A CELEBRATION OF CATHOLIC WOMEN RELIGIOUS
Most of us have a favorite nun. I have several. In my experience, these inspiring women lead lives of self-sacrifice and absolute dedication to their work. The recent news about the Vatican investigations prompted me to write what I know about them. They are authentic, true to themselves, their mission, and the volunteers serving with them. The Vatican inquiries into their lives and work are demeaning and spiteful in my view. The investigators are looking into possible doctrinal errors and lifestyle changes of the nuns apparently aimed at finding fault and demanding compliance with Roman standards. Instead of criticism, I think the sisters should be given awards for outstanding service to the Church in this time of crisis and change. While these opinions are my own, many Catholic laity of my acquaintance are equally upset. We consider the nuns to be the backbone of the Church today. They deserve better.
I also admire their congregations' management style. Rather than rigid top-down model like the male Catholic hierarchy, they are noted for collegiality and collaboration in decision-making. Their councils give members a sense of participation in the management of their congregations. I've selected five sisters who I think represent the best qualities of nuns in the U.S. Here are their stories.
Sister Camille D'Arienzo, RSM-This exceptional woman has lived her life so faithfully to the charisms of Venerable Catherine Mc Auley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, it is difficult to describe in a few words all she has done! Teacher, producer, writer, scholar, public speaker, reporter, professor, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious-all these achievements and more only partially describe the drive of Camille. Meeting her for the first time, one sees a dynamic, forceful, but friendly and compassionate Sister whose life has been a love song for the poor and disadvantaged. "The poor need help today, not next week," insisted Mc Auley, but these words equally describe Camille's urgency and passion in fighting for the rights of the lost, the least, and the lonely. A very important part of her life started in 1993 when she established the Cherish Life Circle, a group of religious, lay and ordained people who oppose capital punishment by preaching and teaching. Since 1998, Camille regularly visits a death row inmate as his spiritual director arguing for his and others basic human rights and our complicity in allowing the state the awful power to kill any human life.
Camille started teaching in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 1954, and by 1965, was producing and writing for the Brooklyn Diocesan Television Center. Among other activities, she was a reporter for the Tablet, the Diocese's official newspaper from 1971 to 1991. She also became a professor in television and radio, for Brooklyn College during this period (1973-93) and has had a popular radio spot on 1010 WINS radio, giving short, religious commentary to the wider world which continues to this day. In 1993, she was elected to the presidency of the Leadership Team, Brooklyn Regional Community and then in 1998 served a year as the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing all 37,000 women religious in the United States. One might think given all these positions that Camille would be a little stand-offish. Not in the least! She's ready to applaud the successes of the least among us. I am happy to call her friend.
Sister Mary Ryan,OP- I first met this extraordinary woman at the Wyandanch, NY location of the OPening Word program in 2002. I asked to volunteer as a tutor of social studies and civics. Sister Mary and her staff could not have been friendlier. All showed a warmth and caring that goes far beyond the usual. I later found out that one of the charisms of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville is an exceptional sense of the grace of the moment where courtesy and consideration are hallmarks of their connections to the outside world. Sister Mary is a happy, gentle, positive person. Always ready to laugh, she loves her vocation, and, at times, exhibits a steely determination to see that things are done correctly. After that first interview, the Sisters welcomed me to the Wyandanch community and I've been there happily ever since.
Sister entered the convent in 1953, and started teaching many levels of elementary and high school from 1955 to 1973. She became principle of Dominican Commercial High School from 1973 to 1981. A born teacher, her administrative skills again kept her from the classroom, when in 1981, she was elected by her peers to be Prioress of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville. Only later did she have the opportunity to teach again, but this time it was a school she founded called the OPening Word in 1991. A natural progression of her skills as educator, this program is a literacy and ESOL (English second language) program for poor and immigrant women now in three locations, Wyandanch, North Amityville, and Huntington Station, NY. To date it has educated more than 1600 women assisting them not only in reading, math and social studies, but giving them a sense of self-esteem often lacking in the underprivileged. Sister Mary always had the dream to educate each person individually and structure progress around each student's needs. She was able to achieve that special kind of education with the OPening Word outreach.
