By Paul Grondahl
MENANDS — They were Sister sisters who possessed contrasting personalities and were protective of their personal space, but in the end they proved inseparable.
Sisterhood defined Sister Jean Marie Wheeler and Sister Elaine Wheeler — biological sisters, Daughters of Charity nuns and career educators — who were in their 90s and lived together for the past eight years at Saint Louise House here.
They died a day apart last week.
Because their deaths came in such close proximity, the two sisters will be commemorated in a single wake Wednesday and funeral Mass on Thursday, and they will be buried alongside each other in Saint Agnes Cemetery in Menands. It will be the first dual service for the religious community.
“They were remarkable women, very different in their own ways, but also very close,” said Sister Joanne Donovan, the Sister Servant, or director, of Saint Louise House, a residence for 40 Daughters of Charity nuns between the ages of 78 and 98.
“We will share many fond memories of their lives,” said Sister Mary Walter Boyle, a resident of Saint Louise House who had lived with Sister Jean in years past. She and the other nuns will join in a tradition of “sharing time,” a communal telling of stories and humorous anecdotes after the wake.
The Wheelers grew up in a family with seven siblings, all girls, including identical twins. The growing family moved from Chicago to the Bronx, where the girls were raised. Five entered religious life, one as a Religious of the Sacred Heart nun and four with the Daughters of Charity. The five nuns taught and lived in the Capital Region for much of their careers. Two did not enter the sisterhood, married and had children.
The five nuns vacationed together each summer at a small cottage beside a pond on the Daughters of Charity property off Route 378. They spent the mornings sewing new habits and bathing suits. They went swimming in the afternoon, followed by reading hour. They favored dense political biographies.
“They did everything together and if you met one Wheeler sister, you knew all the Wheeler sisters,” Donovan said.
None took a vow of silence. “They were big talkers, real chatterers,” said Sister Irene Brassard, who is Donovan’s assistant.
As their family’s final two surviving sisters, Sister Jean Marie, 98, the oldest and most outgoing, vowed to look after her younger and rather reticent sister, Sister Elaine, 96.
“I’ve always watched out for her and it’s easier for me to make friends, so I hope I live longer,” Sister Jean Marie told Donovan.
Despite losing one eye in a car accident and becoming profoundly deaf in recent years, Sister Jean Marie tried to reach her goal but fell just short. She died Thursday. Sister Elaine died Friday.
The sisters stipulated that they did not want to be roommates and lived in separate rooms at Saint Louise House, just down the hall from each other. They kept a nightly ritual and gathered for milk and cookies or a few chocolates at 8 p.m., before bidding each other good night.
Their differences were well established. Jean Marie liked milk chocolate and Elaine preferred dark chocolate.
When Sister Jean Marie had difficulty swallowing solid food and was told to give up her nightly sweets, Sister Elaine began sneaking them for her. A stash of cookies was found in Sister Elaine’s room after she died.
Both were honored as innovative teachers during their long careers. Sister Elaine taught biology at Cardinal McCloskey High School in Albany from 1957 to 1978. She made it a point of making home visits so she could understand the family dynamics of her students and was adept at helping poor students in a way that did not make them feel ashamed.
Brassard met the head of a local Saint Vincent de Paul Society group who said he was inspired to help the poor by Sister Elaine. The man said he grew up poor in a family with eight siblings. “She took all eight of us quietly to the basement of the convent and gave us new clothes without anyone knowing,” the man told Brassard.
Sister Elaine had a knack for surreptitiously inspecting the soles of her student’s shoes. Those who had holes were quietly presented with a new pair after school.
Sister Jean Marie taught elementary school in poor neighborhoods, including at St. John’s Alternative Elementary School in the South End of Albany, and St. John’s in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Several former students kept in touch with them over the years and the Wheeler sisters found teachable moments wherever they went.
Brassard once joined the five Wheeler sisters on vacation on Long Island. “I got a biology lesson on every creature in the water,” she recalled.
Sister Elaine was a stickler for details, which served her well in her role. She was asked to tidy up the provincial archives for six months in 1979, an assignment that stretched to 26 years. She traveled to England, Ireland and Australia to help other Daughters of Charity provinces organize their archives.
As her health failed and nurses grew concerned about her safety if she went too far afield, she was prevented from working in the archives in the basement. She soon memorized an elevator security code and defied orders. She was retrieved from the archives on several occasions and picked up the new code each time it was changed. Eventually, nurses relented and let her make her way down to her beloved files.
Sister Jean Marie, a pragmatist to her core, rejected a prosthetic eye. “If it’s not going to help me, why bother?” she asked. She was a voracious reader to the end.
The oldest sister had one final destination in mind.
“I can’t wait to get to heaven,” she told Boyle in the dining room a few months ago.
Originally published January 23, 2013