A Las Vegas sister finds God’s hand in journey from bar to chapel

If ever a nun seemed right for Las Vegas, Sister Mary Kieffer does.

The Dominican nun knows, for instance, that a mudslide doesn’t have to consist just of earthy material falling down a hillside — it can also consist of vodka, Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream, milk and ice.

Yes, if 63-year-old Sister Mary wasn’t busy overseeing the spiritual care department at St. Rose Dominican Hospital-San Martin campus, she could work behind the bar at casinos up and down the Strip.

Lord knows she has the credentials — above and beyond the 100 drink recipes she knows from memory.

She worked as a bartender at New York City’s Tavern On The Green and San Francisco’s Marina Joe’s when those were two of the top watering holes/eateries in the country. Patrons often shared their troubles with her.

“God had been honing my listening skills there,” Sister Mary says as she sits inside the chapel at the St. Rose San Martin. “People going through a divorce or having lost a loved one or dying of AIDS didn’t expect me to fix their situations, they just wanted someone to acknowledge and bear witness to their pain.”

After spending her early life in southern California, she lived in San Francisco for 28 years. She was such a music fan she knew where Jefferson Airplane diva Grace Slick lived there and also where the Grateful Dead hung out.

Though she drank spirits when San Francisco was known to party hard, she says she “never got annihilated.” She says she smoked just enough marijuana to say “wow” and “really” like a Valley Girl.

It wasn’t until she hit the age of 48 — by then she had also spent a year bartending in New York City as well as renting apartments and working in the maritime industry in San Francisco — that she decided to commit her life to Jesus and the vision of St. Dominic: to preach the Gospel with her life as well as her words.

“I had felt a hole in my life, but for a long time I didn’t know what it was,” Sister Mary says.

Though she says she had boyfriends, she never felt the love necessary to marry.

What helped her gain more purpose in her life, she says, was working within Catholic ministries in San Francisco. She sensed that she was being called to a life committed to Jesus and service.

After learning she wasn’t too old to become a nun, she worked to become a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, . Years of study were followed by training to become a chaplain.

Sent to Reno for nine years, she worked as a chaplain at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center. Because of her background, she says she connected with those who abused drugs and alcohol, helped them deal with problems.

She’s thankful that she helped a young girl understand that — contrary to what some other counselors had told her — she would not go to hell because she had tried to commit suicide, that life was still worth living.

“I helped her understand that God is a loving God,” Sister Mary says. “She got counseling and the help she needed.”

She also helped a Vietnam veteran who was near death come to peace with his experiences.

“He needed to tell his story — he never had — and it relieved him of a terrible burden,” she says. “I basically did the deep listening I had done years before with troubled people in bars. He went home for hospice and his wife said she had never seen him at such peace before. I prepared him to be birthed into a new life. He was going to God.”

In Las Vegas since 2013, Sister Mary now finds herself in an administrative position with St. Rose Dominican Hospitals.

She realizes many people probably find her journey from bartending to hospital administrator more than a tad strange.

But she also knows this truth: The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Thursday in the Life section. Contact him at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.

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