Our Stories: Jean Cannella and Elena Slusser
Jean and Elena followed very different paths to their partnership that has now lasted for more than 23 years. Part of their journey together brought them to the Fellowship, and we are fortunate to have them in our midst.
Elena was born in 1932 in Pasadena, California, and lived there with her parents and an older brother and an older sister. Her parents were Jewish, and although her father was an atheist, he insisted that his wife read the Old Testament to the children, so as to not let them forget their heritage. Following high school, Elena went to the University of California in Berkeley. After her freshman year, she married the man she had met when he worked on her father’s cattle ranch. Her father had hired him because he was a Phi Beta Kappa (which her father had been) and had graduated from Berkeley. After their marriage, he was drafted into the Korean conflict and was stationed at Fort Ord. They lived in Monterey until his Army tour ended and then moved to Boulder, where he attended graduate school at CU, and they started a family that eventually included two sons and a daughter. Those children, all “smart like their mother” according to Jean, now live far away, but Elena tries to see them at least once a year during normal times. That first marriage ended after 11 years, but not before Elena had earned a degree in Fine Arts from CU. When Elena remarried, she acquired two more children and three dogs. That marriage also lasted 11 years and ended in divorce. During that marriage, Elena went back to college and earned a degree in accounting and the credits that she needed to become a CPA. She later decided that she did not need the CPA credentials because she did not want to do audits. Furthermore, she was single again and needed to start earning money at once. She settled in Longmont and supported herself with accounting and tax preparation. Later she took additional training to become an “enrolled agent” which gives the same standing as a CPA in representing tax clients with the IRS.
Jean was born in New Orleans 1945, one of four children in a Catholic family. At age 14, she left NOLA to enter a convent in Wilmette, Illinois where she finished her high school education and three years of college. After 10 years, including two years teaching school near Chicago and working in the inner city, she became disillusioned with the “lack of progress” in the Catholic church and returned to New Orleans where she taught in Catholic schools. It was there that she discovered occupational therapy (OT) as a profession. She earned a Master’s degree in that field from Loyola University New Orleans and, after an internship in NYC, got her first East Coast job in a New Jersey hospital. She later moved to Baltimore, where first she provided OT at a hospital and later began her teaching career at Towson College. In 1990, Jean returned to the convent she had left 20 years earlier, knowing that she had changed and hoping the Church had as well. After three years there, during which she continued her teaching career at the University of Illinois in Chicago, she realized that the changes she had hoped for had not happened. So, she left the convent again and moved to Colorado to teach at CSU. After three years there, she left academia to work in hospitals in Fort Collins and Estes Park.
Those diverse paths converged in 1997 when a mutual friend decided to play “matchmaker.” She knew that Elena was quite shy, so she would need a less obvious reason for inviting her to meet Jean. The ruse she devised was to tell Elena that Jean was considering a hip replacement and would appreciate hearing about Elena’s experience with that procedure. The scheme worked; the three of them went to lunch, and Jean and Elena found that they had several mutual interests, notably classical music and hiking. Immediately after that first meeting, Jean called the friend to ask if she thought Elena would go out with her, and the friend wisely replied, “Don’t ask me. Ask her.” Jean did just that, and Elena—who had recognized that Jean “was no more interested in learning about hip replacements than the Man in the Moon”—accepted. Both soon realized that their relationship could become more than simple friendship. In June 1998, Elena suffered a heart attack while they were hiking together in RMNP. Jean’s prompt response probably saved Elena’s life and made both realize how much they cared for one another. A few months later, Jean left her cabin in Allenspark and moved into Elena’s house in Longmont, where they blended their “families,” creating a menagerie of five cats and two dogs! That merger worked well except for one of Jean’s cats that hissed at Elena for two years until Elena’s bribery (bits of chicken) won her over. In 2011, they sold the home they had shared for thirteen years and bought the smaller Longmont home where they now live. In their years together, they have always had at least one pet, but they are now pet-less after the recent loss of Muffin, who preceded them in the pages of Staying Connected.
At this point, you may be wondering how a former nun and someone who says she was raised with “no religion” found Unitarian-Universalism. Jean says that her early courtship efforts were hampered because her work limited her availability to weekends and Elena was busy on Sunday mornings making coffee for a UU church. Elena had discovered UUism when looking for an alternative to the Baptist Sunday School materials her 6-year-old brought home after visiting with a friend. A neighbor directed her to First Unitarian in Denver, and she soon enrolled all three of her children in the RE program there. Eventually, she moved to UUCB and then to the “spin-off” group that became BVUUF. She became much more active in the Fellowship after it moved to Lafayette. Jean says that, when she learned about UU beliefs, she was impressed by the same emphasis on social action that she had seen in the Catholic Church of the 1950s and 1960s. Elena and Jean joined our Fellowship together in 2004, and they have served the congregation in too many ways to list in their entirety.
Elena was part of the Caring Committee for several years and for a while was the only committee member. She then was involved in the creation of the Neighborhood Connector approach and was involved in their neighborhood for a while. She has also served on the Service Committee and participated in services. For a few years, she volunteered in the Office (often accompanied by Muffin), putting her accounting skills to good use.
Jean was an integral part of the School of the Spirit, back when it was called Adult Religious Education (or Adult-RE), and a member of on the Committee on Shared Ministries, back when it was called the Ministerial Committee. She served for two years as a Trustee on the Board, and is now in her third (and final) year as leader or co-leader of the pledge drive.
Both are enjoying retirement (Elena since 2007, Jean since 2018). Their hiking is limited by Elena’s neuropathy, but they still enjoy classical music, supporting the Longmont Symphony, and participate in various Zoom classes/programs especially those that focus on indigenous people and anti-racism. Elena takes Tai Chi and yoga classes, and they work out together at the YMCA. Their common interest in gardening (flowers, not vegetables) has turned their yard into a showplace where you will also see a variety of birds (and squirrels!) attracted by their many bird feeders. A relatively new common interest is baseball. Jean has been a fan since attending New Orleans Pelicans’ games with her father in the 1950s. She is a loyal follower of the Rockies, and Elena gradually became interested and now enjoys watching games on TV where she can “see the details of the plays so much better than when at the game.”
Watching Elena and Jean together is a joy! Their mutual admiration and caring are obvious. This partnership has lasted twice as long as Jean’s commitment to the convent and longer than Elena’s two marriages combined. They say that they once discussed marriage, but Elena says that “two big wedding ceremonies are enough,” and what they have together works for them. In fact, Jean shared an interesting observation about the impact of the year-long Covid-induced isolation, which she expected to be difficult for an extrovert like her. Instead, she says she found that spending so much time together has given her more appreciation of their relationship—the things that brought them together and the things that keep them together.