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Patricia Grassi (right) with her sister, Maureen.
Patricia Grassi grew up in a house full of five girls so when she felt a religious calling at the age of 25, her chosen Massachusetts convent felt just like home. Her parents were very religious when she was growing up, and instilled the importance of a spiritual life in their daughters, something that Pat felt unified them. They prayed the rosary together and never missed attending Catholic Mass, a practice she continues even today. “I was happy to know the Lord,” says Pat. She spent nine years as a Sister of Divine Providence, with vows that committed her to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience in community, “living the mission to make God’s Providence visible in our world.” After studying secondary education at Emmanuel College in Boston, she began teaching at a private school.
“I just loved it! I loved the life,” says Pat. “I thought it was where I belonged. The convent was just like being with my sisters. I was happy as could be. I was comfortable.”
But something felt not quite right. Two weeks after she entered the convent she was told she didn’t have a vocation but she fought for it. “Oh yes, I do!” she told them. “I had made up my mind that I belonged in a religious order and that’s what I was going to do. And I did love it. I was happy as could be.” It was the 1960’s and religious orders were undergoing changes. The Sisters of Divine Providence were slow to embrace change according to Pat. Accustomed to having very young girls entering the convent, there was growth in more mature, professional women responding to the call. Yet they were treated the same. Independent thinking wasn’t prized at the time. “Every decision was made for me,” says Pat. “It wasn’t good. Today young women are given more independence and it’s wonderful what they are doing now.”
She was offered counseling but in 1968, she was told she didn’t have a religious vocation and was put out into the great wide world. “It wasn’t God’s will for me. And that was the problem. You have to be doing God’s will. I kind of knew.” Pat found herself pursuing a master’s degree in American Literature at Fairfield University. In a graduate humanities class that made writing, research and socializing a high priority, she became taken with one of her professors, Joseph Grassi. The class often went to New York City to the theater and gathered at each other’s homes. It wasn’t like a regular class recalls Pat. Joseph and Pat dated a year and married in 1970.
He was very philosophical in nature and couldn’t express his emotions very well. Reason dominated him and to speak from the heart was very difficult. But they did go to church together. He was a philosophy professor and Pat gave up any career during their marriage and did volunteer work with Amnesty International and St Thomas Aquinas Church, where even today, she continues to teach Christian Education. They enjoyed tennis and traveled a lot to Rochester, New York to visit his family and enjoyed going to Europe every other summer.
She thought very highly of her husband. “I loved his sense of humor, his vitality and intelligence. He was an outstandingly brilliant man and a Fulbright scholar. He had a marvelous mind. Yet he talked with people as if he were at a bar with a drink in his hand and was very down to earth.” But there was a tension between them created because of Pat’s independence prior to going into the convent. She worked for the state department in Washington, D.C. and had planned to attend Catholic University. But she discerned the call to religious life and never went. She had an independent spirit.
“Joe was very dominant in his thoughts,” says Pat. “He took over, and I didn’t speak up and I let him do everything. I didn’t know his salary or how much we had in the bank. I never touched money. We bought a house and I hadn’t a clue what we paid for it. I never paid a bill and never asked about it. We each had our own interests. I had my interests and he had his. We loved each other. And I was happy with that arrangement.”
When he became very sick with congestive heart failure she had to take over and it was a struggle. “I had to make up my mind and do it. I said, ‘Look girl you have to do it. You have to figure out how to do it.’” She reached out to people who were proficient in different areas for advice. She learned. She educated herself about anything she needed to know. She went to the town hall and got the deed to the house and made phone calls and figured out on her own, how to do things. When she couldn’t figure it out on her own, she reached out to people who were proficient in their field. “It was an adventure. Previously I would always take the path of least resistance. That was a big step for me.”
She missed the convent but had no inclination to return after 26 years of marriage. Her mother lived with them after having a stroke in 1985, and Pat was her caregiver until she passed away. Then she cared for Joseph for two years when he was very ill and hospice was making regular visits. “I was like a door greeter, in and out, in and out. I took care of my husband day and night.” It was hard to watch as Joe was a very active person as head of the Philosophy department and tennis coach of Fairfield University and a passionate golf enthusiast. “He was a remarkable man and people loved him. But when he died in 1997, I was looking forward to being on my own.”
After he died, and out of necessity, Pat summoned the strength to figure things out for herself. She found the experience “fascinating,” and enjoyed the feeling of being self-sufficient. “I had been treated like I couldn’t do anything. Because I didn’t show any interest, he assumed I didn’t want to know. It made it easier for him because I never questioned. He did banking and made investments. That was the most challenging thing. He had just invested stocks and mutual funds. There they were. I didn’t want to just completely put everything in the hands of a stockbroker without knowing anything. I had to learn about investments. That was a big step. I never knew about investing. For me it was a whole new experience.
“If something comes along I try to go with what God has planned for me each day.” Pat lives with her two Chihuahuas and two cats that are, not surprisingly, “rescues.” “Each person has to find their own way,” says Pat. “A lot of widows have help but many are alone. Some live with families and the amount of support that you have and how independently you are living plays a role. My advice is don’t give in. One woman in my rosary group stayed on her sofa crying for five years until her kids gave her driving lessons. It changed her life. That was the problem. Her husband always drove.
“You have to do things for yourself and it will work out. God will guide us if we ask. But you don’t have to let other people take over your life either. You just can’t sit around until the day you die, so you have to live! Live to the best you can and as much as you want. Everyone’s circumstance is different. I take care of myself, cooking and housekeeping, shopping and laundry. I’m 80 years old, I volunteer at the church, my health is good. That does make a difference.”