Growing up in Philadelphia of the 1960s, where it wasn’t uncommon to find as many as five Catholic churches in one neighborhood, Maryrita Wieners didn’t sit around wondering what was next.
Devoted to the faith, she followed the natural path, graduating from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School. While many of her classmates went on to college, Wieners trod a different road: she became a nun. Her order, Sisters of Saint Joseph, was founded in 1650 in southwest France.
“We were mainly teachers,” Wieners said, noting that nuns were released for a year to complete their college degrees. “I taught high school for 12 years.”
After 24 years steeped in a sheltered atmosphere, Wieners felt a nudge to move on. Following protocol, she wrote a letter to the Vatican in Rome, asking for permission to be ‘released’ from her vowels. I wrote, `this just does not fit anymore.’ I knew it was the right decision. I left because the growth I wanted had finished.”
Leaving the convent, she recalled, gave her the freedom to uncork a deep fascination with Judaism. Even as a child, she was captivated each time she rode by a neighborhood synagogue, wondering what went on inside. “I lived mainly in the Old Testament. What does that tell you?”
Wieners, 72, a professional counselor and pastoral counselor in DC, met her future husband, Dan Glaser, at a singles event. At that time, she was a member of a parish where she served as director of liturgy. Glaser, 63, a pediatrician, began attending Mass with Wieners and became familiar with the parish priest, sharing with him ‘how joyful’ the worship service was.
Wieners returned the favor, accompanying Glaser to a reconstructionist synagogue. “There was just something about walking in there,” she remembered, passion building in her tone. “There was just … energy. I turned to Dan and said, `this is it.’ I was used to going to mass weekly, so we started going (to synagogue) Friday night.
“When I was dating Dan,” she recalled, we talked a lot. I think my questions helped him go deeper in his Judaism. His parents are holocaust survivors.” Following their marriage, Wieners didn’t convert until eight years later. The reasons for her converting, she stressed, was not related to her marriage.
Helping power her conversion was her opposing viewpoint on signature stances like church teaching on sexuality. “Sexuality was often presented as what was allowed or not, with much fear about getting pregnant, 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. “Probably my deepest growth has come during the last three years. With her husband, she also helps coordinate Torah readers during the holidays and co-leads meditation services.
She also shared the evolution of her views on Christ. He lived “as a prophet, rabbi, and teacher. I do not believe he saw himself as the son of God the way his disciples saw him.” What she did see in the spiritual head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and other denominations was a man who exhibited foundational values of forgiveness and justice. “He was a good Jewish boy who must’ve learned from his mother and father.”
COVID-19, she said, is a defining moment. “It’s more challenging” for her clients who are single or who live alone. At the same time, it can be hard on couples who find themselves together every hour of every day. “They’re really petrified of getting this.”
At the same time, Wiener’s daily counseling sessions via Zoom, she declared, may seem like another electronic tool that fosters a sense of isolation. But there are positives. “Clients come more regularly because they don’t have to commute.” And God remains sovereign. “Job didn’t lose faith. My soul journeying is a continuous flow, in a oneness, rather than through separate life parts, be they Catholic or nun or Jewish.”