Story and Photos by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
As a youngster growing up in Houston, Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Jan Dunn was always welcomed into the kitchen to watch her grandmother’s housekeeper prepare meals.
“Sometimes it would be a real inconvenience to this woman, but she would always stop, pick me up, put me on a stool and let me make dough or whatever she was making,” said Sister Jan, recalling her first culinary attempts: simple cakes and fruit cobblers.
“On Sundays we would have roast, rice and gravy, but we also had eggplant with it,” Sister Jan said. “So I learned how to make an eggplant casserole.”
Now 73 – years that include nearly a half-century of vowed religious life – Sister Jan still feels that same childhood joy whenever she cooks. She relishes how good cooking satisfies people on both a practical level and a spiritual one.
“It makes people very happy – I just enjoy putting food on the table and watching people’s reactions,” she said, adding with a chuckle, “Most of the time it’s been positive!”
A family on the move
Sister Jan, who teaches sophomore religion at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, practices her culinary hobby in her residence of four sisters, located steps away from Sacred Heart’s main campus. She likes thumbing through cooking magazines and then tweaking recipes to her liking.
“We sign up for the nights that we want or can do the cooking,” she explained. “I try to think of some different things to serve – I try not to cook the same thing every time.”
Impressed by the Sisters
Although based in New Orleans only for the last four years, the city is a familiar place to Sister Jan, who attended elementary school and spent her freshman year of high school at Ursuline Academy after her father transferred here for his job in the oil industry. A subsequent work transfer sent the Dunns back to Houston, where Sister Jan would attend the all-girls Duchesne Academy, operated by the Religious of the Sacred Heart.
Although yet another family move – to Dallas – meant that she only spent her sophomore year at Duchesne, the then-15-year-old detected two things that made the Sisters stand out: She was struck by their prayerfulness, spotting them walking outside her classroom window every afternoon, making their Examen; and they exuded seemingly complete happiness in their chosen vocation.
“They really enjoyed us – the kids – not only in the classroom, but being with us at lunch and at dismissal,” Sister Jan said.
This early exposure to the Religious of the Sacred Heart prompted her to study English at their eponymous college in St. Louis and to enter the novitiate at age 22.
“It was strange (to enter at that time) because everything was changing in 1969,” she said. One of the traditions her community held fast to, however, was the wearing of the habit, Sister Jan said.
“Well, it was April in St. Louis, and Villa Duchesne was not air-conditioned. It was hot. Very hot,” she recalls. “I received the habit in April, but when school got out I took the habit off!”
During her 10 years in formation – through the time of her profession of final vows in 1979 – Sister Jan mostly had to give up her time in the kitchen and was fed by staff cooks. She remembers one exception: the time she was granted permission by the convent cook to prepare her grandmother’s chicken and rice casserole for a feast day celebration.
“There’s something about institutional food that is always institutional. It’s never like home,” she said. “Now, of course, we live in small communities and we take turns cooking.”
Easy Lenten dishes
Over the decades, Sister Jan’s ministries have included 15 years as dean of students at Sacred Heart high schools in New Orleans, Houston and Grand Couteau; 21 years as headmistress at schools in Omaha and Houston; and overseeing her community’s national network of schools, which had her headquartered in St. Louis and Boston.
A resident of seafood-abundant New Orleans once again, Sister Jan often thinks back to her childhood in Houston, where Lenten Fridays meant being served “one extreme to the other”: everything from fish sticks to shrimp Creole.
“We did keep the Lenten observance very faithfully. For my mother, it was a big thing for the end of Lent to come – to not have to fast,” she said.
Dishes Sister Jan enjoys preparing on meatless Fridays include her “Easy Étouffée” and crab cakes.
“Somebody gave the recipe to me, but I kind of doctored it up. It’s so easy to make and it’s delicious,” she said of the former.
Making crab cakes reminds Sister Jan of childhood summers spent crabbing in Galveston, Texas. She adds horseradish and Dijon mustard to give them “a little kick.”
“The Old Bay (seasoning) gives it a little different flavor, a tang,” Sister Jan said. “The saltines give it a little more body and texture, and it adds a little salt to it without having to add too much more.”