For #NCSW2017 Rocky Pierson worked with Pa Ying Vang to create an audio documentary about mission. The documentary discusses the connection between women religious and the new mission being carried out in partnership with lay associates and volunteers. Since the structural changes of Vatican II, many religious communities have gone through changes that place women religious in their local, national, and international communities standing up for social justice causes. As the number of women US religious decreases their programs do not, and this is due to the combined efforts of women religious and the lay people who associate themselves with and work with them. In this documentary, Rocky and Pa Ying will point to sisters and religious communities who have had missions centered around social justice, the new missions that have been influenced by their past efforts, and how they are supporting these efforts into the future.
Sister Katherine McLaughlin, CSJ:
There aren’t very many nuns as such. The term nun canonically speaking refers to somebody who makes solemn vows, and that’s a different type of vows. Ours are simple vows. And, those are really canonical terms. Let’s say, our type of vows are sort of a step lower. (laughs)
A Catholic nun: a woman who lives in a monastery, usually cloistered or semi-cloistered. Catholic nuns profess the perpetual solemn vows, living the vows poverty, celibacy and obedience.
A Catholic sister: a woman who lives, ministers, and prays outside of a monastery. Often referred to as “active” or “apostolic.” Catholic sisters profess perpetual simple vows, living the vows, poverty, celibacy, and obedience.
Note: both Catholic nuns and Catholic sisters belong to the church life form of Religious Life, meaning both are women religious.
From SisterStory, I’m Rocky Pierson.
To answer the question, “what is it to be a woman religious?/ What do women religious do?” It helps to instead ask a few more direct questions:
What are the vows?
We take poverty, chastity, and obedience
What is prayer?
Being in touch with something that so much bigger and so much more than you are.
What is ministry?
They filled the gaps that they saw. People needed to learn? They started schools. People need to eat? We are going to make a soup kitchen. People need to be taken care of because they are sick? We are going to start a hospital.
Simple, basic needs that if we did not have them [sisters] are society wouldn’t have continued.
What are each of the vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience?
A lot of people had quite traditional understandings of the vows, and kind of legal interpretations of the vows. You can do this, and you can’t do that. For instance, for poverty, you can have property but you can’t use it. I mean, legally speaking. For instance, if your family left you some money it could be put into an account somewhere within the community. But, you wouldn’t be free to use it as an individual to go out and buy yourself a Cadillac or whatever or take a trip to Europe. Whatever the case may be. So, that way of viewing the vows was still there. The idea of the vows that many of us were trying to bring to the conversation was a much more scripture based and theologically based understanding of what the vows might be. So, poverty for me, and for many of us, when we talked about it it became a conversation about the use of things. You know, we don’t own things. When I first entered the community we never called anything “my.” You know, “my pencil,” “my shirt,” “my desk.” Everything was “our,” just to sort of underline the reality that we were in a common setting, and not owning things privately. But, as we started to think about poverty some of us who were thinking with a different type of theology and stuff, what we began to recognize is that . . . Well, first of all, just looking at poverty from a sociological point of view, it’s not a virtue. It’s not a virtue to be poor! Everybody should have enough. When we started looking at poverty, what it came down to was a proper attitude and a respect for everything, for all things. *break* From my perspective our vow of celibacy is not to try to lead a loveless life. It’s to try to lead a really big, loving life. The difference is that those of us who chose to make this kind of a vow, do it in a different way than how a lot of other people do it. A lot of other people fall in love by falling in love. Then they get married, then they have their kids and fall in love with their kids, and on and on it goes. Celibacy, or the vow of chastity as we call it, which is a bad term and should be done away with, it’s really a vow of celibacy. Celibacy is a vow of choosing to live in a common to live in a common group, in our case a group of women, without living in one exclusive relationship with one other person but living in a relationship with quite a few others. I think in some way the choice not to place oneself in an exclusive relationship with one other person for a lifetime and to give oneself to loving in other ways does stand as a sign. Now, obviously it isn’t going to be a sign for very much longer because we aren’t getting people coming, and I think one of the reasons is celibacy. *break* Obedience is about listening for what needs to be done. Listening in every sense of that term. Listening to the land. Listening to our children. Listening to young people. Listening to people who are culturally different from us. Listening to our church leaders, is part of it but it’s not the whole thing. Try to figure out “what can I do?” Ask, “what can I do to just make some kind of a little itty bitty difference in what needs to be done in the world?” And then, getting ready to do it and do it. And that’s obedience, it’s listening for the call.
What is prayer?
