Wealthy socialite swapped mansions for monastery

A 92-year-old wealthy American who gave up life as a high-flying socialite who hosted extravagant parties to join the Carmelite nuns and take vows of silence, solitude, and poverty for 30 years has died.

The story of the late Ann Russell Miller, who later became Sister Mary Joseph, was reported by the B.B.C. (the British Broadcasting Corporation) World Service earlier this week.

She was born in 1928 and had dreams of becoming a nun, but she fell in love instead. Before she dedicated herself to a life of prayer she was a wealthy San Francisco socialite who hosted lavish parties, had season tickets to the opera and was the mother of 10 children.

At the age of 20 she married Richard Miller, who became vice president of Pacific Gas and Electric, an American utility company. 

Her youngest son, Mark Miller, wrote in a series of tweets following her death:

"She had a million and one friends. She smoked, she drank, she played cards. She became an open water diver.

"She drove so fast and recklessly that people got out of her car with a sore foot from slamming on the imaginary brake.

“She gave up smoking, alcohol, and caffeine on the same day and somehow managed to not commit homicide as a result." 

Furthermore, the B.B.C. reported that Ann raised their family in a nine-bedroom mansion overlooking the San Francisco Bay, and was known for whisking friends away on skiing holidays, Mediterranean yachts and archaeological digs.

“At one time she was a member of 22 different boards and raised money for gifted college students, homeless people and the Roman Catholic Church,” the B.B.C. reported. 

However, everything changed when Ann’s husband died of cancer in 1984. It was then she began the long considered bid to join one of the strictest orders of nuns in the world.

Five years later she gave away everything she owned to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Des Plaines, Illinois.

The Carmelite nuns are a cloistered and ascetic order, living largely in silence. They do not leave the monastery, except when necessary, such as to see a doctor. The nuns only speak if it is essential, leaving more time for contemplation and prayer.

Mark said that his mother was an unusual kind of nun. 

"She didn't sing very well, she was frequently late to her required duties around the convent and she threw sticks for the communal dogs which was not allowed,” said Mark.

"I have only seen her twice in the last 33 years since she joined the convent and when you do go to visit you can't hug or touch. You are separated by an offset pair of double metal grilles."

Ann had 28 grandchildren, some of whom she had never met and had more than a dozen great-grandchildren, none of whom she had ever held.

She slept on a wooden plank covered by a thin mattress in a cell and during the day she wore a coarse brown habit and sandals, a far cry from her former life filled with silk parasols, Hermes scarves and Versace shoes.

On her 61st birthday, the B.B.C. reported, Ann threw a party for 800 guests at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco to say farewell to her friends and family. 

They ate expensive seafood, listened to live orchestral music and Ann is said to have worn a flower crown and tied a helium balloon to herself which said "here I am" so people could find her to say their goodbyes.

She told her guests she had devoted her first 30 years of life to herself, the second 30 to her children and that the last third of her life would be dedicated to God. The next day she flew to Chicago to live at the monastery as Sister Mary Joseph.

"Our relationship was complicated," says Mark. "She was born in the 20s and died in the 20s of the next century. [She was] Ann Russell Miller, Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity OCD.

"I hope she says 'Hi' to Dad for me."

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