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Biography chronicles three sisters - with Colorado Springs ties - who became Benedictine nuns

October 29, 2017 Updated: October 30, 2017 at 9:05 am
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photo - Sister Kathleen Cogan's new book "Three Nuns From the Ranch" features personal histories written by her two sisters, also Benedictine nuns. (Left to right) Sister Elizabeth Cogan, Sister Leann Cogan and Sister Kathleen. Courtesy.
Sister Kathleen Cogan's new book "Three Nuns From the Ranch" features personal histories written by her two sisters, also Benedictine nuns. (Left to right) Sister Elizabeth Cogan, Sister Leann Cogan and Sister Kathleen. Courtesy. 

When a stroke walloped Benedictine Sister Kathleen Cogan after a severe allergic reaction to medicine for peripheral neuropathy, writing helped rehabilitate her bewildered brain.

"I didn't even know my own sisters," said Cogan, 88. "I didn't even know my nephews and nieces. They kept telling me who was who. I tried to read a book, but when I got to page three, I had to go back to page one. I had some memories of my past, and I thought, 'I'm wasting time. I should just write some of these stories down.'"

And write she did. Rather, she pecked at a keyboard with two fingers because the neuropathy made writing by hand too difficult. As she began jotting down stories from her childhood, teen and adult years, she conferred with older sister Leann Cogan and younger sister Elizabeth Cogan, also Benedictine nuns. The three sisters lived together at Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs since 2009, though Sister Leann died last year at age 97.

While Sister Kathleen wrote the bulk of the 106-page book "Three Nuns From the Ranch," her sisters also contributed. Sister Elizabeth helped organize Kathleen's memories into a timeline, and both wrote their own personal histories and gave input.

Family members always hoped the sisters eventually would write their colorful stories to pass along to future generations. That's what Sister Elizabeth believed she was doing when she wrote her portion. That those tales blossomed into a book still surprises her.

"It gives me a strange feeling because that's not what we set out to do," said Sister Elizabeth, 85. "It's like another force took over, and it's wonderful. We just never dreamed this was possible, so we didn't dream that way. I guess you'd call it a happy surprise."

The project began in mid-2014 and has finally come to fruition. Cogan and copies of the book will be available at a signing Saturday at Benet Hill Monastery. Reservations are required and must be made by Monday. The book is also available online at amazon.com.

The sisters, who have three brothers and another sister, grew up on a ranch homesteaded by their dad and uncle 4 miles south of Buena Vista. Life was simple, and entertainment revolved around fishing, picnics and reveling in the innate beauty of Colorado. Religion was never a huge part of their childhood, and they knew nothing of nuns, besides the fact their aunt was a Benedictine Sister, and they'd see her and other sisters at the hospital.

"Seminarians from Denver used to come teach us catechism in the summer," Sister Kathleen said, "but they taught us more baseball than anything. We weren't a family who always went to church. We had Sunday Mass once a month, never on Christmas or New Year's, just on fourth Sundays."

No matter. The family was in love with the Lord, she said, and it happened through the simple observation of the natural world.

"I still remember my dad coming in and saying, 'Libby (her mother), I saw the most wonderful thing - a mouse with six kits on her swimming,'" said Sister Kathleen. "Things like that meant so much to us. We didn't have movies, TV or radio."

The generosity and goodness of her parents also epitomized spirituality for Sister Kathleen. In her book and in conversation, she recounts a surplus of memories featuring their kindness, such as the way they fed vagabonds who showed up on their doorstep. Despite the family's extreme poverty, Sister Kathleen's mother always fixed them something to eat and let them sit for a spell.

"She told us, 'Now you remember, they're daddies to other kids, and you be good to them,'" she said. "They took care of elderly people. Everybody that nobody knew what to do with, they sent them to us."

There was no exact moment or reason Sister Kathleen decided to pursue a life of faith; it always tugged at her heart.

"I just knew it was the thing to do," she said. "I felt I belonged to the Lord since I was young."

After graduating from Buena Vista High School, all three sisters attended Mount Saint Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., on scholarship. Sister Kathleen spent a year there planning to be a nurse, then transferred to St. Joseph School of Nursing in Denver. After completing two years of a three-year nursing program, she was ready to commit to becoming a nun, and returned to Atchison, where she entered the convent next door to the college where she spent a year. Eventually, she earned a master of science in biology at St. Mary's College (now St. Mary's University of Minnesota) in Winona, Minn., and a bachelor of science in nursing at University Hospital in Denver, and taught for about three decades in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado schools.

She also became a certified chaplain and held chaplaincy positions in Iowa and at St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City.

"She is extremely organized, an excellent facilitator and one of the most compassionate individuals that I have had the opportunity to work with," wrote William Burns, former CEO at St. Thomas More Hospital, in a news release. "She lives dedicating her life to the Lord."

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