Tag Archives: National Catholic Sisters Week 2016

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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Friends and Neighbors Celebrate Sisters’ “Quaquicentennial”

Unaccustomed as I am to being early for any occasion, this recognition of National Catholic Sisters Week (NCSW) begins early with a heartfelt celebration of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi of Little Falls, Minnesota. Today, March 1, 2016, the Sisters join with their neighbors and friends to celebrate their 125th year of serving the community in Little Falls, Morrison County and beyond.

First, a word about NCSW – it’s actually next week, March 8-14, 2016. Now in its third year NCSW is scheduled as a key component of National Women’s History Month. The intent is to honor women religious through a series of events that “instruct, enlighten and bring greater focus to the lives of these incredible women.” Learn more about NCSW at http://www.nationalcatholicsistersweek.org/about.php

For a glimpse at the work of today’s women religious there is no better example than the Franciscans celebrating in Little Falls today. These women have been a major part of my family for as long as I can remember (which is many decades) and many decades before that. My beloved aunt, Sister Mary Stephen Treacy was a Franciscan whom I remember best for her infectious laugh, for the chocolate milk she could always find for special guests, and as a legend in the community. Three of my cousins followed her lead – Sister Mary Leone Furnstahl, a teacher, died in 1998. Today Sister Therese Furnstahl and Sister Anne Furnstahl continue to serve a broadly defined community in myriad ways.

Today thoughts are with the Sisters and the countless people they have served for 125 years. I even learned a new word to describe the year–long celebration – this is the Franciscans’ “quaquicentennial.” The year is highlighted by two significant dates – today, March 1, is Founding Day, marking the 1891 date when sixteen women established the community in Belle Prairie, Minnesota. The other key date is October 4, the Feast of Saint Francis Assisi, patron of the community and namesake of Pope Francis, a fact that brings both pleasure and renewed inspiration to the Sisters.

Today the 129 members of the community serve in countless ministries including home health care, teaching, catechetical work, missionary work in South America and more. The Franciscan Center has also built a reputation for hospitality as it opens the doors to the community and visitors from afar. Neighbors gather at the Center regularly to socialize, exercise, worship, garden, to conduct the business of the community and to learn.   Conference attendees and other visitors find respite – not to mention great meals and a warm welcome — in the gracious setting.

Scholars visit the Franciscan Center on a regular basis to learn about the history of the community and the area preserved in the Franciscan archives and to reflect on the magnificent architecture of the Chapel and other historic buildings on the grounds.

Members of the public are welcome to join the Franciscans as they continue to celebrate their “quaquicentennial” throughout the year. Activities range from an Open House on Saturday July 9, featuring musicians from the St. Francis Music Center, to a tour and tractor or horse-drawn wagon tour, to a September 30 liturgical performance by David Haas, Marty Haugen and Michael Joncas.

The “Little Falls Franciscans” offer a glimpse and just one example of 21st Century women religious meeting the challenge of change with grit and grace!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archives reveal untold stories of African American Women Religious

 

As I was deciding among the many ideas waiting to be explored during the waning days of African American history month I happened upon AOTUS (http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus), the blog posted by David Ferriero, Archivist of the U.S. In his recent Black History Month post Ferreiro wrote about a number of “hidden treasures”, archives that reveal the narrative of African Americans; included on his brief list was the following

The Oblate Sisters of Providence is the first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent. It was the work of a French-born Sulpician priest and four women, who were part of the Caribbean refugee colony which began arriving in Baltimore in the late 18th century. The order founded the oldest continuously operating school for black Catholic children in the United States and is still educating children in Baltimore. A grant from the NHPRC helped the Oblate Sisters process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection of approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850s to 2003, including this touching image of orphans under their care.

