Sister Carmen Burg of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., found a unique way for her nuns to continue to help others — even after death.
In 1986, she gave a researcher the go-ahead to begin a study in which the nuns would agree to be studied as they aged, then would donate their brains when they died.
Sister Carmen, 84, took her Final Taxi last week after complications from diabetes at the Good Counsel Convent .
The nun was one of 678 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the U.S. are participating in the Nun Study, a longitudinal study of aging and Alzheimer’s disease initiated in 1986. The homogeneous life style of the nuns makes them an ideal study population. Convent archives have been made available to investigators as a resource on the history of participants.
The study has found that nuns who expressed more positive emotions lived significantly longer — in some cases 10 years longer — than those who voiced fewer positive emotions.
For the study, researchers drew the nuns’ blood, pored over their medical histories, studied their upbringing, read their journals and even autopsied their brains — all in an effort to unlock clues to the cause and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Sister Carmen had said the nuns saw the study “as a way to continue their lifelong mission of helping others, of educating others.”
The Catholic nun held a variety of leadership posts for the order and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. But her most lasting legacy may be what is caled “The Nun Study,” which originally consisted of 678 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame religious order from all across the country. All were between 75 and 106 years old.
School Sisters of Notre Dame is a worldwide order of Roman Catholic nuns devoted to primary, secondary, and post-secondary education.
The order was founded in Bavaria in 1833 during a time of poverty and illiteracy. Its founder, Mary Theresa of Jesus, formed a community with two other women to teach the poor.
In 1847 Mother Theresa and five companion sisters went to America to aid a group of German immigrants in rural Pennsylvania. That same year the sisters staffed schools in three German parishes in Baltimore, Maryland: St. James, St. Michael, and St. Alphonsus, as well as opening the Institute of Notre Dame, a private school for German girls. Eventually the sisters traveled as far west as Mankato, MN, establishing several missions for their order..
The Minnesota sisters began the study in Mankato in 1986 and expanded in 1990.
Among the provisions of the study: the sisters agreed that upon their death they would donate their brains for storage and research at the University of Minnesota.
Sister Mary Joyce Pietsch of the School Sisters of Notre Dame said Sister Carmen approved the study because it was a great way for the nuns to educate and serve even after death.
“She started out as a teacher, like we all did,” Pietsch said. “We’re all interested in education and helping others.”
What a way to continue with your calling from God.