for the maintenance of on-site housing for more than 60 people, including the 50 sisters who are based there at the "Motherhouse".

Altogether, the corporation includes nearly 500 staff members, and in 2018 because of how she's led this business, Sister Adele Marie was awarded the Portland Business Journal's Women of Influence Award. Now, this is an award designed to honour the region's most influential business women and sister Adele Marie was the first honoree in the 15-year history of the awards to come from a religious vocation.

I learned so much during this interview. Sister Adele Marie has two master's degrees, runs a multi-million dollar business and loves sports, travelling, china painting and so many other things. This is such an open and gentle conversation about how well rounded and active the day to day life of a sister is

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  1:53 
"I don't think sometimes we reflect on the fact that these women who were might wear a veil have this other aspect of their lives where they are well rounded people."

Sarah Buckmaster  2:03 
I hope you enjoy the beautiful spirit of this conversation. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you all to sister Adele Marie Altenhofen.

[Podcast Theme Music]

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  2:15 
Well, first of all, I'd like to express that I am speaking as Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen. And yes, it's true, I am a Sister - a religious Sister of a congregation here in the State of Oregon, the Sisters of St Mary of Oregon. But I'm not trying to speak on behalf of the whole Catholic Church, that would be the Pope's job. I'm not trying to speak for all Catholics in the United States... or even for the very notion of explaining something as a 'Sister of St Mary of Oregon' would be that all Sisters of St Mary of Oregon think the same as I do. So first of all, I want to make it clear that I'm speaking on behalf of sister Adele Marie, personally, myself.

So with that in mind, I've been thinking about that question - about what does it mean to be good as a Catholic. And first of all, I reflect on the fact that in some ways, some things are very simplistic and are externals. You think about what it means to be a good girl when you're growing up, and what it means to be a good Catholic girl or maybe a good Sister. And those are externals, those things can be very simplistic about following rules. I was reflecting upon the notion of having been a basketball player as a child, and then through college, and to be a basketball player, you have to know the rules of the game. And what it is to follow the rules helps you be a better player, a good player, but a truly good player has somehow internalised what it is. So I was thinking about the fact that a good Catholic, a good person, internalises things and it's a much more deep seated, a much more intrinsic opportunity for us to be able to, to understand good and to then embrace it, so that it becomes second nature to who we are. So that's a broad answer. But it kind of speaks to the fact that it starts with something maybe somewhat superficial, about following rules or rubrics and what we believe and how we practice our faith and different kinds of worship settings or liturgical celebrations. But it has much more to do with the intrinsic internalised sense of goodness that we come to understand.

Sarah Buckmaster  4:31 
And does Catholicism pull out anything specifically that would make someone a bad person?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  4:37 
So also, I reflected on that... when I thought of what it means to be good. I considered Jesus teaching about the two greatest commandment: to love God with your whole mind, your whole heart, your whole soul, and to love neighbour as yourself. So if those are the two greatest commandments, again, tough ones, some people might think that it might be hard to love God who can't see or touch or feel and external manner. But probably the harder thing is to really love oneself well, and then to be able to love others. So if that is our basic commandment, Johann Metz in a book called Poverty of Spirit, said that the Jesus was the most truly human person. So he understood best, what it was not just to be God, but to be truly human. So if we are aligning ourselves with loving self, which can be more difficult than we think, then it allows us to love others. So a bad person might have lost all hope, or all sense of the really awesome nature that God loves me unconditionally, and I can be loved by others, and I can love myself. So perhaps what a bad person might be - in that deeper sense of the word - is somebody who lost hope or lost a sense that I am lovable. And in my being lovable, I can love others. So that's a different kind of twist on it, but it, it left me with something deeper to consider.

