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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

451 She was 92 years old and had no physical contact with her 10 children and 18 grandchildren

Day 451 June 10th 2021:

Ann Russell Miller spent the better part of 20 years pregnant and more than 60 years rich — really rich.

(Sister Mary Joseph the day she became a postulant, 1990)

The San Francisco socialite bore 10 children — five boys, five girls — and raised them in a Pacific Heights mansion, spending nights at the opera and charity events and enjoying extravagant vacations featuring Mediterranean yachts.

Then, a day after her 61st birthday, Miller traded in her Imelda-Marcos-like cedar-lined shoe closet filled with the likes of Givenchy and Versace for a pair of Birkenstocks and entered a nunnery, the spare, strict and cloistered Order of Discalced Carmelites just outside Chicago.

She died June 5 following a series of strokes after spending nearly 31 years there, gardening, ironing, cleaning, praying, and at times breaking the rules, including those for punctuality. She was 92 years old and had no physical contact with her 10 children and 18 grandchildren over the decades.

The night before she left for the nunnery, Miller — who had been widowed five years earlier — threw a goodbye party with 800 guests at the San Francisco Hilton, where caviar, coquille of seafood and chicken in pepper beurre blanc sauce were served.

Her days were filled with at least eight hours of prayer, the rest of her life limited to the confines of the convent where she slept in a cell on a thin mat. The once ever-chatty doyenne would remain silent up to 22 hours a day.

She wasn’t the perfect nun. She couldn’t sing and was therefore a troubling addition to the choir and the mother superior noted she wore a slight dip in the floor kneeling for penance. Even in a cloister setting, Miller remained perpetually late for everything, her family said.

In 1994, five years after her arrival, and by then Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity, she took her vows and became a bride of Christ.

Sister Mary Joseph never hugged her family or friends again. They could visit, but only with an off-set, double row of iron bars between them. She never held many of her now 28 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

Her eldest child, Donna Casey of San Francisco, remembers the day after the going-away party, when the family gathered in her hotel room for Mass and to say goodbye.

“She couldn’t believe she had so many crybabies in the room,” Casey said.

Her decision and departure were “very dramatic,” she added. “I’ve been trying to explain it for 30 years,” Casey said.

Miller was born Mary Ann Russell on Oct. 30, 1928, into wealth and privilege as the daughter of Donald Russell, the future chairman of the board of Southern Pacific Railroad, and, at age 20, she married Richard Miller, the son of the founder of a gas and power company that became Pacific Gas & Electric.

(Richard and Ann Miller)

Between them, their lineage includes the Folgers coffee family and the founder of Wells Fargo. She was often in the society columns, counting Marie Gallo (California wine empire), singer Loretta Lynn, Nancy Reagan, and comedian Phyllis Diller among hundreds if not thousands of friends. She drank, smoked and played cards. And she really liked shoes. She was an open-water diver and drove her cars, which for years included a Pinto, much too fast.

Raised Catholic, she and her husband were Goldwater Republicans, something of a scandal amid John F. Kennedy Democrats. She liked to host large dinner parties that could include foreign dignitaries or friends — at least a third of whom were gay, her family said — and priests.

She also often traveled the world, a priest always in tow to ensure she never missed daily Mass. Miller and her husband were, according to her daughter Donna, trying to produce a gaggle of conservatives with their 10 children.

God and the Catholic Church were central to her life. Both she and her beloved husband were devout and had talked about joining a religious order that accepted couples once their children were married off.

Richard Miller, chairman of the San Francisco Opera Association, died in 1984 of cancer. Renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade sang at his funeral.

But as outgoing and generous as Miller was to her friends, she was equally demanding of her children, insisting they follow a righteous life and marry within the church. When they didn’t, or got divorced, they were shunned or at least their non-Catholic spouses and children were.

(10 Miller Children)

Her ninth child was kicked out of the house at age 18 for a dalliance with a girl. Mark Miller didn’t see his mother for years after. He was 24 when she entered the convent and he visited her twice in the intervening years. His relationship with her, he said, was complicated.

Her eldest, Donna, said the choice of a cloistered life was the right one.

“She would not have been happy with the way our children and her children had conducted their lives,” she said. Instead, she could spend her life praying for them.

Son Mark said he understands her desire to devote herself to God, but still cannot imagine her swapping a glamorous and privileged life for a thin mat three decades ago. It was “the absolute antithesis of how she lived her life up until then,” he said. And in San Francisco, it was shocking.

“When people think of San Francisco and nun, they think of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” Mark Miller said, referring to the order of queer and trans activist nuns.

Prior to her departure and final going-away party — where one attendee noted, it was like “a funeral, a tragedy, only there is the victim looking serene and happy” — she traveled the world to say her goodbyes. That included a cruise to Malta, a trip to Palm Springs to see Bob and Dolores Hope, and travels to Hong Kong, Tokyo and an English country estate for a ball.

Perhaps, her ninth son said, there was one thing wanting in her life: Peace and quiet.

She got three decades of it.

Sister Mary Joseph will be buried on the grounds of the Carmelite order in Des Plaines, Ill., and private funeral services will be held Wednesday, family said.

(Celebrating her 90th Birthday)

“All my life I’ve been told how wonderful I was and I believed it,” Miller told friends before she left San Francisco for the monastery. “This is the next part of my life.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

Post Script: My niece Colleen sent me this article from the SF Chronicle. It brought up a lot of different feelings. I wonder about Ann Miller's concept of God and her faith. Her desire for the control of her children and for peace and quiet in order to pray and reflect. There are so many swirling emotions that go into a decision to enter a cloistered life.

My mother came from a very different, very poor background who also raised 10 children and loved many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also cherished her moments of peace and quiet. But no matter who we chose to marry, no matter our own dalliances, she never abandoned us - rather greeting us each one with an open heart that understood the imperfections and strengths of each of her children.

I'd love to get your thoughts on this story.

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