Sister Mary Beth Moore, SC grew up as the oldest of five children in a loving family where the Catholic faith played an important role. It was tested early when her brother was born with severe mental and physical handicaps. Imitating her parents’ prayerful lives, she begged God that he would “get better,” but his handicap did not improve. As she grew, she realized clearly that it would never go away. She writes: "I might have become bitter, cynical or simply indifferent to prayer. But instead, I had already developed a relationship with a mysterious and loving God, who, though s/he did not do what I wanted done, nevertheless led me to see that each of us is loved before we have proven ourselves. Stated another way, I learned at an early age that God’s unconditional love is the deepest core of our identity. Over the years, I have realized that this learning was the gift of my brother’s life, and a deep dimension of my awareness of a call to be a Sister."
Only seventeen and a half when she left home to become a Sister of Charity, she later became a professional in rehabilitation counseling where for many years she ministered to persons of every disability group except the deaf. She pointedly explains that disabled people feel deeply the prejudices of the able bodied world. She believes the pain of feeling different is worse than the disability itself. Mary Beth also spent ten years in Latin America where she explains that "the time I spent among persons living in poverty transformed my spirituality from a private/personal affair, to one where work for justice became an essential component of the search for God." She now works for peace, formerly as the coordinator of Pax Christi-Long Island and currently for Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives, an umbrella organization devoted to promoting the work for peace on the local level. She went through some difficult times trying to understand God's will in continuing her vocation, but remains joyful about being a Sister of Charity doing God's work for the vulnerable and marginalized. Mary Beth believes that the future of religious life will be closely connected to a witness of hope, and a lifestyle that is seen to be simple and sustainable.
Sister Janet Fitzgerald,OP- Today, Sister is president emerita of Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY. Always a wonderful teacher, she accepted the post of president in 1972, at that time the youngest college president in the United States. She remained in that post until 1996, helping the college grow and expand during her tenure. But she had one proviso before she accepted the presidency; that she be able to teach one course in philosophy each semester. She loved education so much that her vocation to the convent only came after she felt a strong desire to teach. Growing up in a devout Catholic family in Woodside, NY, she entered the convent of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville while still very young, but has never regretted her decision to become a teaching sister.
Molloy, a Catholic college in the Dominican tradition, was founded in 1955 and remains the only Catholic college in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Janet came to Molloy in 1969 just after receiving her Doctorate in Philosophy from St. John's University. She said that she would have preferred majoring in History or English in undergraduate school, but in the pre-Vatican Church, she was told what discipline to study. It was math. Later, because she received a full scholarship to earn her PHD in philosophy from St. John's, she was informed by her superior to study that subject. She understands that her religious vow of obedience may be a difficult concept to understand today. But she said she has come to love teaching philosophy. So it is clear that one of the characteristics of her religious life has been a deep humility to accept the desires of her order. After she left the presidency in 1996, she continued the love of her life; teaching philosophy and being honored around campus as the Sister who administered the growth and development of Molloy College during good times and bad. Despite a recent serious illness, she remains a popular figure at Molloy, especially with students and faculty who thank her for her many contributions to the college.
Sister Mary Holy Cross Byrne,RGS entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent in Brooklyn in 1934 because she "wanted to do something to alleviate the suffering of poor immigrant women" just arrived in America and subject to the worst type of exploitation. Working in downtown Manhattan, at lunch she'd walk to Battery Park to pray and enjoy the breezes from the nearby harbor. She noticed a little chapel near the park and began making daily visits during her break. She particularly remembers being drawn to sit in front of the crucifix. St. Brigid's Crypt was built to provide refuge to young, Irish immigrant women. They lived there in a safe environment until they could get settled with jobs and housing. Young Rosalie (her name before she entered the convent) felt a strong desire to help them. A priest told her about the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, whose ministry is to educate and counsel young women from broken homes. She has been a Sister of the Good Shepherd for 75 years and, at the grand old age of 96, she now resides at Consolation Nursing Home, West Islip, NY.
But the story doesn't end there. Even in the nursing home, she is doing God's work. “God is so good to me,” she declared as we sat in the sunny garden of the home. Sister Rosalie, as she is now called, had a knowing smile on her often angelic face as she told me again how much God loves all of us. Just recently, I read a letter to Sister from a former student. She was so happy that Sister Holy Cross was still alive! In her beautiful letter, Irene Wheeler said: “You were so wonderful to me in my earlier days, and if it was not for you I would have never known unconditional love. I will always have a very special place in my heart for you, and will never forget you.” That’s just one student; Sister Rosalie was “mother” to literally hundreds of young women. God has given her a long life to do His Will. She tells me, her nephew, how grateful she is for all His graces.
Edward J. Thompson
29 Tudor Road, Farmingdale, New York 11735
September 18, 2009