Usually called nuns, women religious were once a familiar presence in American life, running schools and hospitals, helping the poor and generally responding to the needs of the downtrodden and the hurting. Though their numbers have declined, there are still women today who are willing to forgo marriage, the pursuit of wealth and the temptations of a consumer society, to dedicate themselves to a life of service and prayer. According to Sister Janet Abbacchi, who heads the office for pastoral ministry at the Archdiocese of San Antonio, there are currently 750 women religious in the archdiocese, divided among 55 separate orders.
Each order is governed by its own constitution, but, generally speaking, orders fall into two basic categories: apostolic and contemplative. “The apostolic nuns minister to God’s people wherever they are and share the Gospel message with them,” explains Sister Abbacchi. “The monastic sisters pray for us and the church and minister within the walls of their monasteries.”
To qualify for the religious life — also called consecrated life — a woman must be single, Catholic and willing to undergo several years of training and living in the religious community as a postulant and later a novice before professing her vows. These are still the same as they have been for centuries: poverty, celibacy and obedience.
Below are stories of several brave women who embody what it means to be a nun today. By and large, they are educated, in tune with the contemporary world and generous.
SIXTY YEARS OF FAITHFUL SERVICE
On June 4th of this year, Sister Lucy Collins celebrated her 60th jubilee as a nun together with seven other women religious who originally professed their vows in 1948. All eight had come from Ireland a year before. Sister Collins was only 16 years old “Actually, we were 10 postulants from Ireland, but one left in 1959, and another one died. So there are eight of us left,” she explains just a few days after the big celebration, which she describes as the most significant event of her life. “It was an absolutely beautiful experience. The eight of us have a special bond. We have gone through the ups and downs of religious life and the ups and downs of everything else, and that bond has lasted through it all.”
In thanking her congregation and friends at the celebration, she spoke on behalf of the jubilarians, stating, among others things, that “we tried to give what we could, but we received more than we ever gave.” Then she quoted Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life twice, ending with “Let us, then, be up and doing/ With a heart for any fate/ Still achieving, still pursuing/ Learn to labor and to wait.”
She says, “I chose those verses because I feel that we (the jubilarians) have a lot more work left to do. We wait for the prompting of the Spirit. We can still labor.” After spending some time with her, we have no doubt that she can and will continue to labor and wait for the prompting of the Spirit. Tall and thin, with a no-nonsense kind of manner, at 78 she still projects an image of authority cultivated over decades of teaching and running a school. It’s easy to visualize children being in awe of her.
Born in the small town of Athenry in County Galway, Lucy was one of 12 children eight of whom were girls. Six of them became nuns, including the two eldest, who were already in the United States as Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate at the time when young Lucy was finishing high school. She hardly knew her elder siblings, however, because they had left when she was barely a toddler. Still, when the order sent a letter to her mother asking “if she had any more girls for the convent,” Lucy saw it as an answer to her prayers. Pretty soon, she too was sailing to America, and specifically San Antonio, where the order had its headquarters.
Once here, Sister Collins eventually earned a degree in history from St. Mary’s and later a master’s in educational administration from OLLU. But what she really wanted to do was teach math. “I took math courses here and there until I got myself together on it,” she says. What followed were decades of teaching and 12 years of working as the principal of the St. Mary of Carmel School in Dallas. In 1993 she was reassigned to administer the motherhouse here in San Antonio, a duty she performed for six years. Then she returned to teaching math for a while, but the satisfaction was no longer there. Being in the classroom became a chore. It was time to retire.
She now serves on the board of Habitat for Humanity, explores arts and crafts, reads a great deal and stands ready to help whenever other sisters need support with their social justice work. Some of her former students keep in touch, calling her or visiting to share news of their lives. Many were poor kids whom she helped get into high school or college, while others had to be rescued when they got into trouble.
“Some of my students graduated from Harvard, others went behind bars, and I had to get them out of there,” she says with a wry smile. “I would tell them,’If you find yourself back in there, don’t call me.’ They remember these things. I have always been an advocate for the poor.” Devoted as she was to teaching, however, she says she would probably be fired right away in today’s schools. The lack of discipline and the limitations imposed on teachers would not agree with her. “I was clearly in charge when I walked into my classroom, and I was in charge when I walked out,” she says.
