Roberta Bothwell had spent more than a year training to become a Catholic nun when a family emergency took her out of the convent. She eventually got married, entered a period of spiritual questioning, and was invited by a friend to a Friends meeting at a house in Buffalo—a visit that transformed her faith journey.
“I felt very nervous, shy,” she recalls. She found some introductory brochures in the lobby, picked up a card, and read its message: Welcome to the Quakers. We sit in silence. If the Spirit moves you to speak, please speak. If the Spirit moves you to remain silent, please remain silent.
“That was an aha moment,” Roberta says. “Nobody had ever told me that silence was as holy as talking. Nobody in my whole life.”
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A special thanks to Sue Tannehill, Jesse Deganis-Librera, and Buffalo Friends Meeting for this footage. A link to their upcoming Quaker Elders series will be publicly available soon. Check back for more details.
I like feeling the silence, and one time when I was still at 72 North Parade (I probably was there for two or three years), it was– I had the strangest feeling during meeting, and I went up to my friend Ester after meeting and I said, “Ester, this is like all of a sudden, like everything was united. It was like a spider’s web where everything is united in the web,” and she said, “that’s called a gathered meeting.” And I don’t know if I hadn’t read about it or what, but it was magical to me.
Catholic to Quaker: Encountering a Holy Silence
My name is Roberta Bothwell. I belong to the Buffalo Religious Society of Friends for over 30 years, but I don’t know – I feel as if I’ve always belonged to them, and they to me.
An Early Relationship with the Catholic Church
I was born into a Catholic family and I had been in a convent when I was 24 — I went into the convent for 15 months studying to be a Catholic nun: Congrégation de Notre-Dame, and I spoke no French, so I had to learn how to pray in French. I was the oldest one in both classes, and then mother had a heart attack and I came out to take care of her. So I was out, I lived with my sister and her CIA husband and family in German for four months and tried to figure out “am I going back to the convent?” and I thought, “no, I’m going to stay out and I’m going to get my masters and I’ll teach, and I’ll get married.” And so then when I got married I married a man who was an instructor– very Catholic! World Religions was what he was working on– and I was so happy to learn all about Buddhism and Daoism and everything, and we moved and I started to then think differently about the Catholic Church.
From Catholicism to Quakerism
So I talked to another friend and she said to me, “You know I left the Catholic church, Roberta?” and I said, “Oh? Ok” and she said, “But you know, I found something else– I found the Quakers! And they’re in a house on 72 North Parade Street!” I said, “A house?” You know, I had only been to churches, and she said to me, “You know, why don’t you come sometime?” and I said, “Well, fine, I’ll come – yeah, sure.”
So I walked in; I didn’t know a soul. It was a regular house I walked in. Some people were in another room talking. I didn’t want to interrupt them; I felt very nervous, shy, and there was a little holder with literature right there in the lobby. And I went over to it and I saw a card– it was like a light blue card (my favorite color), and it said, “Welcome to the Quakers. We sit in silence. If the Spirit moves you to speak, please speak. If the Spirit moves you to remain silent, please remain silent.” That was an aha moment. I had been in a convent for 15 months; nobody had ever told me, including mother mistress or the priests who would come and talk to us, nobody ever ever said that silence was as holy as talking. Nobody in my whole life. So, I was just blown away just by that. I mean, I would have stayed just for that.
I sat in the back row of this double living room and looked around at people and everything, and they were very nice. They came up afterwards and greeted me, and I thought, “you know, the whole time I’ve been a Catholic and I’ve gone to 17 different Catholic churches in my lifetime, nobody is as friendly as these people, so there feels like it’s a community here. It was a whole new world. I was so happy– I was confounded, you know, because I was dropping little by little all of those preconceived notions of what makes up a religious community.
- 1) Can you remember your first time attending meeting? What did it feel like?
- 2) Roberta remembers feeling that, “nobody is as friendly as these people” after her first meeting. What are some practices Friends can do to make newcomers feel welcomed and included in their community?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.