The decline in women’s vocations has meant that their numbers are not only smaller year by year, but that the average ages of individual members has sharply risen. As a late-life convert, it was not my good fortune to have nuns as teachers in the non-Catholic schools I attended, but those I came to know later have impressed me more and more for their faith, determination and commitment to social justice. I am fortunate in being in close touch with women in several congregations around the country, in Washington, D.C., New York City, Louisiana and even California.
The Sisters of St. Ursula (not the same as the Ursulines) is one of the first orders I came to know. In addition to a retreat house on the Hudson, they oversee a high school for mostly Hispanic girls in lower Manhattan. Other of their sisters work among poor people in North Carolina.
Also close to my heart to my heart are the Mercy Sisters, one of whom was a chaplain at the Women’s House of Detention at Rikers Island soon after my own time as a Rikers chaplain. Yet another Mercy Sister, Camille D’Arienzo, is a hard working opponent of the death penalty. Then there are the Little Sisters of the Gospel--whose Abraham House in the Bronx represents an ongoing commitment to serving the poorest of families there, as well as former offenders who find supportive guidance in that part of the South Bronx. Still other justice-oriented women are the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, whose Sr. Helen Prejean, and whose her book, Dead Man Walking, have helped move the country toward abolition of capital punishment. She is a frequent visitor to America House. And then there is Suzanne Jabro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondolet, who works on behalf of incarcerated women on the west coast, and who was instrumental in starting California’s now-famous Chowchilla Family Express, that connects incarcerated mothers with their children and other family members.
But the sisters with whom I am in most frequent contact are the Religious of the Sacred Heart–the Sacred Heart Sisters. I first came to know them in Washington, D.C. and then here in New York City. Like the Jesuits, their focus is both on education and on social justice. Those I knew in Washington lived in a low-income housing development near St. Aloysius Church, where I was on the parish staff. The housing development, Sursum Corda (from the beginning of the Latin Mass, Lift up your hearts) is only a block away, and for decades the sisters served as a supportive presence for the residents while pursuing their own varied ministries. They were regulars at our parish masses, and I frequently stopped by their house. One of the sisters made a nourishing soup for the homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk grates near the State Department–a sad commentary on what the government does not do for “the least.” A saintly man named Michael Kirwan, who founded and oversaw a small residence for homeless people (he sometimes gave up his own bed and slept under the dining room table) would then stop by to take the big pot of soup downtown for distribution. Though both he and the sister are now dead, they have long represented for me what Matthew 25 is really about.
On being transferred to America in Manhattan, I again came in contact with the Sacred Heart Sisters, especially through their small Spanish Harlem community on E. 118th St. The several ministries of the sisters there focus primarily on low-income Hispanics. One sister teaches English as a second language to neighborhood women struggling to survive with their families in a country increasingly hostile to immigrants. Another works with emotionally disturbed children, and a third serves in an area agency that offers a range of services to people in the neighborhood. The fourth, in her 80s, rides the bus to visit terminally ill people.
In November, one of the Sacred Heart Sisters died at age 78, and I rode with several of the others to Kenwood, their motherhouse in Albany, for the burial mass. After the final blessing at the grave, I had time to visit the graves of several others, including that of the sister who prepared soup for homeless people near the State Department. Then several of us drove over to a nearby nursing home where a number of Sacred Heart Sisters in need of care live together in a section of the building that allows them to continue their lives as a distinct community. One of those Sacred Heart sisters was among the first women to have graduated from the Fordham Law School long ago. While in New Orleans in the 1980s, she used her legal skills to advocate on behalf of senior citizens to make it possible for them to travel free on public transportation--not just during off-peak hours, but all day. She pointed out to the city officials that many seniors babysat for family member or others, and needed to leave home and return during normal working hours. Now in her mid-nineties, this sister is as alert as ever, surrounded in her room by books and magazines that help to keep her remarkable intellect intact.
The death of the Sacred Heart Sister in Spanish Harlem has meant there are now only four left in that particular community. But already they have told me they want to resume the once-a-month Friday evening masses in their modest row house. I look forward to that. Visiting them and members of other congregations from time to time is not only a privilege, but also a strengthening reminder of the greatness of religious women in the United States. If their numbers are down, their faith and determination remain intact, and serve as a reminder of what the vowed life, with its commitment to justice, can mean over the course of a lifetime.
George Anderson, S.J.