Sister Evelyn Mattern

0Therese of Lisieux: A villanelle

Was I waking up to the godhead in me
when my mother said I sang in her womb?
The torrent pulls all in its path to the sea.

Mothered by five in leaf-laced Normandy,
I learned from their love to make everywhere home
and greet everyone through the godhead in me.

With no compass besides eternity,
I fly to the heart of the world, not a tomb.
The torrent pulls all in its path to the sea.

In the deepest enclosure I shall be free
for even in darkness some flowers bloom
each springtime that wakes the godhead in me.

Jesus sleeps in my boat; hush, let him be.
Given over to him, I have become
the torrent that pulls in its path to the sea.

Children please parents most dearly in sleep,
filling both thimble and cut with love’s sum.
Forever I wake to the godhead in me.
The torrent pulls all in its path to the sea.

From Why Not Become Fire? Encounters with Women Mystics
by Evelyn Mattern and Helen David Brancato


The Life of Sister Evelyn Mattern

“Unless action arises from spirit, it’s empty. And if spirit claims all the territory and never gets its hands dirty in the marketplace, it too is empty. I don’t know that I’ve integrated those things. But I’ve quested after it.” – Sister Evelyn Mattern


Sister Evelyn Mattern was a Roman Catholic nun who worked for social justice in North Carolina, focusing on a myriad of issues, including poverty, farmworker’s rights, gender equality, ending war, and protecting the environment. She was known and regarded for her life of contemplation and activism. Additionally, Sister Evelyn authored books on women mystics, the beatitudes, and the lives of women in ministry. 

Early Life

Evelyn Mattern (nee Linda Mattern) was born on January 7, 1941, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Evelyn and Joseph Mattern.1 She was the oldest of three children. As a child, Evelyn attended Catholic school and developed an interest in nature; she knew precisely how many trees grew in her urban neighborhood. Upon graduating from Philadelphia’s Little Flower Catholic High School in 1958, she attended college for one year as a National Merit Scholar but decided to leave to join a covenant.[i] Evelyn joined the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters in Philadelphia where she maintained a strict monastic training for seven years under temporary vows and took final vows in 1965.[ii] She returned to college and graduated from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania with highest honors in English and history in 1962. Sister Evelyn earned her doctorate in literature at the University of Pennsylvania, completing her dissertation on Shakespeare in 1969.3

A Non-traditional Nun

Sister Evelyn’s final vows as a nun coincided with the culmination of Vatican II (The Second Vatican Council). This historic church council “highlighted the church’s willingness to operate in the contemporary realm.”2 Evelyn continued with Immaculate Heart of Mary for a decade but eventually left to join a new, non-canonical order—the Sisters for Christian Community.3 Drawing on the energy of Vatican II, the Sisters for Christian Community began as a collegial community of women that took traditional vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, freshly expressed as listening, loving, and serving.1 This non-traditional order matched the changes that came with Vatican II as it, too, emphasized prayer and open dialogue.

Sister Evelyn maintained her contemplative lifestyle after joining this order of women who sought to build a new kind of religious community based on “unity in Christ and transcendence over stifling bureaucracies and repressive controls.”[iii] The Sisters for Christian Community took their vows to one another, rather than to the papal hierarchy.4

Move to North Carolina

Upon completing her doctorate, Sister Evelyn moved to North Carolina to teach English at Saint Augustine’s, a historically black college in Raleigh, and to work for racial reconciliation in the South.[iv] In spite of then-Bishop Vincent Waters’ advice to stay in Pennsylvania unless she chose to live in an approved convent, Sister Evelyn moved to North Carolina and developed a monastic lifestyle outside covenant walls.

North Carolina Council of Churches

In 1976, Sister Evelyn left St. Augustine’s to start the Office of Peace and Justice at the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh.5 There she was able to work on social justice issues that were near to her heart. In 1981, she moved into an ecumenical version of this work, taking a job as a program associate with the North Carolina Council of Churches.

Sister Evelyn became involved with the Council through her efforts for farmworker rights and by chairing the Council’s education and advocacy committee. According to their mission statement, the Council of Churches “enables denominations, congregations, and people of faith to individually and collectively impact our state on issues such as economic justice and development, human well-being, equality, compassion and peace, following the example and mission of Jesus Christ.”[v]

Sister Evelyn worked with the Council of Churches for nine years as an organizer, legislative lobbyist, and publications editor. She lobbied in the legislature for children’s programs, welfare improvement, prison reform, and migrant issues.7 Former Council of Churches Executive Director Collins Kilburn recalls that when the North Carolina legislature was debating the extension of a program that provided healthcare for children of the working poor, Sister Evelyn wanted to do something memorable, so she unfurled a banner from the balcony during the session and was forcibly removed from the legislature building. The banner read, “Health care for kids, not more welfare for the rich.” Kilburn also remarks: “Evelyn was a perfect combination of contemplation and social action.”[vi] Sister Evelyn also edited and wrote for the Council’s newsletter. In the late 1980’s, she left the Council to teach English in community colleges for about five years, ultimately returning to the Council to oversee publications and social action projects.5 She enjoyed her work with the Council, but was careful to take time off in order to focus on her contemplative life.