Having spent her life surrounded by children, did she ever regret not having her own? No, she replies with no hesitation, she never missed being married or having kids. “I think it would be too much trouble,” she says in her forthright way. “I visit my nieces and nephews who have children; all that work, all the stuff they have to deal with … I couldn’t do that. I have had strong relationships with people, nevertheless, friendships with other sisters, with some of my students when they got older, some of their parents. Now I have friends through the Habitat for Humanity…”
A world traveler, who visited Australia twice, went to Zambia to see the grave of one of her birth sisters, and made two pilgrimages to Lourdes (France), Sister Collins intends to return to Lourdes one more time this November to thank “the Blessed Mother” for answering her prayers on previous occasions.
She realizes, of course, that she could have prayed anywhere, but acknowledges, “There’s just something over there about the presence of the Blessed Mother … ” Not one to look for special signs or appearances, however, she judges the rightfulness of her prayers by the results: “I am very practical. The first time (at Lourdes) I prayed about a kitchen project we had undertaken at the school. I prayed at that grotto that everything would go well. Later I felt that my prayer was granted. I couldn’t have done it without the help (from above).”
On the second visit she asked the Virgin Mary to help her find a good eighth-grade teacher for the school. Many had been interviewed without success. After she returned to Dallas, “A great teacher appeared, and we had her for 13 years.”
Because Sister Collins strikes us as a woman who could have done anything she set her mind to, we dare to ask about her thoughts on the issue of women priests. Though allowed in other denominations, women in the priesthood are barred in Catholicism. “I don’t give it a thought,” she says at first, but soon adds a thought or two: “Christ was a role model for both men and women, so it should be that way in society, too. I don’t believe it makes a difference who celebrates Mass, a man or a woman, as long as their purpose is the same.”
And we should mention that in quoting Longfellow in her jubilee address, Sister Collins changed the poet’s line “Lives of great men all remind us” to “Lives of great (ones) all remind us.”
There is nothing about Sister Dorothy Ettling’s appearance that announces to the world that she is a religious. If anything, with her short gray hair and simple but tasteful clothing, she looks pretty much like the professor that she is. Around her neck is a large heart pendant, not a cross. But people guess that she is a nun anyway, she says.
I am not sure that I would have guessed had I met her by chance, but no guessing is necessary to quickly fathom that she is a woman engaged with the world whose faith guides her to explore new ways to help her fellow men and women, especially women.
A member of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and a professor at the University of the Incarnate Word, Sister Ettling is also the founder of Women’s Global Connection (WGC), an organization devoted to the promotion of learning and leadership skills among women, locally and globally. In describing its vision, the WGC Web site states, “As cultural shapers, women can play a key role in creating a more just global community that honors diversity, cooperation, mutuality and the inherent right of all beings to fullness of life.”
In practice, the nonprofit organization has two kinds of programs. By providing an online discussion forum, it helps women from around the world share knowledge and strategies for community improvement. And by connecting with women in poor countries — so far mostly in Zambia and Tanzania — it provides hands-on assistance and support.
Evidence of WGC’s activities stands in plain view in the sister’s UIW office. A corner is stacked high with teaching materials used to train preschool teachers in Mongu, Zambia, and there are also photos of the Zambian teachers and their charges. Zambia was one of the chosen countries to work in because Sister Ettling’s order already had an outpost there and also because of the government’s enlightened attitude.
“The Zambian government has recognized the importance of early childhood education and has a policy on it but no resources,” explains Sister Ettling. “That’s where we come in. We initially trained 30 teachers who in turn trained 85 others, and now another group of 30 has started the training. And we continue to mentor them online. Studies have shown how important early education is, before regular school starts. Zambia has about one million orphans. These teachers work with them and other vulnerable children.”
A similar program has also supported women both in Zambia and Tanzania in their efforts to improve their economic and health conditions, and a Tanzanian girls’ high school has benefited as well. Over 100 volunteers from the San Antonio area have supported these efforts, and a good many have traveled in person to Africa on the so-called “immersion trips” to work with different African groups. After explaining all of this, Sister Ettling pauses for a few seconds before adding, “This is the story of my vocation. This is why we become sisters. Yes, we do service, but part of the reason we choose this (religious) life is to be a bridge, to help people see the larger reality of the world and help us understand our place in it.”
