Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A nun at Saint Scholastica Convent plays the piano backwards December 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:49 PM

Sister Ellen plays the piano backwards and from memory.

“SHE CAN PLAY BACKWARDS too,” 101-year-old Sister Arno says.

Yeah, right, I think.

But then Sister Ellen swings her legs around the piano bench, stretches her hands behind her back, crosses them and pounds out “Jingle Bells.”

If I didn’t see this, I might not believe it. But this nun at Saint Scholastica Convent in St. Cloud sits, back to the piano, playing holiday songs. Really. Sister Ellen can’t see her long, limber fingers gracefully moving across the keys. Yet, her performance is flawless, nurtured from decades of practice.

Her cousin taught her to play backwards while they were growing up next door to each other in Minneapolis. “She was crazy,” Sister Ellen says of her cousin, but in a kind way.

Crazy or not, this cousin taught Sister Ellen a skill that is entertaining me on this Sunday afternoon in late December. Ten members of the extended Helbling family, me included, have come to this retirement and assisted living facility on the edge of St. Cloud to visit our relative, Sister Arno, and sing a few holiday carols.

We are singing a cappella until Sister Ellen nearly leaps from her chair to accompany us on the piano. Suddenly our singing is livelier, louder. I sway to the music, take in my surroundings in this spacious gathering room that is flooded in natural light, festooned in holiday greenery. Behind me, a bird rattles in a cage. Across the room, I spy a nativity scene below a crucifix.

Sister Ellen's hands on the piano.

Outside, snowy woods embrace the building and we all take note of our beautiful surroundings as we sing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

We don’t always know the words to every song, but we try. And the seven elderly women gathered here tell us how much they appreciate our efforts.

I am intrigued by these nuns, some of whom still wear traditional black and white habits on their heads. I grew up Lutheran and I always find this religious dress rather mysterious and saintly.

These women exude a certain sense of peace that permeates this place. I see peace in their smiles; hear peace in their gentle voices.

Sister Arno asks several times, “How long can you stay?”

“For awhile,” one of my sisters-in-law says.

So we sing. “Away in a Manger.” “Silent Night.”  “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” These nuns join in. We all clap, then sing some more.

And then we are leaving, but not before I step inside the on-site sanctuary and chapel to snap a few photos of stained glass windows. This place has left an impression upon my heart and so have the women who live here, these nuns whose very presence has blessed me.

Helbling family members greet 101-year-old sister Arno in a hallway at Saint Scholastica Convent in St. Cloud.

My sister-in-law Cheryl and Sister Arno sing Christmas carols.

One of several stained glass windows in the Saint Scholastica Convent sanctuary in St. Cloud.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


6 Responses to “A nun at Saint Scholastica Convent plays the piano backwards”

  1. Beth Says:

    I think Sister Ellen is FABULOUS! I attended Catholic school, and the sisters were a huge part of my formative years. I learned a life lesson from them that I use to this day.

    If you don’t have any pockets, you can tuck a kleenex in the cuff your sleeve so it’s always available when you need it. For that, I will always be grateful.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, Beth, it’s interesting what we sometimes learn from our teachers. I bet Sister Ellen would have even taught you to play the piano backwards. You know, I bet if you stopped to visit her at Saint Scholastica, she’s give you a quick lesson.

  2. randy Says:

    The sisters also played a role in my younger years. I had to keep looking behind me for any of them sneaking up with a ruler. I didn’t want my knuckles whacked, getting caught off guard. They must have been on the 2nd floor.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Why would the sisters whack your knuckles? Could you possibly have been throwing spitballs or engaging in other non-educational behavior? I’m certainly not condoning corporal punishment (I’ve heard many, many awful stories about ruler-whacking), but I was just wondering… On second thought, perhaps such misbehavior is best kept in your memory bank and not shared.

  3. randy Says:

    Just kidding!! We had a good time caroling and they loved listening and singing along and Sister Ellen played great behind her back and the more conventional way-WITH NO SHEET MUSIC!!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree 100 percent that Sister Ellen and the other nuns enjoyed our singing. I still am amazed at that backwards piano playing. And without sheet music too, as you stated, Randy. What a wonderful group of sisters!

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