It was the day Roosevelt died.

She left her home in Omaha by train for the cloistered convent of the Order of the Visitation in Bethesda. She was 20 and she was doing this against her parents' wishes, leaving them sad and angry and perplexed. Now, when they came to visit her, they would only be able to touch her when she stuck her hands through the cloister grates.

When she arrived, a brother and a priest escorted her to the front door of the convent.

"I really felt like I had walked into my tomb," Rita Parle says.

It was 1969. The former mother superior was selling candy at Sears. She was wearing street clothes and savoring the simple fun of being out in the world, helping people decide if they wanted bridge mix or chocolate-covered nuts, giving children an extra piece or two.

She saw a couple who had been friends and financial supporters of the convent that she once ran. "They came up to the candy counter, and he looked at me and said, 'How sad,' shook his head and walked away," Rita Parle remembers. "And I thought, Yes it is, but not for the reasons he thinks."

The year is 1987, and Rita Parle is sitting in a friend's house in Bethesda.

She's dressed fashionably in a denim dress and silver jewelry; her eyes are rimmed softly with black pencil. The convent, now defunct, was left behind 18 years ago. Now, she has a PhD in counseling and human development and a position as director of a mental health facility in Nebraska.

She came back this fall looking for memories, friends and a literary agent. She has brought a photo album, filled with pictures of herself as a young, sweet-faced nun, swathed in black and white habit and veil. In a briefcase, she carries pages of the autobiography she has written. She is one chapter short of the end.

It took years to make herself sit down and remember this complicated time and place in her life which -- if she had followed the rules -- she would never have left. So it's understandable that she's fretting over how the book ends, because like most endings in real life, the epilogue of her leave-taking has been complicated and hard, alternately exhilarating and empty.

She knew when she left that she would never again belong to anything the way she belonged to that convent. Work dominates her life now. Socially, she drifts through her town, possessing friends and acquaintances but no anchor -- no one person, no children, not even a church really. She belongs to a church in the formal sense, and she goes to mass. But the woman whose life was molded by the church now chafes at its wielding of authority.

"Right now, I still believe in the basic teachings of the church," she says, "but I can't seem to let myself have much to do with it until women have more of a role in it, until women become priests, in other words."

Her voice is soft but firm. "It's so phony to me, some of it. Women are still doing all the dirty work, as it were. And all the old ladies are still giving them money to perpetuate the system. If all the women in the church would stop putting their money into the church for three months, I think Rome would listen to us."

She knew that she was in love with Father Douglas. It was a love filled not with lust but with idolizing. She was 20, 2 1/2 years of college behind her when she ran into Father Douglas, a favorite teacher from Creighton University, in the library. She was searching for a biography of Thomas Aquinas; he suggested she read Aquinas himself.

"And I began to fall in love with God in the process," she remembers. "I thought if God made Father Douglas then what must God be like?"

They talked a lot about philosophy during that summer, and finally Father Douglas said to her one day, "I think you should pray for the grace to be a Visitandine nun." She had grown up in a devout but not pious Catholic family with three sisters and four brothers (one of whom, a Navy ensign, was killed in World War II). But a religious vocation had never crossed her mind until Father Douglas' suggestion. She read about the order and decided on a contemplative life.

"When you really do get in touch with Jesus, with God, you feel loved in return," she says. "It's a feeling of peace. It's very hard to explain."

Soon after she had entered the convent, Father Douglas was expelled from his order for alcoholism.

"I used to pray for him," she says. "I would dream about him shivering on street corners." Eventually, he was reinstated in the order and visited her at the convent. "He told me that six months after he was expelled, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, he stopped drinking." After Parle left the convent, they occasionally talked on the phone but only saw each other once more, in the early 1970s in an airport when their flight paths crossed. He died about five years ago.

There is a poetry to the appearance of their lives: the rituals of ceremony and song and prayer; the women in black-and-white robes and veils, seen only through the haze of grates and screens, heard only through their hymns in chapel. Bells ringing at morning, noon and twilight.

To some extent, the young Rita Parle was attracted by the ceremony and mystery. She wrote home about her first meeting with fellow sisters: "I just love the habit and can't wait to get in it."

For outsiders, much of their day would seem prosaic: perpetual rounds of prayers interspersed with chores and breaks for meals. They rose at 5:30 a.m. and went to bed at 10 p.m.

They ate their midday meal in silence at long benchlike tables, eyes cast down. They ate supper as someone read from the Roman martyrology, detailing how various martyrs were killed. Before the meals began, groups of nuns would tell their faults to the mother superior, listen to her admonishment, then kiss the floor, bow deeply, fold their arms and return to their places.

Recreation was women sitting in a circle and sewing, often making alterations on their habits. "You could talk during recreation but you listened mostly," she says. "That was one of our hardest penances actually because we didn't really have much to talk about." During the last 15 minutes of recreation they would walk around the grounds, a welcome respite from indoor duties.

The clothing that she so admired when she arrived consisted of layer upon layer of linen. Headpieces and veils covered shaved heads. There were no mirrors in the house so you looked in a pane of glass to see if everything was in proper alignment. She didn't see a mirror again for 13 years. She was 33, and back trouble had sent her to the hospital. "I was really shocked to see myself. I was so thin and ugly . . . I thought, 'Oh, is that Rita?' "

At its worst the atmosphere was claustrophobic and anti-intellectual. Mail was censored coming and going. They were given one book a year to read, and it was something religious. "But then that was all part of the sacrifice," Parle says. "The more you suffer, the more souls you save."