These global concerns were hardly on her mind, however, when she joined the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word back in 1958 right out of high school. While many nuns come from large Catholic families, young Dorothy was an only child of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father and grew up going to both churches. From an early age she was attracted to religious life because “sisters devote their life to service to others but also have the opportunity to grow spiritually. All my life, I used to steal away to spend time in church. I understood God better in prayer than in doctrine.”
Thanks to her upbringing, Sister Ettling has always been aware of people of other faiths. A telling anecdote from her childhood illustrates that. “In first grade, on a Monday morning the first day, our teacher (a nun) asked how many of us went to another church,” she recalls. “I raised my hand.’Oh, you can’t do that. Those people will go to hell,’ she said. Even at 5 years of age I knew she was wrong. All my life I learned from a lot of traditions. I’ve studied other religions. This has been a great gift that my parents gave me.”
Once she entered the convent, her life changed dramatically. Back then, traditional habits were the norm, and convent life was fairly strict. The community’s elders made all the decisions regarding members’ education, work assignments and future. One was expected to be obedient. During the years of formation, she questioned her choice more than once but ultimately realized that her deepest intuition was telling her that the religious life was indeed her calling. With interruptions for a variety of service assignments, Sister Ettling eventually received both a B.A. in sociology and a master’s in social work. Much later, when she became her own decision maker, she also added another master’s and a Ph.D. in transpersonal psychology.
A big change in congregational life occurred in the mid-1970s when her order, the largest group of women religious in Texas, undertook a renewal program to redefine its role in society. The push was toward moving into areas of ministry beyond the traditional institutions such as schools and hospitals in order to respond to contemporary needs.
This inaugurated a stressful fouryear period of change that found Sister Ettling on the forefront as one of the leaders helping members through the transition. “There was upheaval everywhere. Some of our friends left at that time. I went through many crises, too, but I kept coming back to’yes, this is still meaningful to me,'” she says. After that, she spent 12 years as a member of the community’s general council, its governing body.
It’s no wonder that today she teaches in the Ph.D. program in organizational leadership. In the last several
years, awards and recognition have come her way both from the college and the community at large. In 2007, the San Antonio Women’s Chamber of Commerce honored her with its Voice and Vision Award. Now 68, she’s come a long way from the girl she was when she first arrived from St. Louis to enter the convent. In fact, she no longer lives in a convent. Instead she shares a regular house with just one other nun, WGC’s co-director, Sister Neomi Hayes. The money they earn is pooled with the earnings of other members to pay everyone’s expenses, though each woman receives a small stipend for her personal needs.
Following our conversation, Sister Ettling leads me on a walk around campus to show me the places where she likes to retreat for solitude and contemplation. We stop on the bridge over the nascent San Antonio River and later walk to look at the mysterious Blue Hole where the river emerges from the ground. As with many people, nature helps her connect with God. It’s not a fuzzy feeling of love though; rather it’s a sense of oneness, she emphasizes, the same sense of oneness that is at the heart of her global efforts. “We are all interconnected,” she says again as we are wrapping up our visit. Indeed we are, but perhaps we need people like Sister Ettling to keep reminding us of that.
A NEW BEGINNING IN MID-LIFE
Like Sister Ettling, most women used to enter religious life at a young age, frequently in their late teens. But that’s no longer uniformly true. These days, many novices are in their 30s, 40s or 50s. Sister Janie Mendoza Jeffress is one of them.
Janie was 44 when she had an experience that changed her life. On May 5, 2002, right after she had attended Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Brazoria, she re-entered the church to have a holy picture blessed by the priest. Suddenly she found herself overcome by a burning desire to serve God. “I became very emotional,” she recalls, “my whole body seemed to be on fire.” That very same day, she visited a nearby Dominican convent, eager to talk to an experienced religious. Up to that point she hadn’t even been a regular churchgoer.
But the future nun had a big obstacle to overcome. She was a divorced woman with two grown daughters and grandkids. Traditionally, only never married or widowed women have been allowed into religious orders. To qualify, Janie would have to have her marriage annulled by the Catholic Church. In addition, her older daughter became quite upset upon hearing about her mother’s decision. “She was afraid that I was going to vanish from her life,” says Janie.
