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  •   A Final Act of Faith and Charity

    Sister Mary Ricarda Weger
    Sister Mary Ricarda Weger hangs the day's date on her mirror to help her remember.
    (By Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)
    By Caryle Murphy
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 19, 1998; Page A1

    Sitting in the Baltimore convent that has been her home for 60 years, Maura Eichner says she has "a healthy respect" for death. But the tall, blue-eyed Catholic nun admits to fearing something else even more – losing her mind.

    "It is frightening" when one no longer remembers "all that they had for a lifetime," said Eichner, whose lifetime has included teaching English literature for 40 years and publishing scores of poems. "We all have friends and dear ones who are suffering from some kind of mental difficulty."

    So when 82-year-old Eichner was asked to give away her brain, upon her death, in the interest of saving minds, she readily agreed. Eichner is one of several hundred elderly School Sisters of Notre Dame across the country, including 43 in the Baltimore area, participating in the Nun Study, a unique research effort to understand the dreaded disease of Alzheimer's.

    The 678 nuns who signed up for the study in 1990 – 272 have since died – agreed to undergo yearly physical and mental assessments, open their personal records in convent archives and, in a move one sister calls "helping from the grave," turn over their brains at death for laboratory examination. The sisters are the largest brain donor population in the world and already have led researchers to important clues about Alzheimer's, an affliction affecting about 4 million Americans.

    In recent interviews, Eichner and other Baltimore-based sisters portrayed their decision to join the study as a seamless extension of their lifelong religious commitment to serve. They said their faith and spirituality, nurtured in hours of prayer over decades, help them accept aging and death but do not erase their human fears.

    Several shared a sentiment expressed by 83-year-old Virginia Geiger, who still teaches two philosophy courses at Notre Dame College of Maryland. "Intellectually and spiritually, this is the best time of our lives," Geiger said. "I wouldn't change it for the world."

    To a woman, these sisters find it hilarious to doubt there is an afterlife – and have no qualms about arriving there minus their gray matter.

    "The Lord can restore anything I need for the resurrection. Anything that's missing," said Maria Mercedes Hartmann, 83, who does a lot of gardening and still drives a car.

    Page Two | Printable Full Text

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