Prayer is about being somehow connected, being in touch, feeling yourself to be engulfed or in touch with something that’s so much bigger and so much more than you are. Ritual experience is not singular, it is plural by its very nature. And so, somehow I and all of these other people are connected with this presence, with this reality, which is always with us we don’t have to go looking for it. We don’t have to leap up and find it or leap out and find it, it’s here, it’s all around us everywhere.
So what is ministry? Simply, it is the work or vocation of a minister of religion.
“Ministry” is derived from the Greek word diakoneo, meaning to serve. In the New Testament, ministry is established as service to God and others in his name. As we’ve gone through the ages the term has taken on a vocational meaning. In this contemporary setting, ministry means to minister spiritual things as well as physical. Ministry shares the Gospel while including ministering to the physical, emotional, mental, vocational, and financial needs of others.
I just felt like being a member of the community does not rest on living under the same roof, it rests on some kind of way of relating and sharing of not only a life but even goals or intentions in what we are doing. We always have this things about ours is a community of the great love of God and the love of neighbor without distinction. And, that’s kind of how we try to live, the love of God and the love neighbor without distinction, and recognizing that sometime the love of God . . . the only way you can do that is in loving the neighbor.
Sister Anne Jude Van Lanen, CSA:
This has to do with a man who died along the Río Coco. I had travelled the river for about six weeks, and up and down the river I carried with me medications and supplies. But I never had enough. I always ran out.
I was on a return trip up the river along the Río Coco when night had came upon us. We never traveled the river at night, it was too dangerous. We stopped in this village and I set up my hammock and was bedded down for the night when I heard this little voice at the door saying, ‘Madriki, Madriki bal,’ Sister, Sister come, and I got up and got my flashlight and I said, ‘Dia plikisma?’ What do you want? And she said ‘Bal, bal, Padriki prurisa.’ Will you please come, my father is dying.
So I put on my boots and my helmet and grabbed my flashlight and followed her through the jungle to her little hut and all the way I’m going, I kept saying to myself, but I have nothing I can give him, I have nothing. I had no medicines, I had no supplies…But I went, and I followed her.
When I got to the hut, there were people surrounding it and her mother came down the steps of the hut that was bamboo hut up on stilts and I said, ‘I’m so sorry, I have nothing I can give you. Would you like me to come in and pray with him?’ and she said, ‘Ao, please come.’ So I followed her and crawled up and it was the middle of the night and they just had a little crude oil burning wick that was their only light, so I knelt on the floor where he was lying. I knelt at his side and I said, ‘I’m so sorry, I have nothing I can give you, but I will pray with you if you want.’ And he said, ‘Ao, please come.’ So I said a prayer in their native tongue and when I finished, I said once more, “I am so sorry, I have nothing I can give you,” and he said, “Madriki, Trabil apu, man balram.” He said, ‘Don’t worry. You came.
This is the story of Sr Anne Jude Van Lanen, CSA.
Sr Anne Jude:
The mission of the Sisters of Saint Agnes is to reach out to those whose faith, life, or dignity is threatened in any way. And so we've become involved over the years. Teaching is...has been a huge component of our community…and quickly upon the heels of the field of education came nursing because our foundress, Mother Agnes, was approached early on. In 1895, Saint Agnes Hospital is established. Then, because teaching was important, they set up the School of Nursing. Following on the heels of that, was Marian College, now Marian University. So the field of education is very important to us. Both in elementary, high school, university level, and also in the field of nursing and other health related fields.
Sr Kathie, my cohost of Interpreting Sisterhood, has told me that her work and ministry is how she makes love in the world. And, to truly do that you must love without distinction. I see this again and again in the stories I share at SisterStory.
You see this in St Anne Jude’s story as well as that of Sr Rose Tilleman, CSJ.
I am Pa Ying Vang.
On October 17, 1985 Peace House Community opened it’s doors in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Peace House Community was founded by Sr Rose Tillemans, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Sr Rose was seeking ministry that would nourish and heal the spirits of the people living in the south Minneapolis neighborhoods. Through Peace House she was able to carry out that ministry. A ministry of listening to the unheard, and providing a “home” for those without. Today Peace House Community is run by staff and volunteers who see 60 to 80 people a day.
Many of these remarkable and historical ministries have seen a change over the years. Programs, which used to be completely dependant of women religious running and operating them now include lay people as staff and volunteers.
My name is Bridget Barrett. Growing up I went to St. Croix Catholic and had nuns as teacher. So, I was just picturing like full habit and kind of like a younger person even though I knew she would be older, but that’s what I had in my head.
So, my name is Sarah Larsen. I had met sisters before, but they were CSJs and I wasn’t sure how Dominican Sisters would be different from Sisters of St. Joseph. So, and I certainly had no idea about how it would be different with a 97 year old sister.