As time went on, that desire to serve grew stronger and stronger. She attended a “life awareness retreat” in Houston designed to answer questions of men and women considering religious life. There she met a Benedictine nun who became her spiritual mentor and later started visiting a number of different religious communities. With the help of her priest she had already submitted her annulment request, and miraculously, the approval came through in only eight months. The marriage had not been a happy one, and there were grounds for annulment, she explains. Her husband refused to have more children, and there were abuse issues, too. Everything seemed to be falling into place except that the orders she was approaching kept rejecting her either because she was too old or because she was a divorcee.
“I was getting very discouraged,” admits Sister Jeffress. “Eventually Sister Bernice (her mentor) suggested I attend a’vocation retreat’ in San Antonio, here at the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate motherhouse. You would be closer to your family, she said. I came and I fell in love with the sisters here. Sister Mary Fagan, who spoke to us during the retreat, said exactly what I needed to hear. Her words went straight to my heart. She reassured me that I wasn’t abandoning my family by entering a convent, which was something I was still conflicted about. I felt so comfortable here.”
Unlike some others, the Holy Spirit Sisters were welcoming. Following a second visit, during which she had the opportunity to share the life of the congregation, she made her decision to join. Then it was a matter of how long it would take her to settle her worldly affairs. A long-time employee of Child Protective Services in the greater Houston area, Janie continued working for nearly two more years to pay off debts and dispose of her material goods. During that period she was considered an “affiliate” of the order. “It was kind of scary, but I was also excited about the new life God was calling me to,” she says. “It was going to be a new lifestyle. I was used to being independent, having my own money, my own car, and now I was going to become dependent. I think the hardest part was giving up the car.”
When we visited with her at the imposing old Holy Spirit motherhouse south of downtown (which the sisters will soon have to sell), Sister Jeffress was only about a month away from officially professing her vows. She spent the last couple of years experiencing both aspects of her new life, apostolic service and immersion in study and convent life. Though she has worked visiting sick people in Dallas, teaching English to immigrants in San Benito and building Habitat for Humanity houses for indigenous people in Mexico, her preferred ministry is working with prisoners.
“I visit both men and women. A lot of them are so alone,” she says, her voice full of sincere compassion. “Many are discovering God for the first time. They want to talk and have somebody listen to them. Some cry. I try to assure them that God loves them. Last Friday, they all wanted to discuss The Purpose-Driven Life. The author of the book had donated a bunch of copies to the jails, and they were all reading it. Sometimes I am drained when I leave, but they have also given me a lot of strength.”
In the future, she would also like to serve as hospital chaplain at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital. The thought that she won’t be able to spend as much time as before with her daughters and grand children still bothers her sometimes, but a talk with Jesus puts her right back on track. Her family, of course, was going to be present at her profession ceremony. Even after all that preparation, these will not be her final or “perpetual” vows. Theoretically, she could still change her mind in the next five or six years before she has to cross the threshold of permanent commitment. For now, she is happy where she is: “I am not by myself anymore. It’s we, God and me.”
A LIFE OF CONTEMPLATION
We may think of cloisters as solitary old buildings in the woods, but the Discalced Carmelite Nuns’ monastery is located just off Culebra Road, right across from Southwest Research Institute. Still, by the time you reach the top of the long, ascending drive leading up to it, the city seems miles away. A sense of peace comes over you even before you set foot inside.
The 11 nuns who live here belong to a contemplative order, meaning they seldom venture into the outside world, and, unlike their apostolic sisters, do not engage in social work. A great deal of their time is spent in prayer, readings and reflection.
I am received by 60-year-old Sister Rosemarie Cameron, a kind and articulate religious, who, speaking through a closed turnstile, invites me to open the door on my left and make myself comfortable in the visitors’ parlor. She enters from the other side of the room, the side that opens up to the sisters’ quarters of the residence, where visitors are not allowed. We sit down to talk with a wrought iron grate between us. It’s all a bit medieval but somehow charming as well.
“These grilles and walls are not here to keep others out,” says the sister as if reading my thoughts. “They are here to indicate that we have a limited exposure to the world. They are here to remind us of the prayer life that we have promised to keep.” Sister Cameron has been part of this congregation for over 40 years. The oldest of 13 children, she grew up in a devout Catholic family that settled in San Antonio — her father’s hometown — when he retired from the military. Her Austrian-born mother still lives here. As a military brat moving around with her family, young Rosemarie saw a lot of poverty and suffering, both in the United States and abroad. Her own family was devastated when two of her brothers died in childhood. For a young girl these were heartbreaking experiences.
