Meet Sister Vivian Ivantic, the oldest Benedictine nun in the world

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Benedictine Sister Vivian Ivantic celebrated 107 years of life on Aug. 28, 2020, at the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, 7430 N Ridge Blvd. Last year as part of her 85th jubilee celebration, it was discovered that she is the oldest living Benedictine woman in the world with 86 years of service to the church. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Benedictine Sister Vivian Ivantic first thought of religious life when she was in first grade at Mother of God School in Waukegan, just over 100 years ago.

“I had Sister Adelaide,” said Sister Vivian, who turned 107 on Aug. 28. “I came home and told my mother I wanted to be a sister like her and never changed my mind.”

Sister Vivian is believed to be the oldest Benedictine woman religious in the world, something that came to light when her community was preparing to celebrate her 85th jubilee in 2019, according to Siobhan O’Neill Meluso, communications coordinator for the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago.

Sister Vivian lives at St. Scholastica Monastery, 7430 N. Ridge Blvd., where, she said, she gets the best care possible, with her own room and three meals a day, and more if she wants it.

She first arrived at St. Scholastica as a high school freshman, with two other graduates from her class at Mother of God. The three of them were encouraged in their religious life by their eighth-grade teacher, Sister Theresa.

“Sister Theresa was a very gifted teacher, hardworking, knowledgeable … I just don’t have enough adjectives to explain who she was,” Sister Vivian said.

Her two classmates, who became Sister Georgine and Sister Mary Alice, ended up entering the Benedictines of Chicago when they were seniors in high school, but Sister Vivian — then called by her baptismal name, Rose — wasn’t ready.

“I had a baby sister, and I had to go home and get to know her,” said Sister Vivian, the third of nine children and second-oldest daughter. “I had learned to sew dresses, and she was the best dressed infant on the block. It was the Depression, and I could go downtown and get a yard of fabric at the dry goods store for 10 cents and make her a dress.”

When that sister, Theresa, was 2, Sister Vivian returned to the Benedictines.

In her 86 years of religious life, she attended classes at Loyola University and earned a bachelor’s degree from DePaul University and a master’s degree in library science from Rosary College, now Dominican University. She taught grades three, five, six, seven and eight in schools in Illinois, Colorado and Arizona; taught high school Latin; was a high school librarian; and started the archives for her community.

“You name it, I did it,” Sister Vivian said. “When you are in religious life, you do what you are told to do. You would come home from your mission on Friday and check the bulletin board to find out where you were going to school the next day.”

That means studying what you are told to study and taking the assignments given, even when they are difficult.

“It was hard for me to teach high school Latin, because I hadn’t thought in Latin for years,” said Sister Vivian, who spoke Slovenian at home as a child and English in school.

She learned French in high school and later learned German and Greek. “It had been, what, 18 years since I’d opened a Latin book?”

It was after she served as the St. Scholastica High School librarian that she began collecting documents for a community archive, creating a file for every sister in the community.

“I wanted a record of every sister who died in the community,” she said. “And of course, we had more information about those who were still living.”

Sister Vivian, who has met every cardinal for the Archdiocese of Chicago since George Mundelein, said she doesn’t recall much about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

“I was 5 years old,” she said. “I knew my name, and that was it. I do remember that food was hard to get, but we always had enough because my mom kept a garden. It was plain food, nothing expensive. She baked all the bread for the family. We would have nut bread for feast days, like Christmas and Easter. We couldn’t afford nuts very often.”

Now that she has time, Sister Vivian likes to feed the squirrels on the monastery grounds.

She reflects on the legacy of the Benedictines of Chicago and other women religious, especially in the United States.

“Where would the men be without the women?” she said. “Where would the church be? America is a place where women religious really made [Catholic] school possible. How many not thousands but millions of Catholic schoolchildren got their education in parish and convent schools?”


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