It’s a matchup made in college football heaven. On Monday, two storied programs — Notre Dame and Alabama — will go head to head in the Bowl Championship Series national title game. Many give Alabama the edge. But a group of nuns in southern Indiana believe one of their own may just push Notre Dame to victory.
First Church Then Football
In the small town of Ferdinand, Ind., underneath a gold-trimmed dome adorned with 89 angels, the Monastery of Immaculate Conception’s morning mass gently echoed. About 160 Benedictine nuns call the monastery home.
Once mass ends, Sundays swing from contemplative to competitive for 87-year-old twins, Sister Mary Carmen Spayd and Sister Mary Carmel Spayd. With traditional habits off, the twins, who sport identical short, gray hairdos, settle in front of the TV for some afternoon football. On this day, it was the Indianapolis Colts versus the Tennessee Titans.
“See, they’re in the hole again. That gives the Titans good field position.”
They know football. The Colts are their favorite NFL team. But as the Titans gained yards, Mary Carmel spoke about true loyalties.
“I think they need Manti Te’o to hold him,” Mary Carmel said.
“Bring on Notre Dame’s Manti,” Mary Carmen added, with a laugh.
They were referring to Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s defensive star and 2012 Heisman candidate. Catholic nuns rooting for the Fighting Irish is fairly predictable, especially here. Many grew up in Indiana and studied at Notre Dame. Mary Carmen joked that when a local season ticket holder invites sisters up for a game, it’s a sacred six-hour drive.
“We pray the rosary on the way up and on the way home, if Notre Dame lost, we would pray the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary,” Mary Carmen said.
When the Spayd sisters joined the monastery over 60 years ago, they met their match in Sister Martha Marie Tempel, arguably the monastery’s biggest Notre Dame fan. She parked herself in front of the radio or TV for every game. Mary Carmen lived next door to her until she passed away last summer.
“She had a Notre Dame blanket in her room,” Mary Carmen recollected. “Even at the time at her death, she had a pillowcase with the Notre Dame emblem, you know, all over it.”
“Which I inherited,” Sister Anita Louise Lowe chimed in. “I inherited it. I inherited her pillowcase. I couldn’t believe it when I pulled it out. I went, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Anita Louise, 47, grabbed a large wicker basket full of memorabilia Martha Marie left her. She pulled out a vial of Notre Dame holy water, stickers, a cup holder and “the University of Notre Dame shot glass.”
“Now, has that been used?” I asked
“Hard to tell. It’s clean,” Anita Louise answered, laughing.
The last conversation Anita Louise had with an ailing Martha Marie involved Notre Dame. Anita Louise sat at her bedside and told her she was heading north to begin graduate classes.
“And she had always wanted me to play harp at her funeral,” she said. “And the last thing I told her, whether she could hear me at that point or not, was I said, ‘You know Martha Marie, I’m leaving for Notre Dame on Sunday. I’m sorry. I won’t be able to play.’”
A Prophetic Joke?
Had Martha Marie been able to respond, Anita Louise said she would’ve peppered her with questions: Which dorm will you stay at? Will you go to a game? At 91 years old, Martha Marie, a Notre Dame alum with curly gray hair and a round, kind face, passed peacefully. It wasn’t unexpected. Still, one evening Mary Carmen lightened the mood with a joke.
“I made a comment at the wake service that maybe she’ll help us, help Notre Dame get a championship this year, a national championship,” Mary Carmen remembered. “I was the one who mentioned it at the wake service.”
That earned some chuckles. After all, the last decade of Notre Dame football has not been stellar. Much to their surprise, with each game the sisters at the monastery watched, the unranked team marched towards an undefeated season, pulling out incredible wins, like the November game against Pittsburgh.
“Three overtimes was just a bit much,” Anita Louise said. “It was like, ‘Huh, please don’t do this again.’”
“And then USC,” Mary Carmen added. “I thought, ‘Oh my, can they really do it against USC?’ But their goal line defense has been marvelous.”
Yes, Notre Dame’s defense has been touted as the best in the nation. And the sisters admire the discipline coach Brian Kelly demands. But at this monastery atop a hill in Southern Indiana, the sisters can’t help but believe that behind this championship team, there’s a faithful fan above.
“I think, “Okay, Sister Martha Marie — you’re pulling for them, aren’t you?’ But, um, yes, I think she would be tickled pink to know that they have done so well this year,” Carmen said.
Or, maybe, tickled blue and gold.