In her teen years, Rosemarie fantasized about becoming an airline stewardess so she could travel the world, dispensing help to the needy and the lonely. It didn’t take her long, however, to realize “that it takes a lot more than that.” Still, the desire to devote her life to the alleviation of suffering was burning in her young heart. That’s when she first considered the religious life.
“When I first learned about the contemplative orders, I thought it would be a rather selfish way to live, just me and God and my little community,” she says with a chuckle. “But I eventually realized that in the face of so much suffering, of so many people who feel unloved and alone, the only thing I could find that could comfort all of them was the love of God. There was such a huge amount of suffering in the world that only God could present the answers. Only He had hands big enough and could reach far enough to take care of all the pain.”
That’s when she began to understand the value of nearly constant prayer. A priest explained to her that the grace emanating from a life of prayer reaches all over the world. As a part of the body of Christ, she and her fellow sisters intercede with God not for themselves but for the whole of humanity. “We are like beggars who stand before God for humanity,” is the way she puts it. This is work she never tires of.
The day starts early in the monastery. The wake-up bell rings at 5 a.m., and at 5:30 the congregation gathers for Morning Prayer, which is followed by “a quiet personal dialogue with God” before Mass at 7. Outside worshippers are wel come to join them for Mass, but the sisters stay in their own choir chapel. They sing and play a variety of instruments. Sister Cameron is the group’s guitarist. Following breakfast at 7:45, they devote several hours to chores and their paying work: the packaging and distributing of communion hosts to area churches. There is little talking as the nuns’ minds are always engaged in seeking closeness to the Lord.
After a post-lunch siesta (“It’s a sacred tradition we inherited from our Spanish founder,” quips Sister Cameron), the afternoon is pretty much spent in readings and prayer, including prayers for people who have stopped by to request them. Not much new happens, as the texts are all familiar to this group, yet they believe that through repetition the Holy Spirit leads them deeper into “the mystery of God and the mystery of who we are.
“We even pray for those who don’t know how to ask,” says Sister Cameron, who often speaks with her eyes cast down. Times of personal prayer called “mental prayer” are especially important, as “this is time alone with Him who we know loves us.” After saying that, the Sister can’t resist another quip: “We lead quite a romantic life. It’s all about love.” Well, yes. Jokes aside, one senses her love for her fellow religious and for her vocation.
With all of that, secular reading material is definitely allowed. The convent subscribes to U.S. News and World Report, for instance, and despite their cloistered status, the nuns are well aware of what’s going on in the world. The community itself is multicultural, as the women hail from at least three different countries.
When the Carmelites venture out, it’s usually to see a doctor or for another very specific need. During a recent visit with a physician, the doctor observed to Sister Cameron that her way of life was “not even American.” She basically agrees with that assessment: “It’s a radical way of living; it’s a radical commitment to follow Christ.”
It may be un-American, but there are still young women today who are attracted to a life of contemplation. At present, two of the 11 are women in their early 30s, and apparently there is a renewed interest nationally.
As I get ready to leave, Sister Cameron takes me to meet a few other nuns who are gathered in the choir chapel, praying on their knees. The sound of their soft voices rising gently in the afternoon’s sunny silence makes me want to linger. Rush hour traffic looks particularly uninviting at this moment. But, of course, I must leave to rejoin the hustle and bustle of my life. Maybe the Carmelite Sisters will include me in their prayers.
GOD IS IN CHARGE
I meet Vietnamese-born Sister Diep Pham on the campus of Our Lady of the Lake University, where she has just completed her first semester toward a degree in early childhood education. Petite and trim, she wears a sparkling white habit, complete with a veil, which amazingly stays put on her hair. The only concession to the times is the shorter skirt length. Apparently, I am not the only one wondering about that well-attached veil. People ask her about that all the time, she says. The secret is a thin headband underneath. I have more questions about this headband, but I let it go.