At the beginning of her time there, she chafed at the psychological self-flagellation and the intense closeness of the community, but gradually she adjusted. The novice mistress she once found so overbearing and prying became a friend over the years. "On her deathbed, she asked my forgiveness," Parle remembers. "I couldn't even think of anything to forgive her for."

She made herself flourish on the rigidity and the structure, finding in that very routine the reason for being there: the complete focus on God.

A sense of belonging set in. "Owning even. Owning God. It was my community. My sisters, my house." They elected her mother superior in 1967. She was 42 and the second-youngest woman in the house. Times were changing and this convent wasn't changing with them.

"Oh, I loved being mother," she says. "I was in my element finally. I'll admit to it. I got to do some of the things we'd been wanting to do for the sisters, to make life better."

The changes were small but significant -- and always with the permission of Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, who oversaw the archdiocese of Washington. She had showers installed for the women who up to then had been relegated to once-a-week baths and washing in their rooms with a pitcher of water and a bucket. She allowed the women to talk to each other at breakfast. She opened the library so the sisters could read whatever they wanted. She stopped censoring the mail.

Still cloistered, she nonetheless dealt through a grate with everyone from workers to parishioners. Their chapel was being used as the church for a new parish, providing the sisters even more contact with the outside world. She brought in scholars to talk about the changes in the church.

"I was still a conservative when I was elected," Parle says. "I inched into this, then it began snowballing."

She, herself, had just read the documents of Vatican II -- given to her by the outgoing mother of the house -- and she was venturing out into the real world for occasional workshops and seminars for religious women.

"We'd heard inklings through our parish and chaplains," she says. "And we'd just kid about it: 'Oh, dear, how awful, here comes one of those chaplains who's going to make us go up and give a handshake at the window.' We would just kind of make a joke of it all. But then after I became mother I got my eyes opened gradually. And once you {do}," she says wistfully, "you can't go back."

Few people opened her eyes as much as the young women who entered the convent as postulants, balked at the life style and left. Parle grew as frustrated as they were. "All these regulations about enclosure and about your families and letter writing and permissions and penances . . . The lack of intellectual stimulation really. Everything was pious; and these long assembly times sitting around sewing. And you didn't hug and kiss each other even . . . In other words," Parle says, "I began to see we weren't being treated as adults. You were treated almost as morons."

Her house was literally dying out. The sisters were aging and younger women weren't interested in joining. "I wanted so much to keep it going," she says. "It was my little community."

She was frustrated by the inertia of her own convent but she was still a believer in her vocation. She left the Visitation convent in 1969, the day after her three-year term as mother superior expired. Her first move, with the permission of church authorities, was to start an experimental community. She was still a nun but she lived outside the cloister and wore street clothes.

Permission turned out to be different from support -- financial and psychological. "When you leave, you don't get Social Security, pension or alimony," she says.

Some nuns did encourage her to fashion a new kind of community but "backed away when it came to putting their lives on the line . . . They would have had to be exclaustrated and they didn't want to."

Eventually, her notion of an experimental community fizzled. Meanwhile she went back to college (the now-defunct Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross here) and worked part time at Sears.

And once out of her habit, Parle discovered that respect for the contemplative nun turned to disdain for a suddenly ordinary woman -- particularly from people who had known her as a nun. It was a stunning disillusionment for her. "Your identity was only what you could do for them as a nun," she says.

As she moved on to a master's degree at Catholic University, she realized her religious life was over.

"I've been through it all and I will never again let prelates tell me how I'm to lead my life," she says. "Priests and bishops and the Holy See. Men. Telling me this is the way a woman should lead a religious life."

When she extricated herself from her final vows, Parle says, the mother superior of the convent wrote asking her to return the cherished silver cross she received when she took her first vows. Parle ignored the request.

Leaving the convent was like leaving a marriage. Suddenly she was in graduate school, wrestling with term papers and writing re'sume's. A counseling service for women in Washington helped her sort out career goals. "It's sort of like a divorced woman who's never worked trying to figure out how to sell herself," she says.

But she did. She finished up her master's, went on for a doctorate at George Washington University and went back to her home state of Nebraska, winning a job first as a counselor at a mental health clinic in the small town of Broken Bow, then a job as administrator of a large health facility in Grand Island.

All of this makes Rita Parle in some ways a 63-year-old yuppie. There are the niceties -- she owns a town house and hosts cocktail parties and drives a new Pontiac 6000. But she laments about Nebraska, "Culturally it is much worse than the convent."

She's dated some, never married. "I have a close friend," she says when asked about the men in her life, "but I wouldn't consider him a boyfriend."

In fact, socially she confesses to being rather lonely and frustrated. She's a single career woman in a traditional community where almost everyone is married and the Catholics in her parish church are cordial but distant. "Catholics are that way," she says. "Maybe it's because I'm in mental health and it's a small town, and people think, 'If I speak to her, people will think I have a mental health problem.' "

As up and down as her life is now, her old way of life no longer exists in the suburbs of Washington. The Visitation convent in Bethesda was bought by the National Institutes of Health in 1983 for $4.5 million. The Mary Woodard Lasker Center for Health Research and Education is now housed in its place, and NIH and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute jointly sponsor a research training program there for selected medical students. The building remains a pastoral vision of red brick and wood floors and arched windows. The 15 remaining Visitation nuns went to other convents.

What's left for Rita Parle are the conflicting thoughts and feelings she wants to reconcile in her mind and in her book. There is a sense of affection for a place where she belonged -- but not for a way of life about which she frankly says, "I don't want it to happen to anybody else.

"I think a life must be lived in the here and now," Parle says. "That's where God is."