Doing God’s Work

At age 76, this Franciscan nun is still spreading the good word

By Colleen Williamson

Sister Ann Marie Slavin is a self-described rebel.

She buys children’s coloring books, colors the sky green and the grass purple, and doesn’t live by other people’s rules.

“A reluctant rebel,” the Franciscan sister clarifies with a laugh. “You have to be brave to be a rebel, and I’m not very brave.”

As she talks, however, it becomes clear that the sister is more fearless than most. On this brisk mid-October Saturday, it’s hardly been 24 hours since she’s had back surgery, but she’s already back to work. She’s traveled all around the world and worked across the country and now, as Associate Director of Communications for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, blogs about her life and justice issues.

Slavin could certainly write this feature herself; part of her job entails featuring other sisters in her congregation for their website and internal news publication. While the features are called “Spotlight on…,” she finds instead that her fellow sisters often shy away from this spotlight due to their training in humility.

Admittedly, she also tries to steer conversations away from her life, so Slavin knows the right words to get the sisters to open up: she tells them not to focus on themselves, but on their mission. And what is this mission?

Sister Ann Marie Slavin with a statue of St. Francis

Sister Ann Marie Slavin with a statue of St. Francis

“We try to be sisters to everybody that we meet,” she explains. “We try to be a voice to those who have no voice.”

And her voice reaches far. At 76, she has more Twitter followers than an average 17-year-old—an impressive 2,300 people follow Slavin on the social media site, waiting to hear her opinions on anything from her favorite Bible verses to her thoughts on this year’s presidential election.

Slavin is a master both of old and modern media: she not only writes and edits a print newsletter, but also adapted to the shift towards online communication and became proficient with Twitter, Facebook, and online blogging.

Either on the web or off, you won’t have to go far to find Slavin. Her office lies past the echoing, imposing wooden foyer of the motherhouse in Ashton, Pennsylvania, and through a nondescript door tucked away on a side corridor, where a smiling plush Pope Francis doll welcomes visitors from his perch on a cubicle. Just past the Pope is the sister’s door, decorated with Bible verses and pink printouts of kittens. Pictures of children are pinned above her computer, plants line the windowsill, with one side of her room completely filled with shelves of binders, files, and papers. In this unorganized yet homey office, Slavin writes and edits countless articles for the congregation’s newspaper, writes emails, and updates her social media and blog. She’s worked full-time in this position for sixteen years and is always reachable outside her forty-hour work week. Now, twelve years past the average age of retirement, she’s thinking of cutting back on her work week–by just one day.

“I’m probably going to have to go to just four days a week,” she says resignedly, nodding her head slowly. “Five days a week is a bit much now.”

She doesn’t plan to spend that extra day off relaxing, though. She hopes to spend more time writing posts on her blog and working on her fourth poetry volume, some of which is published on the Sisters of St. Francis website. Her poetry is dedicated towards God and her thoughts and emotions toward Him, written in a prayer-like manner. During a sabbatical year, Slavin wrote poetry often and is especially fond of a canticle she wrote for prayer, writing:

“You held my brokenness within your hands

and gently smoothed with godly care

my glassy sharpened shards…

God-loved me into wholeness.

             Be praised, my God, of broken lives.”

Growing up attending Catholic school in Wilmington, Delaware, Slavin knew from a young age that she wanted to become a sister. After graduating from a Benedictine high school, she applied to the Sisters of St. Francis—and was rejected. Though the Benedictine sisters offered to accept her right away, Slavin felt in her heart that she was called to the Franciscan order. She worked as a dishwasher for a local hospital for a year and applied again. This time, she was accepted and given a position teaching English to fifth graders in Maryland. Over the years, she moved back home to Wilmington, then to Florida, and back to her hometown again before accepting her current position. Unlike most people, the sister wasn’t fazed by all the change in her life.

“You go where you’re needed,” she said matter-of-factly.

Slavin strives to be to others what God is to her—gentle and loving. When stressed, she prays, writes poetry, and listens to music–her favorite is John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” But her main source of strength stems from her trust in God.

“I try to live according to a verse in Micah,” she says, quoting Micah 6:8: ‘“This is what the Lord requires from you: live justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.”’