Because they seem somewhat remote and mysterious, nuns do generate quite a bit of curiosity. At the St. John Bosco School where Sister Pham helps thirdgraders with math, kids ask all sorts of things, such as “Sister, what do you wear when you go swimming?” or they ask what she has in her room. She doesn’t mind. In fact, she remembers her own surprise when as a child she saw the nuns eat. It had seemed like too prosaic an activity for these kindly, holy women. Young Diep was only 15 when she decided to become one of them. Raised in a Catholic family (Christians comprise only about 6 percent of Vietnam’s population), she attended mostly secular schools, where any mention of religion was frowned upon. But she loved the Salesian nuns in her parish, especially the choir director.
“I wanted to be like her, to give others the joy she had given me,” says the soft-spoken religious. She would have entered the order — officially named Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians — right after high school, but her family was planning to emigrate to the United States, and the Vietnamese convent felt that it would be better for her to move with her family and start her formation in this country. In Vietnamese schools she was taught that Americans go around the world conquering other countries to steal their resources, but her pro-American parents told her otherwise. Following the conclusion of the civil war, her anti-communist father was imprisoned for 1 1/2 years, and even today, the North and the South have their differences, she says. When the Salesian Sisters tried to establish a convent in the North, for instance, they had to give up because of the obstacles put in their path. Now that she’s lived here for a few years, Sister Pham knows that “Americans are just a people of God, and they have their suffering like everybody else. We are all equal in the eyes of God.”
At OLLU, Sister Pham doesn’t socialize much with the other students, partially because she still doesn’t feel totally comfortable with the English language and partially because the center of her life is elsewhere. But she has empathy for the young people who are still looking for their life goals.
During her formation, Diep spent two years in Italy, near the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. That’s where her faith deepened even further. “We had read The Life of Saints and many other texts about people who serve as examples for us, but it was all like a fairy tale. But being there, where many of these people actually lived — seeing St. Peter’s tomb, going to Turin where our founder, St. John Bosco, started his work — it brought everything that I had learned to life. These were real people who were able to live a sanctified life, and that gave me encour-agement that I could live a holy life, too.
There is no special person chosen to lead that life; everybody can do it,” she says. At 25, she is still occasionally struggling, however, with a few ordinary human weaknesses. “Even in religious life
, I am still worried about what other people think of me, and I want to please them,” she explains. “But the more I discern that God is in charge, the more it gives me freedom to be myself.
Successes and failures will happen. It doesn’t matter. We are called to do our best, and the rest is up to God.”
She is a firm believer in the power of prayer, not only because that’s part and parcel of her religious formation but also from personal experience. One such experience she will always treasure happened while she was in Italy. To her consternation, Sister Pham found herself strongly disliking the novice mistress, an older religious from Spain, with whom she had to consult on a regular basis.
“I had such a hard time with her. I kind of hated her,” she explains in a voice so calm and unemotional that it is hard for her listener to believe her capable of hatred. “I would go out of my way to avoid her. So I prayed about it, I prayed for both of us. God, what do you want me to do? The fourth time I had to go see her, I told her how I felt. She said she knew it. We talked. I figured out that I felt uncomfortable with her loud, expansive ways. As a Vietnamese, I am the opposite, very quiet. Later, I became very fond of her. That was a transformation through prayer. So I know it will work with other people because I’ve seen it work.”
At present, Sister Pham is still adjusting to American ways. In Vietnam the sisters seldom went out except to go to Mass, but here “we go out sometimes just to have fun, we go out to eat. At first I was shocked.” Her convent on the West Side welcomes neighborhood visitors as well as former students of the 24 nuns who live in the residence that is also a retirement home for elderly nuns. She is the youngest of the group, but there is another woman in her early 30s, who chose nursing as her form of service.
Following our conversation at OLLU, I drive Sister Pham back to the convent because she had to take the bus to meet me and also because we want to shoot some pictures. As a gracious hostess, she brings me cookies and a soft drink, introduces me around. The atmosphere is quiet but welcoming. A few nuns are in their offices upstairs, others are quietly moving about their business, and an elderly one in a wheelchair is praying alone in the chapel. The congregation does own a couple of cars, but they were used for other purposes on this particular morning.
These sisters are engaged with the world around them. They run a school, have a newsletter and a development office and invite laypeople to support their ministries through memberships, just like other nonprofits. Last fall, they even hosted Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich and his wife when they came to visit the Provincial House, as the Westside convent is called. (It is the seat of the order’s Western Province’s governing office.) Popovich was fulfilling a promise he had made to a late sister who was a Spurs fan. Between attending classes, studying and tutoring the kids at St. John Bosco, which is across the street from the convent, Sister Pham is fairly busy. Like many others, her order has always b
een involved in education, and she is clearly continuing the tradition by pursuing her current degree. It will be her mission in life to serve the young, especially in poor communities, and to serve her fellow sisters, she says.
