Category Archives: Catholic Church

Celebrating women religious as visionary agents of change

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.  Mahatma Gandhi

As noted earlier on this blog March 8-14 was National Catholic Sisters Week. At random moments during the week I struggled to think of how to write something about the week and about the role of women religious, their history, their contributions, their leadership the challenge to achieve social justice in so many fields. Try as I might I couldn’t focus on a general theme that encompasses the enormity and complexity of the narrative – or that expresses my personal experience. The common thread, I’m finally beginning to realize, is the ability and willingness of the women religious I’ve known to embrace change. Thus, post -National Catholic Sisters Week tribute:

The change among women religious that everyone remembers is the shift that most community members made from restrictive habits to modern dress indicative of their worldly role. While memorable, that change is but a clue to the substantive change within the minds and hearts of the Sisters.

What the visible change indicated, in fact, was manifestation of a far more profound change in the role of women religious, a change credited in a 2011 “Essay in Theology” by Richard McBrien, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame University.   In his essay on “Women Religious’ embrace of Vatican II change commendable” McBrien notes the several changes happening in the Catholic Church during the 50’s and 60’s; he specifically cites “abolition of outmoded customs, the modification of habits and increased attention the professional education of sisters.” As a consequence, McBride observes,

Vatican II urged religious communities to return to their biblical roots and their founding charisms and to develop a greater measure of engagement with the modern world. Women religious, however, responded with more energy, creativity and enthusiasm than church officials anticipated, to the chagrin of more traditional nuns and ultra-conservative Catholics – the very type of both constituencies that applauded, and even instigated, the recent investigation of U.S. sisters and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious….”

While McBrien focuses on the impact of Vatican II, my experience is far more personal and actually pre-dates his post-Vatican II reflections. What follows is a stream-of-consciousness collage of vignettes that remind me – and I hope illustrate — my story of a lifetime of experience with women religious who, as individuals and communities, have not so much responded to change but have taken the lead to make change happen.

Some personal memories and observations may illustrate a common theme:

  • As a wet-behind-the-ears freshman at the College of St. Catherine in the early 60’s my first major assignment was to write a paper-of-consequence on the topic “The Idea of Progress”, a mighty challenge. Though I’m sure the paper was painfully naïve, it shaped my frame of reference for life.
  • Later in my college years, still in the early 60’s, I recall a professor heading a bus tour to St John’s University to hear the controversial theologian Hans Kung, whom we found not only inspiring, but very handsome……
  • In my first grown-up job I led a national Catholic college student organization that joined the struggle for civil rights at the federal level, a role that involved hordes of youth in the struggle for equal rights. There it was often the Sisters who supported not only the cause but us ardent young protesters – of every denominational persuasion – who knew little of the how’s and why’s of the movement.
  • Again, during the 60’s I spent endless hours learning about the techniques of educational technology. It was not until I saw a brilliant Sister using computer assisted learning for a long-distance discussion of the depths of Thomas Merton’s writing that I understood the possibilities.
  • I had the same experience when I observed the leadership of women religious in revamping the health care delivery system. Women religious took a visible lead in the advance of alternative medicine, personal health responsibility, home and hospice care and other evolving efforts in the health care arena. Consistently, their focus was not so much on techniques but on human needs and possibilities.
  • More recently, as a staffer for a national open government advocacy coalition my job has been to reach out to other like-minded groups working in agriculture, environment, food, climate, health, to grapple with cataclysmic change. Whether it was sustainable agriculture or hunger, immigration or climate change I found women religious not in the headlines but in the trenches, seeing each issue as it relates to social justice.
  • Today hope for progress in a global context much of that hope is directed to the Millennium Development Goals. Again, women religious stand out as a united network committed to understanding and working to achieve those goals locally, nationally and globally. The quest for justice has inspired women religious of all ages and religious communities to share their knowledge and experience in the slow and steady struggle to make real the vision reflected in the MDGs.
  • Finally, as I have come to know the rank-and-file advocates of change in so many sectors, I have observed just how colleagues were educated by the Sisters and inspired by their willingness to assume personal and institutional responsibility as change-makers in the relentless reach for progress.