Social Activism

Sister Evelyn’s colleagues note her activism on multiple issues, referencing her intersectional understanding of justice that saw a need for activism ranging from global peace efforts to local issues such as farmworker housing.[vii]

She worked closely with Student Action for Farmworkers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee to improve conditions for farmworkers in North Carolina. After witnessing the terrible living conditions of the farmworkers, Sister Evelyn advocated for the creation of a sixty-unit housing development south of Smithfield, New Hope Woods, for migrant workers.[viii] She was also heavily involved in the boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Company in order to challenge the company to pay more for cucumbers so that growers would raise farmworker incomes. The boycott began in 1999, finally succeeding in 2004, after Sister Evelyn’s death.12 Several of her friends remark that she was the first person they knew to address labor rights for farmworkers.

She also advocated for women’s rights through her involvement with the Women’s Center of Raleigh. In 1976, Sister Evelyn founded the Women’s Center of Raleigh to serve as a halfway house for formerly incarcerated women, while also addressing a variety of women’s needs for counseling, protection, and other services.12 Sister Evelyn also served on the Equal Rights Committee for the North Carolina Council of Churches. The committee began by working for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and continued to raise the issue of gender inequality.5 Through her involvement with this committee, she often asked women on the committee to reflect on why they were passionate about women’s rights, mirroring her integrated life as both a contemplative and an activist.

Sister Evelyn worked for peace as well as justice. In 1990 she traveled to Iraq with Reverend Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister and advocate for social issues, to protest the impending Gulf War. Following their trip, the North Carolina Independent recognized both of them with “Citizens of the Year” Awards. Through the Council of Churches, she planned a conference on interfaith relations for Muslims and Christians before there was significant dialogue on this topic.15

Early in her time in North Carolina, Sister Evelyn volunteered to teach creative writing to inmates at the N.C. Correctional Center for Women. She continued her work in criminal justice by lobbying for legislation that eventually outlawed the death penalty for almost all crimes committed by minors under the age of seventeen. She opposed the death penalty and helped to organize other people to work for that cause.

Her love and concern for the environment led Sister Evelyn to start the Climate Connection: Interfaith Eco-Justice Network as a program of the Council of Churches to address the “causes and consequences of global climate change and promote practical, hope-filled responses through education, outreach, and public policy advocacy.”[ix] In 2005, the program changed its name to North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light. Today, North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light works with congregations to discuss how the keeping and care of creation is a unifying theme in theology of major religions.

In October 2003, The Raleigh News and Observer published a tribute to Sister Evelyn titled, “Triumphs lie in fights, not wins,” noting that she did not “measure her life by society’s gauge of success.”[x] Friends and coworkers note Sister Evelyn’s ability to treat everyone with respect, whether they agreed with her or not. She was known for her dedication to these causes and the people behind them.


Equal to her commitment to social justice was Sister Evelyn’s commitment to a life of contemplation. Her home, Peace Hill, was a secluded log cabin in the woods where she lived with her beloved dog, Paz. Though she lived alone, Sister Evelyn often invited friends to Peace Hill for a restful day of encouraging conversations and silent walks in the woods. One friend, Barbara Pegg, described Peace Hill as a “gracious, rejuvenating place where conversations were easy and wonderful with long silences.”[xi]

In 1997 Baptist pastor Mel Williams approached Sister Evelyn and stone circles founder, Claudia Horwitz, to discuss the lack of a monastery in the Triangle. The three gathered a circle of friends and colleagues who began meeting monthly for meditation and conversation. Calling themselves the Interfaith Monastery Group, they made plans to “create an environment that honors the inner life of Contemplation and Practice and the outer world of Justice and Hospitality,” as outlined in the covenant they drafted. After a few years, this group multiplied into two; one met for prayer and contemplation, carrying out the work of a monastery without a physical location, while the other group met to meditate and conceive the monastery’s future home.

In 2002, plans were moving ahead for Sister Evelyn to live and work at the future monastery full-time. The interfaith monastery group had finally found a real estate option that could make the dream a reality. Unfortunately, this coincided with Sister Evelyn’s diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. Although plans for the monastery did not end up surviving beyond Evelyn’s passing, a group continues to meet twice a month for contemplative silence, sharing, and fellowship. Inspired by Sister Evelyn’s home, this group began calling itself Peace Hill. Sister Evelyn’s vision lives on.