Sarah Buckmaster  6:12 
Thanks for sharing that. In some of the interviews, we've touched on looking to people in the street and just being kind. And I think to do that, you have to start with yourself and liking and being kind to yourself. Are there some day-to-day actions that you think might fall under that being good?.. especially with what we're living through now, with the pandemic, are there any examples of that real goodness you've seen that you could share with us?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  6:33 
Well, I think one of the things in this type of pandemic that we've all come to officially appreciate are those little things... how much we appreciate a real smile. We're so masked up now that you can kind of see a smile in the eyes, but we've missed those little things. And I think some of those little things are ways that we can most touch others and express a sense of goodness and love. I'm very blessed to live in community. There are about 50 sisters that live here. As that comes with its challenges - certainly, we tease about 50 women being together, and there are 50 ways to decorate your Christmas tree and 50 ways to make turkey dressing for Thanksgiving - but there are also 50 different ways that you can give and receive love. And certainly for us in religious life, it's not the same kind of intimacy shared with a married couple. But you know, a nod of the head, an extra prayer being said for someone, a touch of a hand, sitting by someone who's sick... or in our case, right now we have a couple of Sisters who are getting ready to meet God and go to heaven, sitting with them. Those are all smaller ways of being able to show a presence, a care, a sense that that best human person that you are has reflected and touched my life. And so I think those are ways that we can be good in today's world.

Sarah Buckmaster  8:01 
I believe it was Valentine's Day in 1982, when you joined the Sisters of St Mary of Oregon, and before that, you've mentioned that you were really drawn to a family life, but you then wanted to serve more people. I'm really interested in your personal idea of what being good means and how that's changed before being a Sister and then becoming a Sister and now especially in this senior role that you have.

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  8:24 
I think I touched upon that a little bit in saying that as a child, you learn to follow the rules: what is it to be a good girl, growing up and doing what mommy and daddy tell you to do. And moving from that to that deeper sense of recognising that I'm lovable. That helps me be able to get in touch with what it is to be truly human, which then in turn allows me to be more giving, more loving, more of a person who can reach out with genuine care and authenticity to others. I think that is more in line with what it is to be good than necessarily looking at the following of the rules or the exact following of rubrics. That, I think, is what I've come to understand in a deeper way. Not just as a Catholic Sister, but as a person. You know, one who is getting ancient as she's passing into her seventh decade pretty soon here.

Sarah Buckmaster  9:27 
Well, I think that it's interesting because we had a conversation before this interview about the stereotypes of Nuns. And I think that many of us have certain images, especially when we see the habit, and maybe we have this naive idea that you sit and you pray all day but you are the president of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Ministries Corporation, and that's a multi million dollar nonprofit organisation. And you lead and oversee all the management, fiscal, programmatic, and fundraising activities. And in 2018, because of this work, you were named by the Portland Business Journal as one of their Women of Influence, and I'm going to quote directly from how they describe that award because it's "designed to honour the region's most influential business women". And you were the first person, I believe, with a religious vocation to win that. Could you maybe share with us the reality of life as a Nun, especially linked to the business side of things?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  10:21 
So first of all, to explain the difference between Nun and Sister because there actually is a difference. One of our Sisters won a radio broadcast - a "stump the disc jockey" question about that. A Nun is actually a Sister who has dedicated her life to prayer and is going to be in a Contemplative Sister. So a Sister, in my sense, is apostolic. So we're out and about among the people doing ministry. So first to clarify that just a tad.

But the next piece would be that I would reflect on the fact that Sisters in many ways, if you look back in history, over the last 100 years, let's say, when women - lay-people -  were coming into their own, as far as being able to hit their stride in the business world, some of the Sisters had actually been doing some of those things for a very long time. Historically, we have Sisters who have been teachers, so as as our late counterparts had been, but we were also serving as principals of schools and administrators, we were looking at hospital systems and getting things going. Some of the very earliest hospital systems in the United States were run by orders of Sisters. So you have women who are at the forefront if you would, making financial decisions, making good sound, efficient decisions for running businesses. In some ways, far ahead of the game of their lay counterparts. So it is true, we bring to that notion... I have a mathematics degree and as you know, I was a Math and Spanish major... I don't think sometimes we reflect on the fact that these women who might wear a veil, have this other aspect of their lives where they are well rounded people. I love athletics, I love sports, I love movies, I love travel, I do china painting, my mother taught us to paint on china as a child. So there are many facets. We play wicked games of pinnacle here in the Motherhouse, too. So you see, it's quite a broad spectrum of reality that make us who we are. And so plugging into that sense of my mathematics background, my love for organisation and order, my competitive nature, to be able to do something and do it well and strive for excellence, which is one of our core values... I think all of that plays into the aspect of me being able to lead the business well here on this campus, so that our ministry is carried out in a manner that does reflect our core values, but is also certainly in line with civil law, with employment law, with all the things that are necessary today to do business well.