These are simply personal memories of the Sisters I have known as teachers, colleagues and visionaries, just a few facets of a beautifully complex history. Still, the lesson I learned many decades ago is that there are many paths to progress. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

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Native American Catholics Reflect on the Canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha

 

 

It is a peculiar irony that the most famous of all the Mohawks – arguably the most well-known nation of the Rotinonhson:ni (Iroquois) Confederacy – is a 17th century woman who, by her vow of celibacy, isn’t an ancestor to any of us.

Daren Bonaparte, A lily among thorns

 Minnesotans Know the Lily of the Mohawk – Kateri Tekakwitha

The canonization of Catholic saints is generally of interest to a devoted cadre of the faithful who have promoted the blessing of the Church on a pious soul who meets the rigid criteria for sainthood.  Though the event of the person’s canonization has a profound impact on the community of supporters, it is of minor consequence to the world, even the Roman Catholic world, at large.

The October 21, 2012 canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha does not fit the traditional mold.  It is, in fact, an occasion charged with unique political and religious aspects.

For Minnesotans the focus on the “Lily of the Mohawk” offers an occasion to reflect on both the political and religious aspects of a forgotten, if ever known, history and on the role of this simple woman whose life story is veiled by the complexity of the inherent symbolism.

Parishioners at the Catholic Church of Gichitwaa Kateri, the place of worship for many Native Americans as well as for the community at large. Many of the parishioners and advocates for Gichitwaa Kateri have been active in efforts to learn about and to promote the canonization of Kateri and to bridge the spiritual mores of the American Indian culture with the traditions of the Catholic Church – a challenge that has not been without an occasional – and painful – clash.

Following the process of Tekakwitha’s canonization with special interest are scores of American Indian women who know something of her legacy from their experience at Kateri Residence, a program of St. Stephen’s Church in South Minneapolis.  Kateri Residence offers a home and help with recovery that blends contemporary recovery methods with a focus on American Indian culture and spirituality.

Needless to say the American Indian community watches with interest and some ambivalence the process and impact of Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization.  The challenge for all is to understand and assess the meaning of this unique blending – or the contradiction of trying to blend – Native American and Catholic/Christian traditions.

 The story:

Kateri Tekakwitha was a Seventeenth Century Algonquin Mohawk woman , member of the Iroquois Confederacy, born in 1656 in the Iroquois village of Ossemenonunder in what is now New York state.  She died just 24 years later in a Jesuit mission village near present-day Montreal.  Though stories of her short life are inconsistent, what is generally understood is that she was the eldest daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Roman Catholic Algonquin who had been adopted into the tribe after her Huron tribe was captured.  Kateri’s mother had been baptized and educated by Jesuit missions.

While Kateri was a young girl her family, including both parents, was decimated in a smallpox epidemic that left the orphaned girl with scars and impaired eyesight.  Her name meaning “she who bumps into things” speaks to her reputed poor vision. Because the Mohawk tribe followed a matrilineal kinship tradition Kateri was adopted by her maternal uncle.  Kateri’s early life brought her in contact with the Jesuits, for whom her adopted uncle had no time.  Nonetheless, at age eighteen Kateri met the Jesuit Father Jacques de Lamberville and began to study the catechism, the first step in her conversion to the Catholic Church.

Still a very young woman of 20 Kateri was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1676.  Rebuked by some in her tribe she moved to the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake near Montreal, a sort of gathering place for converts, primarily women.  These women believed in self-mortification as a way to absolve themselves of their sins.  It was in this period of her impressionable young life that Kateri “took Jesus for her husband”, a decision that led to her subsequent reputation as the “first virgin among the Mohawk.”  The influence of the Jesuits is complex.  Some Native Americans argue that it negated her Indian roots, while others, including Mohawk leader Tom Porter, maintain that “she was raised mostly by our tradition, so her spirituality was mostly of the real old faith” adding that “I don’t look at it like she gave up her native believes. She added to her faith.”

Many suggest that it was Kateri’s life of self-mortification that led to her final illness and death in 1680.  She is buried at St. Francis Xavier Church in Cahnawake, Quebec, South of Montreal.

