Raised Protestant, I never had nuns as teachers in grade school. In fact, it was only after becoming Catholic at 30 that I began to gain a sense of their remarkable contributions. After I became a Jesuit, many of the sisters I met became personal friends. Among them is a member of the Sisters of Mercy, Eileen Hogan, whom I initially met through our shared prison chaplaincy work at Rikers Island. Eileen later went on to found Womencare, a mentoring organization that ministers to women leaving prison. In 2002 she and another Mercy sister began the Sister to Sister: All Africa AIDS Conference, a program that enables African women religious to gather and empower one another to develop strategies to address the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic that is ravaging sub-Saharan Africa. She and Sister Farley recently returned from Cameroon and Uganda after one of their several annual trips to Africa.
Sister Hogan’s congregation is representative of the many highlighted in an exhibit at Ellis Island, “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America.” It documents their achievements since first arriving here centuries ago. Immigrants themselves, they found a not always welcoming land where nativist sentiment viewed them, along with priests, as tools of Rome. Many faced severe hardships. Rose Philippine Duchesne, of the Society of the Sacred Heart, for example, arrived in Missouri from France in 1818, sailing up the Mississippi River to St. Louis and then settling in St. Charles. With slender resources, she and other immigrant nuns often literally had to beg for essentials in the way of food and shelter.
African-American sisters are also represented in the exhibit. The founder of one congregation, Mother Elizabeth Lange, a refugee from Haiti’s revolutionary violence, began the Oblates of Providence in Baltimore in 1829. When the superior of the Sulpician priests there asked her to send sisters to help at the seminary, she spoke in her reply of “the difficulty of our time as persons of color and religious at the same time.” In that early 19th-century period, the sisters were often insulted on Baltimore’s streets despite their religious garb.
During the Civil War, religious women played a major role in caring for wounded soldiers. The Daughters of Charity, for example, ran the federal government’s Saterlee Hospital in Philadelphia. A photo shows three dozen of them in front of the building, with a Union soldier at either side of the group. One wounded soldier, perhaps puzzled by the winged wimple of the nun caring for him said, “I don’t care what you are, but you’re a mother to me.”
The ministries of modern sisters are represented in the exhibit, too. We see a photo of several walking together in the 1965 march in Selma, Ala. One is Sister Antona Ebo, a Franciscan, who is quoted in a photo caption: “I am here because I am a negro, a nun and a Catholic and because I want to bear witness”—as indeed she and many others continue to do. We also see a photo of Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame murdered in Brazil in 2005 defending the rights of indigenous people exploited by land-grabbers.
During my visit to the third-floor space, visitors of varying ages prayerfully made their way around the exhibits. But two who stood out for me were elderly sisters in simple dark blue dresses, standing before one of the enlarged photos, smiling as they pointed out to each other nuns they knew personally.
With the current anti-immigrant sentiment, the work of many nuns on behalf of the undocumented and other rejected people has become more important than ever. Whatever their varied ministries, sisters have been a gift to the world—a blessing to be remembered during this Christmas season.