Research done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in 2014 estimates that by 2043, there will be as few as 1,000 religious sisters in the United States. Over the years there has been a 72% drop in the number of Catholic Sisters in the US. The highest number of women religious in the states was in 1965 with 181,421 sisters.
According to a 2011 Catholic World Report article, the ten largest women religious groups in the world are:
Salesian Sisters (Daughters of Mary Help of Christians): United States; 14,665 members
Order of Discalced Carmelites: Italy; 9,857 members
Claretian Missionary Sisters: United States; 7,463 members
Franciscan Missionaries of Mary: India; 7,050 members
Franciscan Clarist Congregation: India; 6,984 members
Congregation of the Mother of Carmel: India; 6,428 members
Missionaries of Charity: India; 5,046 members
Sisters of Charity of Saints Bartolomea Capitanio and Vincenza Gerosa: Italy; 4,967 members
Benedictine nuns: Italy; 4,613 members
Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: India; 4,583 members
Of these communities, many have seen a decline in the number of professed women religious. As a result of this decline many communities in the United States have decided to merge with surrounding communities.
Of all the religious communities in the US the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas is the largest with roughly 3,400 vowed women religious. The Sisters of Mercy was reorganized when 9 provinces and 16 congregations came together in 1991.
As the CARA reports states, “Other larger institutes have reorganized internally, or are in the process of reorganizing, by reshaping their province jurisdictions. In some cases, this entails returning to an organizational model once employed in their earlier history. Such religious institutes deal with decline in members internally, rather than through merger with another religious institute. In the past, a rapidly growing institute would have responded to increased numbers by creating new provinces in order to better administer their religious community. Today, faced with a corresponding rapid decline, such an institute might consolidate provinces to form fewer, larger provinces and do away with replicated administrative offices across the country. By responding in this internal manner, a religious institute might avoid the challenges of merging with another institute that may not share its charism and traditions.”
I’m Ali Thames. I thought she was a very amiable and approachable person. My first impression was this is a woman who is comfortable in herself and who she is. She’s talented, she’s intelligent just from my first conversation with her.
“It is not that communities have vanished, but simply that they are to be found under new designations.”
When you think of the power of religious women over our history. . . It's pretty impactful of all the things that they've done as far as educating people and caring for their health care throughout the history of our United States. We wouldn't be where we were if we didn't have our sisters. And all these Catholic hospitals and all these Catholic schools that have educated those people that might not have had an education had it not been for our sisters.
As I was writing this episode and listening to all of the previous episodes, I realized how sisters have given me hope in life and how they give everyone hope.
So, In this episode Maakwe talks about how even in awful circumstances when it doesn’t seem like one group of people can fix a problem, one group of people, sisters, can at least provide hope through their continued efforts. I think that’s important and worth noting, and I think it’s also important to note just how inspirational these stories are. You know, you and I have always approached the podcast we produce from this idea that, whether you are discerning or even catholic or not, these stories are at least accounts of incredible love, bravery, and kindness, which anyone can relate to or find inspiration in.
As redundant as it sounds, sharing the stories of women religious is an essential part of history. Women religious are fearless, they will go to the darkest places on earth in order to bring love, hope, and peace to the poor. Their stories are the stories of the human race, and if we don’t cover their stories we will be doing a disservice to humanity and to our history as a human race.
Yeah, I agree. And, we talk about this a lot, but it’s so true and I think it’s worth saying over and over again. It doesn’t stop being true. You know, I do this a lot and I do it because she just talks about it so well. I reference a conversation with Alicia Beyer where I recorded her talking with me about storytelling and it’s value for the individual talked about and honoring her in doing that, for the individual listener who is inspired and learns from it, and the community who is positively impacted by the inspired individuals that go out and carry on that legacy. It’s a cycle of passing on those lessons and inspirations, and you have to really listen to get that.
That’s all of the questions I have for you. Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about or prompted you to say that you would like to throw out there.
I guess just another thing about storytelling is . . . storytelling is really only useful if you’re willing to not just hear what people are saying but listen to what people are saying. I think it’s really really easy to look like you are listening to someone and taking it in and absorbing it, but so often you’re not. And, if you aren’t willing to absorb what they are saying and just consider it, you don’t have to agree but you need to just consider it, that just creates so much tension and so much discourse. And, what is the word? It’s a musical term for when you play two notes and they sound awful together.
Oh, they don’t harmonize?
Yeah! You can’t have harmony if you aren’t willing to even consider what somebody has to say. But, when you consider that and you hear what someone has to say it humanizes people, and that’s something that is so important about storytelling. It humanizes a group of people that you may not know.