Soon after Kateri’s death the people of her community noticed a physical change.  The pockmarks changed so that one Jesuit observed that “this face, so marked and swarthy, suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful and so white that I observed it immediately.   There were reports of individuals who claimed to see Kateri in the weeks following her death.

A chapel was built near her gravesite.  By 1684 pilgrimages had begun to honor her there.  Her physical remains were used as relics for healing.  The epitaph on her grave read “Kateri Tekakwitha – The fairest flower that ever bloomed among red men.”

All of these happenings were recorded by the Jesuits.   From earliest days the story of Kateri became a sort of bridge between Mohawk and European cultures.

Representations of Kateri Tekakwitha:

Many 21st Century Americans have learned about Kateri through architectural and literary depictions of her life.  As the wheels of the Vatican have ground slowly, the laity has not waited for the decision about her canonization.  Tekakwitha is already honored in three national shrines in this country – the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, New York, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC and the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, originally constructed to honor three slain and canonized Jesuits in Auriesville, New York.  The humble shrine at Fonda, New York, focuses on devotion to Kateri Tekakwitha.  A statue of Tekakwitha also stands outside the Basilica of Saint-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec and outside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC.

Closer to home, visitors to the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville will recall the Statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha on the Eastern shore of Lake Sagatagan.  The statue, installed on the tri-centenary of Kateri’s death, was a gift to St. John’s from St. Olaf parish in Minneapolis and its pastor, Father Leonard P. Cowley.  The statue originally stood outside the original St. Olaf Church before it was destroyed by fire.

A bronze statue of Blessed Kateri kneeling in prayer was installed in 2008, created by artist Cynthia Hitschler along the devotional walkway leading to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  One of the Bells of St. Mary at the Basilica in Minneapolis is dedicated to Kateri Tekakwitha.  The entering class this fall at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute will be named after her.

Canonization: 

The stories and the veneration of Kateri have endured over the decades.  In fact, the Catholic Church commemorates her feast day on July 14; along with St. Francis of Assisi she is honored as the patroness of the ecology and environment. The canonization is a long and protracted process that requires persistence on the part of the faithful and manipulation of an intricate system by the hierarchy.  In 1884, three centuries after Kateri’s life began, Catholics in the U.S. and Canada began the process for her canonization.  In 1943 Pope Pius XII declared her “venerable.”  She was beatified on June 22, 1980, by John Paul II.

A critical canonical requirement is the verification of miracles realized through the intercession of the saint-to-be.   In December 2011 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, part of the Vatican establishment, certified a second miracle.    This cleared the path to Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization as the first Native American/First Nations woman to qualify for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Numerous literary works depict the life and legacy of Kateri Tekakwitha.  Among the most important are Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint – Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (2005) and Darren Bonaparte’s A Lily Among the Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Kateri Tekakwitha. (2009These and other books and articles include references to the records of the Jesuits as well as descriptions of the miracles for which she credited as part of the canonization process.  The implications of this historic canonization will be interpreted in very different ways by Native Americans in particular, by Roman Catholics and by historians of this era.

For some Native Americans the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha is an attempt on the part of the Catholic Church to deflect attention from the reality of history, particularly the pain inflicted by the controversial boarding schools that separated American Indian children from their families and traditions during the late 1800’s through much of the 20th Century.  Some harbor deep resentment for the ways in which Christianity in general eroded their traditional culture and religion.

Others look to the potential of the interweaving of Christianity and Native religion as a positive development.  Thousands of American Catholics, including many of this nation’s 600,000 Native American Catholics, will travel to Rome for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha.  For the faithful who are devoted to Kateri Tekakwitha the occasion speaks to a movement towards tolerance and integration between Native ways and Catholic traditions.   For Sister Kateri Mitchell, executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference located in Great Falls, Montana, Kateri’s canonization is an important historical moment; for Mitchell Kateri Tekakwitha “ is the face of our future church.”  For the faithful who worship at Gichitwaa Kateri in South Minneapolis the canonization of the first Native American saint is a time to reflect and pray.

