Socialite Gives Up Wealth, Family to Become a Nun : Convents: Ann Russell Miller of San Francisco leads a cloistered life, after 10 children and years of celebrity and philanthropy. By all accounts, she is happy.
Five years ago, she was Ann Russell Miller: a dynamic San Francisco socialite with season tickets to the opera, a propensity for silk parasols, and a knack for raising money for charity.
Now, she is Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity. She prays in silence behind a lattice of black iron bars that will keep her in seclusion and poverty for the rest of her life--away from her 10 children, 19 grandchildren and an inherited fortune.
She sleeps on a wooden plank bed covered by a thin mattress in a small, barren cell. She is allowed to talk with her fellow nuns during two designated hours a day. She is permitted one visitor a month--but even then, she must sit behind the double set of bars.
By all accounts, she is happy.
How did this happen? Why did this vivacious woman turn her life upside down, giving away material riches for poverty? Her friends and family wonder, and wonder some more.
The answer, it seems, is a mystery of faith.
Miller grew up in luxury and privilege as the only child of the former chairman of Southern Pacific Railroad, who was a devout Catholic.
She had dreams of being a nun since childhood, but fell in love instead.
At 19, she married Richard Miller, who became vice president of Pacific Gas & Electric, a utility company that once was a family business.
Together, they made a vow: The person who survived the other would dedicate his or her life to God.
Ann and Richard had it all--old money, celebrity friends and a nine-bedroom mansion overlooking the San Francisco Bay. He was chairman of the San Francisco Opera Assn.; she raised money for gifted college students, the homeless and the Roman Catholic Church. At one point, she was a member of 22 boards.
Petite and impeccably dressed, she had her hair done at Elizabeth Arden and bought her date books at Tiffany’s. She called her friends “darling.”
Full of warmth and energy, she attracted friends both rich and poor. She invited her pals on trips around the world, including cruises and archeological digs.
“Whenever Ann called and said, ‘Guess what we’re doing this weekend?’ we said, ‘Fine, count us in,’ and it was always a gas,” said one friend, Jean McClatchy Bricker. “That’s why the thought of seclusion was so amazing to her friends, because it was such a contrast.”
When her husband died of cancer in 1984, Ann began making plans to fulfill her pledge to her husband and to God.
Three years later, she announced she would join the Carmelite Monastery here.
“I’ve stopped trying to figure it out,” Bricker said. “She just enjoyed worldly things so much that I wouldn’t have thought of it, except I knew the other side of Ann.”
The other side was the deeply religious side. The side that drew her to Mass every morning and to Lourdes with her husband who used a wheelchair, praying for a cancer cure.
She attended annual religious retreats. She nailed Stations of the Cross, a series of 14 crosses representing the stages of Jesus’ final suffering and his death and burial, in the redwood grove at the family’s weekend compound in the coastal hills near San Francisco.
“I think she had a call to the contemplative life, as hard as that is to understand,” said Father Val McInnes, a Dominican priest who visited her recently. “She was almost like a whirling dervish in many ways, but always part of her life was a contemplative element.”
In the two years before she entered the monastery in 1989, Ann began putting her affairs in order to become a bride of Christ.
With the zeal and enthusiasm of planning a wedding, she divvied up her fortune. Her children picked through the Pacific Heights mansion choosing candlesticks, photo albums and furniture. She arranged a giant garage sale for the leftovers and donated the proceeds to charity.
She revved up her jet-set lifestyle and visited friends in Europe, the Orient and South America.
In October, 1989, on the eve of her induction into the monastery, she invited hundreds of friends to a Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, where the archbishop of San Francisco officiated.
Afterward, she threw a black tie gala in the grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel, inviting 800 guests. It was her 61st birthday.
“The first two-thirds of my life were devoted to the world. The last third will be devoted to my soul,” she told her teary-eyed friends that night.
“I can do more for you by praying than any other way,” she told one friend.
Miller underwent a five-year trial with her fellow nuns before being allowed to take her final vows in May.
Normally, the Carmelites do not accept widows because of the complications and distractions of children and their past lives, said Mother Catherine, who heads the monastery. But they made an exception for Ann because they knew she was sincere, emotionally stable and devoted to God and a life of prayer.
Many of her friends thought she would not survive the silence and solitude and would “flunk out of nun school,” as one friend put it.
But she hasn’t. Despite missing the weddings of two daughters and the births of five grandchildren over the past five years, she has remained resolute.
Like the other 17 nuns in the monastery, Sister Mary Joseph wears a long brown habit, black veil and sandals. She spends her days making rosary beads out of crushed rose petals, weeding the vegetable garden, scrubbing the refectory floor and pushing the gas-fired lawn mower across the convent’s spacious grounds.
Her friends write to her often, and visit occasionally. She is allowed a limited number of responses--many of them screened by Mother Catherine.
She was not allowed to meet with a reporter, however. Mother Catherine said it would be a distraction to her life of meditation.
Sister Mary Joseph’s children are as silent as she is, refusing to talk about the events that created a rift in the family. Three sons did not attend her final vows.
But through the years, most of her children have come to understand that this is where she is happiest, McInnes said. And, he said, they should find solace in the fact that the monastery walls have not dampened her energy and humor.
“When they opened the window to Ann, they not only got a breath of fresh air,” he said, “but part of a hurricane as well.”