Written with Sister Mary Ewens, OP.
I felt the call to become a sister when I was in first grade. So did many of my classmates; we all loved our teacher, Sister Marie Charles. The other girls later changed their minds, but I didn’t. As I advanced from first grade through eighth I saw that the sisters were excellent teachers, had fun together, and led holy lives. I wanted that kind of life of dedication, with the support of good companions, for myself. Having an aunt in the congregation made it possible for me to see another side of the sisters’ lives when we visited her convent or when she brought sister-companions home. We learned that in their convents too, they were happy and had a lot of fun in the midst of their hard work.
My First Communion Day made a great impression on me, and began a relationship with Jesus which grew and deepened, as I received daily communion from that day on. That friendship gave me a confidence in His support amidst the challenges of growing up. My desire to give myself totally to Jesus, and my admiration for these sisters, came together when I joined the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin at age 19.
My first ministry was as a fourth-grade teacher in a changing neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Thirteen of my forty-eight students did not have English as their first language. Some were the children of embassy staffers, Italian, Brazilian and others; many came from Latin America. I was astonished when I learned that Black boys could not be altar boys in our parish (where the pastor was a Southern Gentleman,) and that a visiting Black priest could not say Mass in the parish church, but said it in our convent chapel for his parents, who lived nearby. We strategized about how to fill out forms telling how many Black children there were in each classroom when the pastor’s limit was four, but we took in all who came to us. Thus I was thrown early into the arena of the prophetic voice, and struggles to figure out what we should do.
Later I taught fifth grade, seventh and eighth in Minneapoplis. I loved being part of the parish community, teaching, overseeing the altar boys, and doing church work. There were many opportunities for creativity and trying out new ideas in the classroom. In seventh grade I taught American history and also music to three classes of fifty students each. (We laugh today to hear about demands for no more than 20 in a class!) I can’t believe it now, but when the pastor became a monsignor, in an all-school program, I directed 150 students in singing in three parts! We counted on the Spirit to make up for our failings; this gave us confidence to undertake daunting projects like that one.
I entered the community with two years of college, and got the rest of my credits one course at a time, in summers, on Saturdays, and in after-school classes while I was teaching full-time. I started a master’s program on the same plan. Then one day I had a quick lunch, grabbed my mail, and went outside on playground duty. I was looking over the mail and discovered a letter from the Mother General. She asked me to register for a doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota! What a surprise and shock!
I was sorry to leave my grade school days behind, but I loved study, and the chance to study full-time was a blessed privilege for me. Study is a major part of a Dominican vocation because we have to know the truth before we can share it with others. My graduate studies coincided with the years of Vatican II (1963-65.) We were asked to adapt our lives to contemporary needs, the signs of the times, and the charisms of our founders. In my classes in sociology of religion, social psychology, etc. I was exposed to classic studies of factors in organizations and society that paralleled situations in religious life. My novel classes showed me sister-characters in the writings of Henry James and William Dean Howells that intrigued me. “Role theory” gave me a way of looking at canon law decrees and The Holy Rule as ‘role definitions” for sisters.
A Ministry ABOUT Sisters
As I pondered a dissertation topic, I saw that I could study what role definitions for sisters HAD BEEN, so we could better understand what they SHOULD BE in the future, as we revised our constitutions. The roles sisters played I the novels were different from those they actually lived in their daily lives. It all pulled together into a dissertation on The Role of the Nun in Nineteenth-century America.
When it was finished, some general councils borrowed the volume and copied it, to help their response to the Council’s directives. Eventually the book was published, in a series called “The American Catholic Tradition.” It was a pioneering book that studied general trends rather than individual foundresses or congregations. I have recently published a new edition, with new pictures, index, and Afterword. It’s available in printed form from Amazon and also as an e-book.
I developed a passion for studying sisters’ history which I have pursued for about forty years now, in the midst of full-time university teaching and/or administration. It was usually only in summer that I could pursue my research. I turned my attention to Native American sisterhoods, and spent time on reservations in the Dakotas, and in Inuit villages in Alaska, conducting interviews and searching out materials. It’s a great satisfaction as a scholar to put together story that’s never been told in print; often a story of heroic women, ministering to the needy in the name of Christ, unknown outside their own villages.
When my “day ministry” took me to Italy, I discovered that one hundred convents had sheltered Jews during World War II, and set out to collect information to make known the stories of courageous women who risked their lives to save others. As of 2014, besides my major book, I have written chapters about sisters that appear in ten other books. I hope to bring them all together into one book in the future.
Ministry FOR Sisters
My ministry FOR sisters began in 1990, when I became the Director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, an organization which gives grants to assist sisters’ projects among the poor world-wide. In this ministry I was privileged to be able to handle over a thousand projects of sisters among the poor, and to offer funding to the great majority of them. I visited projects in the US, but also in Africa, Central and Latin America, and former Iron Curtain countries. While visiting these latter sisters, who were just coming up from the underground, I was able to tell them that help was available as they began again the ministries they had left forty years earlier. I was deeply touched by the stories of how these sisters had remained faithful to their vows through desperate times, in prison, in “convent concentration camps,” and elsewhere.
In 1995 I participated in the United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing, China. There I visited the projects of Chinese sisters and had an exhibit in the five languages of the UN headlined: CATHOLIC SISTERS; WOMEN HELPING WOMEN WORLD-WIDE. I learned about priorities for women that I would then implement in the policies of the Fund. One of them had to do with erasing the gap between rich and poor in access to computers and the Internet, new granting areas that I opened up for funding for sisters. Being able to collaborate with sisters working in the most remote areas, among the very poorest, was a great satisfaction for me.
Ministry WITH Sisters
My ministry WITH sisters developed in earnest when I became the Director of The Jubilee Community Centre, a residence for sisters from developing countries who were studying in Rome. There we provided a warm, supportive community for sisters from China, Vietnam, India, many countries in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. They needed help in adjusting to life in Italy, the regime of pontifical universities, the Italian language, medical problems, summer plans, financial needs, every aspect of life. We also interacted with the many international sisters’ motherhouses in Rome. The local Komen Foundation decided to offer free breast cancer screening and education for sisters in Rome, and chose us as their site. Again, what a privilege it was to welcome hundreds of sisters, from all over the world, into a sister-friendly environment for these scary procedures.
In my wildest imagination I could never have dreamed, when I entered the convent at age 19, and placed my life in the hands of the Lord, what marvelous experiences He would provide for me as I set about doing His work.
Sinsinawa Dominican Research Center
Whitefish Bay, WI