So, what are her plans for the future? “I don’t have a plan. I want to live fully in the present,” she says. “Last night, we watched the movie Bella — it’s a pro-life movie about a woman considering abortion — and right in the beginning there was this line,’Mom told me that if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.’ Dreaming of tomorrow, one can easily lose today.”
WE NEED MORE NUNS
The leader of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate is Sister Miriam Mitchell, who holds the title of General Superior. (The familiar title of Mother Superior has pretty much fallen out of usage.) Born in Ireland in a family of eight daughters, she and one of her sisters joined the order because they had come to love the Holy Spirit nuns who ran their high school. Both girls were promptly sent to the United States for training.
Since then, Sister Mitchell has held many jobs in a variety of ministries, from parish work to leading Catholic Charities in Louisiana’s Houma- Thibodaux diocese and serving as the diocesan chancellor, the highest post a woman can hold in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But when her fellow religious elected her to lead their congregation, she left it all behind to assume her new responsibilities in San Antonio.
The Holy Spirit order was founded by Margaret Mary Healy-Murphy in 1893 to operate the first African-American boarding school in Texas. Later renamed the Healy-Murphy Center, the downtown institution now serves as an alternative school for youth at risk.
We talked to Sister Mitchell about her community (also Sister Jeffress’ and Sister Collins’) and other topics affecting the life of women religious today.
SAW: How many sisters are in your congregation?
Sr. MM: We have about 50 in the motherhouse. Others live and work in parishes. There are 11 in Zambia; also in Dallas, Houston, Louisiana, Mississippi and in Mexico — 97 altogether. The fascinating thing is the unbelievable amount of work our sisters are doing despite the small numbers. The focus today is on training others to be leaders wherever we work because there are fewer of us, and if we want our mission of compassion to continue, we must train other people to carry it on.
SAW: Are you trying to attract younger women?
Sr. MM: That’s one of my objectives. We are going to put a real effort to invite young women to join us. There is a rebirth of enthusiasm for vocations. This is such an exciting ministry. If you want to have a meaningful life, this is it. Unfortunately, so far we haven’t had an organized effort to tell our story. We are now putting together a vocation team that will consist of both sisters and laypeople to come up with an effective plan.
SAW: Don’t women today have other venues for service?
Sr. MM: Yes, they do. But we (nuns) have the freedom to be available for ministry at all times. We don’t have to worry about paying bills; we don’t have husbands or children of our own to worry about. We are free to serve where there’s a need and willing to serve people on the margins of society. When I was with Catholic Charities, I would take calls in the middle of the night. I was available seven days a week. Laypeople usually say, “We need more nuns!”
SAW: How does the order generate income?
Sr. MM: Several of the sisters work, and the congregation gets their salaries. We also have a treasurer who invests as much as she can, and we live frugally. Our older members get Social Security. However, we depend on donations a lot.
SAW: What’s the current relationship between the Healy-Murphy Center and the order?
Sr. MM: In the 1960s, when the laws changed, there was no longer a need to have a special school for African- Americans. Sister Boniface (the former executive director of the center) asked: “What is the greatest need today?” The answer was to have an alternative school for young people who can’t make it in regular schools. All students today receive individualized programs. Many are pregnant or parenting, so a child care center and a well-baby clinic are on the premises, too, where the babies and toddlers are being taken care of while the young women attend school. The center operates as a separate nonprofit, but we still own the property and the buildings and have a financial commitment to it. They have just started a capital campaign to raise funds for much needed renovation. All the buildings are old. We presented them with a check for $500,000 from the (family) estate of Sister Boniface, who devoted her life to this ministry. Some sisters also teach there. (And Sister Mitchell is board president).
SAW: Do you miss the traditional habit?
Sr. MM: No, I don’t. It was very hot and uncomfortable. We witness by our lives, not by what we wear.
SAW: Sister, here comes the difficult question. What do you say to people who ask why there is so much suffering in the world?
Sr. MM: Yes, people often ask, “Why is God doing this to us?” when bad things happen. I don’t have the answers.