By Tony Glaros
Growing up in the Philadelphia of the 1960s, where it wasn’t uncommon to find as many as five Catholic churches within a two-mile radius, Maryrita Wieners didn’t spend much time pondering what was expected of her.
Devoted to the faith, she followed the normal, natural path, graduating from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School, a short stroll from the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the mother parish of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
While some of her classmates attended college after high school, Wieners, not yet 18, trod a different path: She became a nun. Her order, Sisters of Saint Joseph, was founded in 1650 in southwest France before relocating to Philly in 1847. The order’s outreach concentrated on education, social work and parish ministries.
“We were mainly teachers,” said Wieners, 72. “I taught high school for 12 years.”
After 24 years steeped in an insular lifestyle, Wieners felt the call to leave. She followed protocol and wrote a letter to the Vatican in Rome, asking for permission to be “released” from her vows. “I wrote, ‘This just does not fit anymore.’ I did not leave because I wanted to get married. I left because the growth I wanted had finished.”
Leaving the convent, she said, allowed her the flexibility to explore her deep fascination with Judaism — and to embrace the moments of foreshadowing that bubbled up. Even as a child, she would fasten her gaze on a local synagogue, conjuring images of what happened inside. “I lived mainly in the Old Testament. So what does that tell you?”
After moving to the Washington area, Wieners, whose titles include licensed professional counselor and certified pastoral counselor, met Dan Glaser at one of the Washington Ethical Society’s twice-monthly singles events.
At that time, she was a member of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. Glaser, now 63, a pediatrician, began attending Mass with Wieners. Wieners returned the favor, accompanying Glaser to Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Laurel.
“There was just something about walking in there,” she said. “I turned to Dan and said, ‘This is it.’”
The couple married. Wieners didn’t convert to Judaism until eight years later. The reasons for converting, she stressed, were not related to her marriage.
Part of the impetus stemmed from her opposition to high-profile teachings in the Catholic Church, such as sexuality.
As a young communicant in the church, she explained, “sexuality was often presented as what was allowed or not, with much fear about getting pregnant, and often missing the beauty of the sexual relationship. In Judaism, there is a teaching that for a couple to make love on Shabbat is a double mitzvah — an abundance of loving kindness.”
At the synagogue, Wieners brings her robust gift of nurturing human connectivity to a wide assortment of activities. Her training as a nun gave her the tools for leading retreats. A program on prayer leadership “opened my prayer life to go deeper.” With her husband, she also helps coordinate Torah readers during the holidays and co-leads meditation services. The toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on humanity, she said, is a defining moment, and the situation has become more dire.
“It’s more challenging” for her clients who are single or who live alone. Moreover, it has a potential negative effect on couples who find themselves together every hour of every day. “They’re really petrified of getting this.”
At the same time, Wieners said her daily counseling sessions via Zoom may seem like another electronic tool that fosters a sense of isolation. In reality, though, she views it as a blessing.
“Clients come more regularly because they don’t have to commute.” Counseling sessions, she added, are an important resource “to keep them grounded.” Asked if God was in control, she didn’t hesitate to reflect on it. “Oh, yes! Job didn’t lose faith.”
Wieners’ business web site is a full-flavored, sensory romp that pulses with sunflowers and splashes of orange. “Sunflower and green are really healing colors.” It also contains the words from one of her fondest Scripture readings, Jeremiah 29:10, where it begins, “I know the plans I have in mind for you…”
In a fragmented world, Wieners said, “we first must tend to our own growth in our relationship with God.”
She emphasized how she has embraced and celebrated her life as each chapter unfolds in its own time.
“My soul journeying,” she said, “is a continuous flow, in a oneness, rather than through separate life parts, be they Catholic or nun or Jewish.”