I am fond of reminding my students that there are only two ways we can really know anything. One is our own experience and the other is another’s testimony. I’ve never been to China, but I know others who have. A math solution can be memorized from a textbook or worked out on one’s own. And so it goes.
Lately I’ve been thinking of my experience of nuns and sisters. In his ground-breaking memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” Richard Rodriguez describes his grammar school teachers, the Sisters of Mercy, as “wonderful women, determined, brave and unsentimental” who held his success as their chief desire and provided him with “the assurance that my life, my every action and thought, was important.”
As a child, I remember long drives with my mother as a pre-schooler in the summer to visit Sister Grace Lawrence, CSJP and sip lemonade in what I recall as a flower-strewn grotto in Vineland.
Things changed dramatically when I arrived at St. Mary’s School in the first grade and fell under the influence of the Sisters of St. Dominic. I recall clearly my first day of school and Sister Louis Bertrand’s words, “Today I will teach you God’s telephone number, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son….’” I’m certain you can dial the rest on your own.
Sister Agnes de Lourdes taught my father when he arrived at St. Mary’s in 1923 and she taught me in 1966-67. Sister Mary Alice taught me, along with my brothers and sister, and was present at my mother’s bedside, praying the rosary when she passed away in 1981.
Sister Peggy Devlin (then Sister John Maureen) taught me religion as a freshman at Gloucester Catholic and had us memorize every book in the Bible; she recently returned to provide the faculty there with a day of recollection focused on deepening and sharing our Catholic mission and identity. In union with my parents, the Sisters of St. Dominic shaped the best parts of my character.
I have long marveled at my dear friend, Sister Ellen Convey, IHM’s patience and resilience as principal of Gesu School in North Philadelphia for the past 22 years. In his book, “A Model School: How Philadelphia’s Gesu School is Remaking Inner-City Education,” Jerrold K. Footlick notes that “some children don’t leave school until 6 in the evening, which is about the time that Sister Ellen leaves. She will have been there since 6:30 that morning.” In her humility, she lauds the IHMs who have served beside her over the years, then took a turn of duty at the Fey y Alegria schools in Peru.
A few blocks from Gesu, Sister Mary Scullion, RSM started Project H.O.M.E in the bitter winter of 1988-89 by inviting the homeless off the street and into temporary housing. Today it is recognized as a national model of comprehensive, effective services for the poorest among us. And just down the street, Notre Dame Sister Mimi Bodell has run a house of prayer for all who seek peace and respite in the midst of North Philly’s never-ending swirl.
Sister Linda Stilling, SSND and Sister Helen Cole, SSJ taught me how to recognize the presence and goodness of God in the lives of the people of Camden.
University professors Sister Janice Farnham, RJM and Sister Meg Guider, OSF were important mentors to me in graduate study and remain exemplars of committed scholarship in the service of faith.
Whatever your age, you’re likely to have been shaped by the work of women religious in some way. It is impossible to contemplate the current success of American Catholics without crediting the overwhelming contribution of religious communities of women. The largest private school, social service, and health care systems in the nation, were and in many cases still are the work of countless, usually anonymous women religious. From the establishment of women’s religious communities in pre-revolutionary America until the present-day, countless women have left everything behind to devote themselves to the service of God and neighbor.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of the God who “hews mountain and continent…veins violets and tall trees makes more and more.” The nuns and sisters shaped a continent, cared for a variety of gardens and many a tall tree. The mountains were traversed, interiorly and exteriorly. They still are.
Sister Gertrude Mary taught at Gloucester Catholic High School from 1967 until 2009. When asked recently if she had any message for us back at school, she replied, “Tell everyone I am thinking of them and praying for them.” Forty-five years on, she thinks of, and prays for those she served, and still seeks to serve, every day. She’s still shaping a world, using the tools at her disposal. No major leaguer or world record holder in any sport has ever had a more impressive streak.
At the heart of any healthy spirituality is gratitude. As I reflect in ways small and large on my experience of nuns and sisters, “thank you” seems hardly adequate and entirely appropriate. And, in my experience, they never even asked for that. To give, without counting the cost, is perhaps the most courageous example of faith I’ve known. Thank you, sister. Thank you.
Ed Beckett is a vice principal at Gloucester Catholic High School, Gloucester City.