CAMDEN — Mercy Sister Catherine C. Darcy remembers the day like it was yesterday.
She was a girl attending Mass at St. James Church in Red Bank, N.J. in the early 1960s. Father William Anderson turned to the congregation, coaxing responses to the Latin prayers. He reminded them that the bishops meeting in Rome during the Vatican Council were encouraging lay involvement in the sacred Mass, which for centuries had largely involved the priest reciting prayers with his back to the people.
“He got us to participate,” Sister Catherine recalled in a recent interview. “I’ll never forget that. It was a paradigm shift.”
That simple event transformed her life. At that point, a young Catherine became a Vatican II Catholic.
For the past two years, as vice chancellor for the Diocese of Camden, she has worked on implementing the Vatican II vision of her boss, Bishop Joseph A. Galante. She will move on in June after being elected as a councilor – part of the leadership team – for Mercy communities in the New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey.
She became interested in the Sisters of Mercy after attending schools where they taught, at St. James Parish School and Red Bank Catholic High School.
“They were good at what they did,” she recalled. “They were some of the finest teachers I ever had and they had a sense of caring beyond the subject matter.”
The young Catherine, the only daughter of a teacher and a procurement executive at Fort Monmouth (she has three brothers), was impressed by the camaraderie among the sisters. As they prepared dinner one Sunday afternoon, she heard their friendly banter while walking by their convent in Red Bank. She entered the convent in 1970 as a 20-year-old, a time of disruption in religious life, as many Sisters were in the process of leaving their communities. Despite the turbulence, “I knew that for me it was in the cards.” She proclaimed first vows eight years later.
As a Sister of Mercy, she has had a front-row look at how Vatican II has been implemented throughout the country. A canon lawyer, Sister Catherine has worked on tribunals in the dioceses of Trenton and Las Cruces, N.M.
Eight years in New Mexico — “my time in the desert,” she describes it — provided an education in church life. A diocese the size of Pennsylvania, it had only about a fifth of the Catholic population as Camden, most from Mexican backgrounds.
“We had little money, few resources,” she recalls, but the diocese, under the direction of Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, remained a vibrant one.
In Camden, her canon law expertise has been put to work on a number of issues, including the merging of diocesan parishes. She is a frequent presence at meetings that thrash out difficult issues.
“It’s been an exciting place to be,” Sister Catherine said of her stint in Camden. “You’ve seen lay leadership development that accompanied the merger process. That’s what is needed for the future.” She was also impressed with the diocesan Lay Ministry Formation as a vehicle to develop education for leadership, and will teach a course there next semester on the pastoral impact of canon law.
“She has proved to be an invaluable resource in the merger process,” noted Father David Klein, diocesan chancellor. Her expertise in canon law has been used to carefully craft documents for Vatican approval, while helping to navigate the organizational nuances involved in the parish mergers.
Her passion for the church vision of social justice, honed by years in the Southwest ministering with Latino immigrants, has also made an impact here.
“Sister Catherine has brought a passion for justice, grounded in the Scripture and Catholic social teaching to our diocese. She has a knack of bringing people together to pray over and discuss issues of justice and peace,” notes Larry DiPaul, director of Life and Justice Ministries.
Anna Summers, who works in the Chancery, says that, in her two years as vice chancellor in Camden, Sister Catherine became known for her simplicity. She lives in a studio apartment in Pennsauken, is likely to be the one handing out pamphlets before Mass, and is known around the Chancery office as the unofficial director of the oatmeal ministry, where she frequently cooks up a shared breakfast with the rest of the staff.
Summers noted that Sister’s concern for the underdog and social justice is hands on. For example, the Chancery parking lot has hosted a group of homeless people who use the carport for shelter.
“Sister Catherine made friends with these people. She always took the time to speak with them and when one of them went into a nursing home she made it a point to visit,” says Summers.