Mountain State of Mind

EPISODE 3: 70 Years a Nun

Sister Mary Pellicane has been a nun longer than most of us have been alive. On Good Friday 2016, she marked 70 years as a nun of the Sisters of Cenacle, 37 of those years spent in Charleston, W.Va. She’s 94 years old and has long been a spiritual icon of West Virginia. She grew up Sicilian on the streets of New York before discovering her life’s mission while on retreat in her early 20s. This is a companion podcast to the story below, published in the March 25, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

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NOT A SOUND: The quiet life of a nun who can’t stop talking

By Douglas Imbrogno
Charleston Gazette-Mail

There are several distinct places you might pick up the tale of Sister Mary Pellicane’s long life and hard-scrabble roots.

Along with her 94 years of age and still nimble mind — minus the occasional, self-confessed senior moments — the numbers alone are impressive.

Today, on Good Friday, at the West Virginia Institute of Spirituality, Sister Pellicane will mark 70 years as a nun with the Congregation of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle, 39 of those years as co-founder of the former Cenacle Retreat House on Virginia Avenue.

She has been a nun longer than most of us have been alive.

You might start her tale on small farms in rural Sicily, the land from which both her parents’ families and her father hailed.

Or perhaps on two ocean liners aimed for America across the choppy Atlantic Ocean, as those Sicilian country folk landed in the New World, and in New York City, several years apart but destined to meet.

If a fellow Italian with immigrant roots, like filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, were shooting her life’s tale, the opening scene might instead start with an overhead shot of the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.

A young, comely Italian woman strolls across the bridge toward a short, handsome Italian fellow with curly black hair.

“He was so beautiful,” Sister Pellicane recalled of her father. “She was so beautiful,” she added, of her mother.

The couple began dating in Manhattan, she said. “She would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to save money on the bus. She’d save 5 cents, I think. And he would meet her there. Then they would walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge. They courted that way.”

Their romance soon blossomed into marriage. Along came a first child, a son, while living in a cold-water Brooklyn flat.

The second child was dark-haired Mary Pellicane, after the couple had moved into a warm-water Brooklyn flat.

Three more sons would follow as the couple undertook what Sister Pellicane dubbed the “immigration migration,” moving up and moving out of the immigrant ghetto where the family’s life began.

Her father was an ambitious, if ever stylish, man, even when young.

One day, as a boy, he’d been sent out shopping for family supplies. He came home and told his mother he’d run out of money for what he was supposed to get.

“Where did the money go?” his mother inquired.

“I bought a cane!” he said.

Sister Pellicane chuckled, as she nestled her thin, stooped frame in a chair in the meeting room of the Institute of Spirituality at 1601 Virginia Street E. Her own gray metal walking cane leaned upon her chair, a testament to the then-and-now of her long life … | READ ON

EPISODE 2: ‘In Defense of Baboons’

In the second episode of the “Mountain State of Mind” podcast of the Charleston Gazette-Mail,  host Douglas Imbrogno talks with WVU law professor and critically acclaimed poet and author Michael Blumenthal, who in another life would have liked to have been a primate zoologist. Blumenthal talks about his up close and personal encounter with “the Mother Teresa of Baboons,’ and the book he cobbled together with her help, documenting her amazing life story. Below is the first part of a companion article to the podcast, published in the Sunday, March 6, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

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By Douglas Imbrogno
Charleston Gazette-Mail

It was a most unlikely encounter beside a crocodile-filled river in South Africa in 2007.

The meeting had been set in motion months before when Michael Blumenthal, a visiting professor of law at West Virginia University, saw an episode on Animal Planet about Rita Miljo, a woman dubbed “The Mother Teresa of Baboons.”

Blumenthal, a critically acclaimed poet, author and former director of Harvard University’s creative writing program, was stirred to interest.

The program depicted a tough, unsentimental woman in her 70s who had devoted much of her later adult life to adopting, caring for and releasing orphaned infant baboons back into the wild as members of functioning baboon troops.

What Blumenthal learned of Miljo and her organization — C.A.R.E. (the Center for Animal Rehabilitation and Education) — so intrigued him that he tracked her down. He asked if he could come volunteer for a month at her preserve in the South African outback, south of the copper mining town of Phalaborwa.

In short order, he was soon strolling with Miljo one day in May 2007 beside the Olifants River near Kruger National Park. (But not too close to the river because one local resident had gotten drunk, leapt into the river and was eaten by a crocodile.)

Crocodiles, as well as elephants, lions, hippos, leopards, warthogs, pythons, jackals and chacma baboons — many, many chacma baboons — were just part of Miljo’s everyday landscape.

“Baboons were kind of hated because they would break into everything and eat crops and a lot of them were shot,” Blumenthal said. “So there were a lot of orphan baboons. She decided that she was going to start this center for orphan baboons and raise them and then reintroduce them into the wild when they were old enough…” | READ ON