You know, their ministries continue to be vital and deeply needed and creative.
Lay associates: women and men who formally associate themselves with a religious community’s mission and spirituality.
Note: You may also see this term used interchangeable with lay affiliates.
The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes, Sr Anne Jude Van Lanen’s community, have associates. These people apply, discern, and commit to the community, committing to engaging in ministry with the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes sisters. Currently there are approximately 150 associates in the United States, joined by 30 in Nicaragua. These associates live the congregation's mission and charism in their daily lives.
The CSJs also have associates, they call them consociates. Consociates commit to living the Sisters of St. Joseph mission in their daily lives and responsibilities.
What does it mean to live the mission of a religious community in your daily life? For Cheryl Maloney, who recently celebrated 20 years as a Consociate, it means volunteering, being a donor, consultant and committee member in the various CSJ programs. One such program being Sarah’s…an Oasis for Women, where she serves on the Advisory Council and is now the chair. She also has been a member of the Justice Commission, the Legislative Advocacy Partners Working Group, and the Homophobia and Heterosexism Working Group.
There are so many ways to get involved. The Sisters of St. Joseph also have the St. Joseph Worker Program. The CSJs invite women 21-30 to live in community for an 11-month program, living a life dedicated to service and spiritual growth. The mission is to empower women committed to social change to respond to the needs of the times.
And, for people who find value in their mission, but don’t have the opportunity to make these kinds of commitments the Sisters of St. Joseph, like so many other communities, offer volunteer opportunities.
There is a large range of volunteer opportunities and the type of assistance that is needed. The Sisters of St. Joseph run The Clothes Closet a place where volunteers can work to help provide clothes and household items for those in need in Minneapolis. Often times students of Learning in Style will get their necessities through the clothes closet. At Learning in Style volunteers can assist teachers in building literacy and citizen skills for immigrants new to the Twin Cities.
Because I met a sister . . .
Because I met a sister my passion for service is transformed.
Sister Elsa Garcia, CDP:
The role of women religious will continue as it always was before, to do God’s will in the charism that God is trying to give the world through that community. So, in the past it could appear that we’re a workforce for the Church, being the teachers, being the nurses. Well, that was what was needed. What is needed now and what is needed in the future? Where is God needed? That is where the women religious will be. And, I think that role we will hold on to until we don’t exist. And, I think God will be very faithful to us because he wants to join us in this endeavor of helping people.
So what does this mean for the future of religious communities in the United States? Some are beginning to wonder if the decline in women religious could eventually mean communities that fully integrate vowed and lay members. The answer to this is unknown, and is left to the religious communities to discuss and decide. But, you are seeing more and more ministry work and catholic programs functioning through the combined efforts of women religious and lay community members joined together by their shared values and desires to do justice work.
Sister Jill Underdahl, CSJ:
You know, I think we are becoming more globally conscious and building relationships with each other. And, in a sense recognising that there are Sisters of St. Joseph in over 50 countries of the world. Therefore, we have a nongovernmental organization (ngo) at the United Nations. And, through technologies and travel we have the ability to go to other countries, as I’ve gone to Peru to live and to learn from sister who are living in different realities. And, with that I think there is an opportunity that women religious have to become aware of our collective power in a sense. And, in that to think about the choices that we make and what the impact of those choices can be. And also, what the impact of our voices can be, or our witness can be in the world.
Sister Laverne Hudalla, OSB:
I think the role of women religious is going to continue as it has been. We are going to continue to be there with the people and trying to assist wherever the can. Be it food kitchens or orphanages or women who are troubled through counseling and setting up shelters for them, and that’s what we’ve done here on our property.
No matter the future of sisters in the US, they continue make their mark everyday, and they pass on that mission to everyone they meet. They work hard, they speak their mind, they stand up in the face of injustice, they lead to influence.
Sister Loretto Gunn, CSJ:
I think the role of women religious . . . We say that we are ecclesial women and we are church women. And, I think that’s very true. But, I like the definition that women religious are really the conscious of the Church. So, I don’t see myself as a women religious in the thick of the Church’s battles, I see myself as a woman religious on the edge and constantly pulling the Church. I think if we want the Church to become all the Church is meant to be then I think it’s the role of women religious to pull them there. To challenge the Church. To question the Church, never to be content with the status quo, because the status quo is death. You don’t need energy to live the status quo. You don’t need energy to maintain a system. But, you need passion and energy to always reframe the system, reimagine the system, challenge the system, to call it to the more so it becomes truly the Church that Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate, meant for us to be.
Celebrating National Catholic Sisters Week, this has been a SisterStory production.