Sarah Buckmaster  13:16 
And having to have your head in that business world, has there ever been times where that's come into conflict with your heart connection to the church? - because they do seem to be two different spheres a lot of the time.

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  13:29 
It's interesting, even juxtaposing religious life where I have about poverty, and then on the flip side of that, I am assigning checks for hundreds or 1000s, hundreds of 1000s of dollars, sometimes millions of dollars when we're doing construction projects. And yet I live in a very simple way. Our community has a maximum personal budget of $100 a month, and that buys our shoes and our clothes and any kind of personal items that we have. So that in itself kind of puts you at at that crossroads, or has you straddling two different worlds. So I think that might be one way that you kind of see two different aspects of life coming together. As far as your heart and your head, a unified person has to, I would say, battle with that all the time anyway. There's just an added layer as a religious Sister too. But a person who's in touch with their heart, I think, actually is the best kind of leader you could have: who can meld that heaviness with a concern and a well developed heart. So you know, leading well, I think, blends the two, somebody who's too much in their head or too much in their heart probably isn't going to be able to have as much impact and do what they need to do in a manner that's able to lead -truly lead and motivate others to follow, and to serve in that manner that we would hope to do on this campus.

Sarah Buckmaster  15:06 
And you mention $100 for the personal community, did you say there are 50 of you Sisters - is that the whole community on that budget?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  15:15 
So yeah, each of us in our community, we can spend up to $100 a month for our personal needs. Most of us can do that and can live on much less than that. Now granted, you know, my shelter, my food, my basic necessities are taken care of. But these would be you know, clothes, some of those perfumes or something - like things of that nature - certainly makeups not part of the game, but that is our personal budget.

Sarah Buckmaster  15:53 
And that's really made me interested, could you maybe just describe what the day-to-day life is for you and the Sisters together there? - I imagine it's really different for each Sister, but just to give us an idea of how you live on a day-to-day basis.

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  16:05 
So our community, although we're apostolic - meaning we're out and about doing the ministry actively among people - we still have maintained quite a lot of the monastic traditions as well. So, we rise fairly early and come together for morning prayer and celebration of the Eucharist or massed together. That's how we start our day. And it's actually the bookend of how we end our day, because we gather together at the end of the day also for our Liturgy of the Hours - praying together. In our community and the Motherhouse here, our chapel is directly above our dining room. So I always chuckle about that, that we feed our spirits before we go down and feed our tummies. And when you feed your tummy, you're also feeding your sense of community and Spirit because a table gathering, as Jesus taught us, the gathering at the table is what nourishes us in a holistic fashion. So we come together for prayer, we join together for meals, and then we're out and about doing the business of our day. Some of us are teachers, some of us are Parish, pastoral workers, some of us are social workers at the nursing home or director of pastoral care. I come to the office and do administrative business. You see some Sisters will move into a role of intra-community service where they are being present to other Sisters here in the Motherhouse. So we have administrators of the Motherhouse who oversee the needs of the Sisters here, the young ones, as well as the older ones. We have directors of novices and formation directors who help teach and promote the values of the congregation that are newly installed members if you would. So we go about our business of the day, we come back together in the evening for prayer, and finish with our meal or dinner together. We all do dishes together, we all mop floors and do the rest and head off to bed.

Sarah Buckmaster  18:10 
It sounds like those 'coming togethers' are good times to kind of ground your intention, and something that's come up a lot in these interviews is this intention versus action and the importance between those. Does Catholicism find one more important than the other? How is that philosophy within Catholicism?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  18:30 
Well, interestingly, I'd have to say a few mottos that have percolated over our campus... we talked about changing times lasting values, and we talked about service with love. We talked about community care through faith and actions. So just what you posed about having an intention that informs us before we turn around and act. It's important, I mean, certainly, in times of emergency, you have to act and turn it around on a dime. But when you are grounded in a sense of prayer, and peacefulness... people will come onto our campus and say, "Oh my goodness, even though you have 1000+ students here, even though you have a nursing facility with over 150 residents at a given time, even though you have up to 500 employees here, this campus is so peaceful", and we all chuckle because we think it really doesn't seem that peaceful sometimes. But there is truly a place of groundedness I think that is core to our lives. And maybe we don't always even realise it. But that core grounds us and from that we respond so that the sense of providing care through action is coming out of place that is "of the heart to move the hands"

Sarah Buckmaster  20:01 
And how does the concept of forgiveness work?... if then there is an action that is deemed, as not positive for the communit... becausewhen I think of Catholicism, I often think of the confessional and that's something that's emphasised a lot.