Sister Evelyn was an avid writer. She published two books, Blessed Are You: The Beatitudes and Our Survival (1944) and Why Not Become Fire? Encounters with Women Mystics (1999) with Helen David Brancato, a book exploring the lives of twelve women mystics and what their lives continue to teach us.[xii]

Shortly before her death in 2003, Sister Evelyn wrote a readers theater piece, The Womens Coffeehouse Spirit: The Changing Role of Women in North Carolina Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Congregations over the Last Forty Years. The script, based on interviews with women on the North Carolina Council of Churches Equal Rights Committee, presents a series of monologues from women of different faiths and denominations. In these monologues the women puzzle through the role their gender has played in their individual stories and how the landscape of faith and gender has changed in their lifetimes.

She also wrote articles in support of social justice and sent friends and loved ones Christmas cards with seasonal poems each year. As Collins Kilburn noted, she was a “devotee of grand causes: world peace, global economic justice, and the greening of the earth, but, she gave full, loving attention to small things like humming birds, cats, dogs, flowers, and small people…she contained multitudes.”7


Sister Evelyn was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003. After undergoing chemotherapy for short time, she learned she had terminal cancer. After her cancer diagnosis, when there was nothing more to do for her cancer, Sister Evelyn left Peace Hill to return to Philadelphia. She remarked, “the thing that I feel I’m giving up is the trees. I really feel that God is in these woods and in these trees and in this house because of all the people who have been here.”12 Barbara Pegg recalls monthly meetings of the Peace Hill group to discuss plans for Interfaith Monastery Group and to sit in contemplative silence. In one of her final meetings with the group, Sister Evelyn urged “remember me in the silence.”12

She declined further treatment and left North Carolina in early October to return to Philadelphia. She entered the Sacred Heart Home, a Roman Catholic center for the terminally ill, and passed away peacefully on November 30, 2003 at the age of 62.[xiii] Charlie Thompson recalled that a number of people at Sister Evelyn’s funeral used the image of a tree to remember her. Charlie shared that she was “a strong oak standing quietly but powerfully and shading a myriad of good causes.”[xiv]

Shortly after her death, Father Al Dash, who had known Sister Evelyn for nearly thirty years, commented that, “She loved all people. She didn’t look at labels or categories. She just saw people as God sees people, people to be loved without any conditions or reservation, and she gave herself to those people. She saw God’s presence everywhere.”3

In reflecting on Sister Evelyn’s life and looking toward the future, her friend Martha Hamilton summed up, “I hope we find a way to let her live on as she is the nearest to a saint I ever expect to meet and has been enormously important to so many people.”[xv] Though I was not fortunate enough to meet Sister Evelyn Mattern personally, these words best describe my feelings in reflecting on her life as a contemplative, social activist who sought to empower people to recognize their value—I, too, hope we continue to find ways to let her live.

– Molly Williams

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[i] Rawlins, W. 2003. “Sister Evelyn Mattern, advocate for poor.” Raleigh News and Observer.

[ii] Teicher, J. 2012. “Why Is Vatican II So Important.” National Public Radio. Retrieved from

[iii] Adams, C. 1976. “About Our Religions.” Observer-Reporter.

[iv] Geary, B. 2003. “A lifetime putting her faith to work.” Independent Weekly. Retrieved from

[v] “About.” North Carolina Council of Churches: Strength in Unity, Peace through Justice. Retrieved from

[vi] Collins Kilburn, interview by Molly Williams, Home of Collins Kilburn and Martha Hamilton, October 13, 2014.

[vii] Crowther, H. 2004. “Confession, dedicated to a fighting nun.” Independent Weekly. Retrieved from

[viii] Jackson, A. 1986. “Proposed migrant housing complex is controversial.” Times-News. Retrieved from,1706971&hl=en.

[ix] Jolley, A. 2013. “Resources for Earth Sabbath Celebrations.” North Carolina Council of Churches. Retrieved from

[x] Williams, S. 2003. “Triumphs lie in fights, not wins.” Raleigh News and Observer.

[xi] Barbara Pegg, interview by Molly Williams, Panera Bread, October 29, 2014.

[xii] O’Neill, P. 2004. “UCCH celebrated the life of Evelyn Mattern. The Chapel Hill News.

[xiii] Melinda Wiggins, interview by Elizabeth McManus, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, July 17, 2014.

[xiv] Charlie Thompson, interview by Molly Williams, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, November 11, 2014.

[xv] Martha Hamilton, interview by Molly Williams, Home of Collins Kilburn and Martha Hamilton, October, 13, 2014.

Additional Interviews conducted to inform the biography:

Claudia Horwitz, telephone interview by Elizabeth McManus, July 2, 2014.

Joe Hensley, interview by Elizabeth McManus, Saint Luke’s, July 8, 2014.

Mel Williams, interview by Elizabeth McManus and Jeanette Stokes, July 14, 2014.

Amelia Stinson-Wesley, telephone interview by Molly Williams, October 26, 2014.

Lao Rupert, interview by Molly Williams, Panera Bread, November 19, 2014.

Rachel Wooten, interview by Molly Williams, Bread and Butter, December 2, 2014.

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