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Sister Madonna, the spirit of an Ironwoman

“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” John 4:23-24

Sister Madonna Buder
Dan Thomas

Holiness is a difficult concept to define and perhaps even tougher to identify. In this world of constant motion and clamor, the habit of spending hours in quiet prayer or closing one-self off from the world in order to live contemplatively is not exactly a popular nor practical pastime of the culture.

But holiness is still in style, only it may not be readily recognizable.

With churches closing and religious orders declining, the quest for holiness has become more of a journey unique unto the individual. And with changing needs, faithful people are expressing their love for God in ways unimagined in the past.

Sister Madonna Buder, a Roman Catholic nun with the Sisters for Christian Community has found her own new holiness. It is a spirit that she shares with this Examiner and one that this fast-paced world should embrace now more than ever.

Sister Madonna is an endurance athlete. In fact, as endurance athletes go, she is among that elite class of crazies who long to swim 2.5 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run the 26.2 mile marathon distance as part of the official full distance, a.k.a. “Ironman” triathlon.

Born July 24, 1930 into a prestigious family, Marie Buder answered her first religious calling to become a nun at age 23. And, although her order is liberal-minded, allowing members the freedom to decide their own area of ministry, it was still unexpected when, at age 49, Sister Buder, took her ministry literally to the streets in the form of marathon running.

As if donning shorts and singlet while running the Boston Marathon in 1982 and 1983 (for Multiple Sclerosis) wasn't unorthodox enough, she then embarked on what would become her second religious calling, the sport of triathlon.

To say the least, her sisters were a bit put off at first. But Sister Buder sees no distinction between worship and her active life, “I train religiously,” she says. And she uses the time spent training for prayerful petition and praise.

“When I’m out there running I think of people that I know and I offer my efforts up to God for whatever they need at that particular time," she says, "...or I praise the Lord for the beauty that surrounds me and the body that he gave me that enables me to do this.”

Certainly, her accomplishments attest to the existence of a divine enabler, and a spirit that can only be explained in terms of the ethereal.

She has completed over 40 marathons, 325 triathlons, 36 of which were Ironman Distances. In 2005, at the age of 75, she became the oldest woman ever to complete the Hawaii Ironman, finishing one hour before the 17-hour midnight cut-off time.

But she wasn’t about to rest there. The following year, at the 2006 Hawaii Ironman she returned to renew her own record, at age 76, again becoming the oldest woman ever to complete the race, finishing just under the cut-off time in 16:59:03. And just last year on, August 30, 2009, Sister Madonna completed Ironman Canada in a time of 16:54:30. Thus, again felling her own record while upping the challenge to any other 79 year old women out there who may want to take on the Ironman.

God willing, she plans on returning this year to be the first 80 year old woman to finish an Ironman.

“I feel compelled to continue doing Ironman while I still have the stamina, ability and agility,” she says noting that (in an era wherein churches are closing their doors) she is at peace with her own brand of holiness and worship, “…competing in God’s cathedral is like synchronizing my personhood with his creative act.”

While she admits that there are many “dark moments out there,” she perseveres in her exercise of true patient endurance, and a ministry unique, yet necessary in a world of so many seeking souls.

“Athletes draw strength from me, " she says, " I really cannot understand why. I give them spiritual guidance and offer help to those who need someone to talk to.”

Amen to that, sister. Hope to see you at the finish line one day.

“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me…” 2 Tim 4:7


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