Our debt to the sisters for their many gifts



When my mother was alive, she liked to joke with my brother and me, priests that we were, about the obvious spirituality and commitment the sisters displayed. They seemed more devote, she said, and if truth be told, they were — and are.

Oh yes, there was the initial surprise she would register about the change in appearance and religious suddenly appearing in the hair salon. But she always knew that the loss of the habit was superficial at best. As Jesus said, what is in a person is so much more important than what appears on the outside.

And what have these women religious done in our country?

Well, they spent a century creating a hospital system from scratch and educating generations of Catholic children of every race and class on a shoestring.

Think at this point of St. Katherine Drexel, Mother Cabrini (now St. Frances Xavier Cabrini) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

And they accomplished all this while barely being paid for their efforts and, as one person recently described it, occupying “a decidedly second-class position on the Catholic totem pole.”

Yet, when invited by the Second Vatican Council to rediscover their roots, the sisters charged forth in service to the poor and marginalized, explored new ways of thinking about God, and reached out to people of other faiths.

All this while many pastors crumbled about the changes in the church, the loss of Latin and how younger priests were nothing more than the “New Breed.”

And what did women religious get as a reward for a lifetime of service?

In January, some church officials in Rome decided it was time to study the “quality of life” of U.S. women religious and in February announced a “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents about 95 percent of the country’s nearly 60,000 Sisters and nuns.

What irritated many women religious was a requirement that, in spite of vows, those interviewed had to take an oath of fidelity.

Nevertheless, the American sister handling communications for the project noted the response had been very positive. Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, said, “[Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Mother Mary Clare Millea], who heads the project, has already interviewed 50 superiors general in Rome and will soon have completed 77 more in the U.S. She will speak with more after she returns to Rome.”

The professionalism and integrity of the nation’s women religious is evidenced by our own religious community in Cape May. I often thank God for the presence of our sisters here in the parish:

Sister Kathleen Austin, SSJ, while overlooking the needs of her mother in the Towers, has added a needed dimension to the parish’s overall bookkeeping.

Sister St. Christopher Lyons, SSJ, semi-retired yet spends many hours helping out in our school.

Sister Nancy Butler, SSJ, works counseling and ministering to the people in the Towers. And at the same time, visiting the parish’s sick and assisting with funerals, Good Samaritans and bereavement duties. Her funeral booklets are always a nice touch.

Sister Kathleen Hart, SSJ, is a match for any mechanic, and together with Sister Ann Raymond Rafter, SSJ, the two spend their summertime hours caring for the Sisters’ Retreat House at Cape May Point.

“We are blessed,” says my puppy, Mollie Mary, spoiled as she is by the sisters who literally dote over her and provide such fine doggie-sitting services.

To our local sisters, and all those far and wide, allow me to extend a warm thank-you for the gift of yourselves in today’s ministry to God’s people.