The Spinning Nun

updated 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

REACHING UP TO SPIN THE PRIZE WHEEL, with a live TV audience watching her every move, Sister Josephine Contris couldn't help but sneak in one last prayer. One of four finalists in California's state lottery, she had just turned down a sure $40,000 to take a chance and win $1 million in the lottery's weekly television game, The Big Spin. "I was kind of worried," confesses the 71-year-old Franciscan nun, who took a vow of poverty 52 years ago. "But the sisters tell me I'm lucky. They all said, 'Go for it.' "

And so she did. As 10 of her fellow sisters in the studio audience cheered her on, she spun the wheel. The ball landed in the $30,000 slot—-but then something happened that a professional gambler might call a miracle. The ball took one last expiring bounce—into the $1 million slot. Says Sister Josephine: "I couldn't believe it. It was almost like someone went over and pushed it."

Raised in Aberdeen, Wash., Contris became a nun in 1938 and taught for 40 years in parish elementary schools throughout the Northwest. In 1979 she was assigned to Mount Al-verno, a secluded convent in Redwood City, 20 miles south of San Francisco. She bought several lottery cards every month, never winning more than "a couple of dollars" until one day in early September when she bought the lucky Big Spin ticket at the local deli.

Though she dreams of taking a cruise someday, Sister Josephine's entire $1 million will go to her order. She hopes it will be used to support the order's day-care centers, shelters and the home for elderly sisters to which Contris plans to retire in a few years. Meanwhile few believe the big win has ended her zest for games of chance. "She's a happy-go-lucky lady," says Sister Antoinette Navarro, who has known Sister Josephine (or over 40 years. "She loves to play bingo. She's not one to be sedate."

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