A quick search revealed that the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) – which coincidentally comes under the federal authority of the Archivist — had recently awarded a grant of $25,830 to the Oblate Sisters of Providence for an Historic Photograph Project. The goal of the project was “to process and make available the historical photograph and scrapbook collection” of the Sisters. The inventory had identified approximately 16,000 photographs dating from the 1850’s to 2003. A bit more probing disclosed a remarkable bit of the history of African Americans and of women religious in the U.S.

Though the Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first successful order of Roman Catholic Sisters of African descent, there was an earlier community. An earlier community, the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, later known as the Sisters of Loretto, formed in Kentucky in 1812 with the encouragement of a Belgian priest, Father Charles Nericnkx. When the priest died that early community dissolved.

A short time later, in 1829, Jacques Hector Nicholas Joubert de la Muraille, took a similar approach to proselytizing. Born in France, Joubert worked in Haiti before the Revolution; he escaped to the U.S., specifically to Baltimore, where he became a Sulpician priest. Assigned to serve French speaking Haitian Catholics at St. Mary’s chapel he grew concerned with his young parishioners’ problems learning to read the Catechism. His thoughts turned to founding a school – while his circle expanded to include two women of African descent who were already running a small school.

The two women who evinced an interest in consecrating their lives to God were soon joined by two other young women with a similar commitment. And thus was formed the nucleus of the nation’s first religious order for Black women. Eventually, the four novices took their vows and the first order of women religious of African descent was officially founded in 1829; the superior of the community was Elizabeth Lange, a native of Cuba.  On October 2, 1831 Pope Gregory XVI blessed the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

The Sisters opened a small school for Haitian children where French was the spoken language and the essential tool for learning the tenets of their Catholic faith. In time the school grew, eventually leading to the founding of The Baltimore School for Colored Girls in 1828. Renamed St. Frances Academy the school remains as the oldest continuously operating school for African American Catholic children in the United States. As the school continued to grow, the Sisters bought more property and built a new chapel.  This chapel was significant as the first chapel open to African American Catholics living in Baltimore.

Things went well until the early 1840’s when the community faced a number of problems, including the death of their original supporter, Father Joubert, in 1843. Because the primary work of the Joubert’s order, the Sulpicians, had always been the education of men, the community decided to no longer minister to the Oblates. The school languished, as did the Oblate community. The Oblates asked permission from the Bishop to beg on the streets to support their community. One of the original founders, Mother Theresa Duchemen, left the community to move to Michigan where she eventually helped found the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The times were difficult for the fledgling community. For some time, the Oblates worked at a church served by the Redemptorists where their attention shifted to serving the city’s growing German community. It was at this juncture that a second priest, Father Thaddeus Anwander, helped the community restore a degree of financial stabaility. Anwander eventually came to be known as the second founder of the Oblates.

The struggling community next came under the directorship of the Jesuits; for the first time they began missions outside of Baltimore, including missions in Philadelphia and New Orleans. Then, in 1871, the Sisters faced yet another change when the Josephite Fathers and Brothers assumed directorship. The mission of the Josephites was to administer to African American Catholics; in this era the Oblates expanded, adding additional schools and orphanages.

In the early 1900’s the Oblates, no longer under the directorship of the Josephites, grew and adjusted to changing needs. By the 1950 there were over 300 Oblate Sisters of Providence teaching and otherwise meeting the needs of African American children. They opened foreign missions, the first of which in Havana was followed by seven Cuban missions; all were closed in the early 1960’s with the regime of Fidel Castro.

Today the approximately 80 Oblate Sisters continue to operate their southwest Baltimore motherhouse known as Our Lady of Mount Providence. The site has housed several missions over the years including Mt. Providence Junior College (1963-1966), administrative offices, and the archives of the community. Today the Oblates serve missions in Baltimore, Miami, Buffalo, NY as well as cities in Costa Rica.

For much more information, including the photographic archives, visit the Archives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence Library, 701 Gun Road, Baltimore, MD 21227, 401-242 8500, osparchives@oblatesisters.com. https://www.facebook.com/Oblate.Sisters.of.Providence/photos_stream