 

 

 

 

St Anthony of Padua High School – Northeast Minneapolis

A black and white picture of a class from St Anthony High School.(This article originally appeared in The Northeaster)

“Strong and strident women” is the memory that Carolyn Puccio has of her years at St. Anthony High School  Now a leader in the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet community, she is a proud graduate of St. Anthony which decades until it was closed in 1971.  At that time nearby DeLaSalle, operated by the Christian Brothers,  became a co-ed high school.

Unlike most of the Catholic high schools in the area St. Anthony High School was operated by the parish itself.  The original building still stands at 8th Street and 2nd Avenue Northeast where it houses one of the Catholic Eldercare sites. St Anthony High School was actually co-educational until DeLaSalle opened in 1900.

St. Anthony’s High School grew out of the parish of St. Anthony of Padua which was established in 1849.  In 1853 the Sisters of St. Joseph opened the school, which was known for a time as St. Mary’s Convent. The name change came when the school was merged with the parish school across the street some years later.  The new facility  which provided a home for the first church, the convent that housed the first parochial teachers in Minneapolis, continued to be known as St. Mary’s for many years. Though tuition was just fifty cents a month several of the young scholars were admitted free.  Receipts for 1854 were $197.58, with expenses at $203.70, leaving a deficit to begin the school year in 1855.  In his book Lighting New Fires, published by the National Catholic Educational Association, historian Michael Guera notes that “this item of information is of interest only to show how poorly and simply our predecessors lived, their wants were few and even those were supplied with difficulty; their spirit of self-sacrifice was great and their contentment in making sacrifices was still greater.

The first school had just five school rooms and a residence for the Sisters on the second floor. Sister Gregory LeMay, one of the original teachers, was the first Sister to receive the habit of the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul. For most of its history St. Anthony was staffed almost entirely by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

St. Anthony, unlike most other high schools of the Sisters of St. Joseph, remained a parish-owned school.  Although the three year diploma offered at the high school for many years did not qualify students for college entrance, many students were admitted by taking entrance exams. At that time it was uncommon for young people to go to college, but most of the St. Anthony graduates did. In 1915 the building for St. Anthony’s High School was opened.  For decades it educated the young Catholic women of Northeast.

Graduates of St. Anthony of Padua High School have happy and amusing stories of their experience.  They agree that attendance at the school was “always a special advantage to families in the area.”  Graduates of St. Anthony of Padua elementary school were assured of admission to the high school.  They tell stories of threadbare blue jumpers  and blue oxfords commonly known as Happy Hikers, of playing basketball – and “usually losing” – against other Catholic girls’ schools in the Twin Cities, of dramatic productions in which boys from DeLaSalle were recruited to play the male roles.  1954 graduate Rose Vennewitz, now living in Fridley, remembers the experience of being checked out by the Sisters before going to the Prom.

One common memory is of the May processions to the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, constructed in 1947 and still a on the grounds of St. Anthony of Padua church.

Though the school is closed the spirit remains as countless graduates of St. Anthony continue to lead the Northeast community.

Churches of Northeast Minneapolis

Recent closings and mergers of Catholic churches throughout the archdiocese have hit Northeast Minneapolis hard.  They have also raised awareness of and interest in the heritage of those and other churches in Northeast Minneapolis, some of which are not well known outside the neighborhood and the ethnic communities they have served so long.  In Fall 1998 historians Genny Zak Kieley, with assistance from Nancy Doerfler.  wrote a great article entitled “A Church on Every Corner” published in Hennepin History, publication of the Hennepin County Museum.  A quote from that article describes the essence of the piece “From a tracing of the history of the churches emerges the soul of Northeast Minneapolis.”

The churches included in the article include St. Anthony of Padua, Our Lady of Lourdes, St Boniface Catholic Church, Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Elim Swedish Baptist Church, Holy Cross Catholic Church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Cyril’s Catholic Church, St Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral, St John the Baptist Church , St. Constantine Byzantine Rite Church, St. Maron’s Marinite CatholicChurch

The journal is not available online, but anyone interested in obtaining a back issue of Hennepin History may contact the Hennepin Museum directly at museum.info@hennepinhistory.org or find the original Fall 1998 issue of the journal at the library.  It’s a great and unique reflection of an historic community – which really does have a church on nearly every corner.   You might want to follow up with a walking tour – or follow the fabulous bazaars and other events these churches sponsor on a regular basis.