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  20:17 
I think, a focus on reconciliation - we just had reconciliation not long ago... that would be the official name for the sacrament of confession. The priests that came that day talked to us about the word 'reconsider'. And that if you really stop and reconsider what you've done, there are all kinds of options where we could do it better. And we could realign. And so a notion of going back to that place of hope, and, okay I goofed but I'm still lovable, and I'm still loving, and I can reconsider and realign. I think that is something that has to be a quality that we not only want to embrace, but something that we have to practice. And so I think you're right, that sense of, of reconciliation is is very important, perhaps even trying times of COVID and pandemic. As noted, coming together and community has a huge blessing for all of us. But one Sister said, "you know, I never entered a monastery to be a cloistered Sister. I was always going to be out and about. I love you all, but this is a bit too much" [laughing]. Because only one sister was charged with going out and going shopping, all the rest of us had given her our list. So she would go and try to keep the COVID at bay. So, you know, we're human like everybody else. And reconciliation is a part of our day to day experience. Certainly.

Sarah Buckmaster  21:58 
That's really lovely to hear. And, when you say you're human, I often try and ask about any times of self doubt, across your journey, and especially your religious journey. And you joined very young, have you ever had moments of self doubt about whether you're on the right path, or you're doing the right thing?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  22:16 
I would say just like everybody else. Somebody said to me one time, "oh, you look so happy. You must be so pleased you became a sister". And I said, "Now, let me ask you..  you're married?" ... and they said yes... I said, "Do you love your husband equally every minute of every day?" I said, "Are there moments where you know, you want to just pull out your hair and scream because he splattered toothpaste on the bathroom mirror or left his dirty socks out, didn't put them in the hamper" I said, "doesn't that exist for you?" And they said, well yes. And I said, well, likewise, there are days, there are moments when you just want to do something with that rubbing of elbows and shoulders next to each other every single day can have its moments. But in the end, I can remember, I think I was at the top the choir loft and looking down on our Sisters and I thought - is there any one of these that I wouldn't really save? If we were out and had hit an iceberg, would I want to save her? It's like, yep, that one too, that one, too. Yes, even that one who I didn't have a great interaction with today - that one, too. And so yes, just as there are times in your married life, you might doubt was this a good choice for me - I think we all have those moments. I think in faith itself, we have self doubt with regard to do I really believe that? And have I given myself to that? And the answer would be at the end of the day? Yes, I do. And it's what grounds me and keeps me where I need to be so that the heart and the head align and I think that the business can get done.

Sarah Buckmaster  24:03 
Wow, it sounds like that really helps to steer, especially such a multi faceted organisation that you lead. That mentality really helps to keep that calm. Now if you could give our listeners one piece of advice about how they could go out today and do something kind of practical or just to contribute positively to the world. What would you recommend they do?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  24:25 
One, Love yourself and two, take that out to others.

Sarah Buckmaster  24:30 
That's lovely. Thank you.

And we're coming now to the end of our time, so is there anything we haven't covered that you would want to talk about or anything you'd like to say that about being good or not, or about Catholicism or Sisters?

Sister Adele Marie Altenhofen  24:44 
I would just say that I am so grateful to have reflected on the fact that we are so much more alike than different. There are so many more things in our lives - as noted earlier -  the smile, the nod, the kind word... those kinds of things, the familial bonds, the time of being able to share a meal together. Those things are paramount. They are tantamount to what it is to be human, to be good, to be relational, to be able to truly celebrate every single day, God and life. And what a joy. What a joy.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  25:30 
My deepest thanks go to Sister Adele Marie for taking the time to talk with me. I genuinely love this conversation. Sister Adele Marie has such a kind and compassionate energy that just shines through and you can't help but feel better after talking with her. If you'd like to find out more about the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, you can visit the website I'll add a link in the show notes. It's

And if you've enjoyed this episode, and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button. And if you have time and liked what you heard, then I would love you to leave a review and share with your friends. I'm in the early stages of this podcast very much learning as I go and so any help and support is really appreciated. Thank you for listening. And if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at any time. It's  and I would love to hear from you. Thank you.

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Transcribed by and Sarah Buckmaster