Several months ago, I received a call from Sister Clare Stephen inviting me to the December 5 Silver Jubilee Concert on Staten Island to benefit the Daughters of St. Paul. I have known Sister Clare for more than three decades; beyond that, any Catholic school boy knows that when a nun asks or “invites,” the only answer is “Yes, Sister!” That said, I was more than happy to accept the invitation because of the wonderful work of evangelization those Sisters do through their publications and their bookstores, and most especially by their visible public witness to Christ and His Church.
The genesis of this annual event can be found in a crisis: The landlord of the Sisters’ book stall on Staten Island was raising their rent, and the nuns couldn’t afford it. They shared their grief with fellow-renters, Lois and Richard Nicotra of “Everything Yogurt” fame, concerned about the very real possibility of having to give up their space and thus lose out on the providential opportunities accorded them to share Christ in that spot. The Nicotras quickly suggested putting together a fund-raiser to address the problem. And the rest, as they say, is history. Sister Donna William was the local superior at that time; she went on to become the Provincial Superior and has now gone on to Rome to serve on the Congregation’s General Council.
The evening began with a sit-down dinner – Italian, of course, after all it was Staten Island! The Nicotras got the proceedings going with a review of the dinner’s origins and progress over the years, accompanied by a delightful video highlighting past dinners and honored guests. The special guest of honor this year was Cardinal Timothy Dolan who, unfortunately, was unable to attend because of a minor surgical procedure. In the video, however, we were treated to one of his one-liners as he urged the audience not to hold the Sisters too long because they were due for a performance that evening with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall! That comment was but one of many “nun jokes” of the occasion, told by the Sisters themselves (a couple dozen of mostly young and all-habited women) and by many others – done with good, self-deprecating humor and much love. It struck me that such comments would have been seen as insensitive or sexist or “stereotyping” in many other environments; however, when people are on the same page, theologically, we can laugh at ourselves. As Chesterton reminds us, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”
The event attracted over a thousand devoted supporters of the Daughters of St. Paul. And although the Daughters are not teachers, conversations throughout the evening turned precisely to the Sisters who had taught the vast majority of us – about which more in a moment. Staten Island has been affectionately dubbed “The Pearl of the Atlantic” by Monsignor Peter Finn, who is a native son of the Island and who spent a significant portion of his priestly life there as a principal, pastor and regional vicar (he was also present for the evening). Staten Island Catholicism is a unique phenomenon, with its living of the faith in a comfortable, easy and faithful manner. Having taught in the graduate school of education on the Staten Island campus of St. John’s University for a decade, a flood of many happy memories rushed forward.
The stars of the gala, naturally, were the Sisters themselves who offered a superb presentation of Christmas favorites. Their talent is impressive but their spirit of joy is contagious. Each piece was introduced by a Sister, each of whom used the moment to evangelize and catechize; their holy founder, Blessed James Alberione, must have been smiling down on them. Thankfully, the more mundane but necessary goal of the concert was more than realized as $150,000 was raised from ticket sales alone (not taking into consideration proceeds from the various raffles). The Sisters truly cashed in on Our Lord’s promise of a hundred-fold reward in this life for taking seriously His challenging invitation (see Mt 19:29).
I am writing this reflection on the Sunday when the Church in the United States takes up its annual collection to assist retired Religious. Undoubtedly, many readers gave generously to that appeal as an act of gratitude for the Catholic education they received from selfless, loving, dedicated and highly professional Religious. The very necessity of the collection, however, is a testament to the tragic meltdown of religious life in this country over the past fifty years. Simply put: If so many congregations of Religious had not engaged in a self-imposed suicide mission, they would have sufficient numbers of young members to sustain them, both apostolically and financially.
As regular readers know, I am an inveterate promoter of Catholic education. I attended three Catholic elementary and secondary schools, operated by three different religious communities in two dioceses. In that entire time, I received a superb education at every level, never saw a single child brutalized, and genuinely looked forward to every day of school. Were all the nuns perfect? Of course not. And one or two were, shall we say, “off-base,” but where don’t you find that? I can name every Sister who ever taught me over that thirteen-year period; by my count, that’s 26 of them! I would highlight just two for reasons that should become obvious.
Sister Matthew Joseph accepted into the parish kindergarten a boy whose parents were not married in the Church and who seemingly had no intention of ever practicing their Faith. Within two years, that had changed entirely. Indeed, I got both my faith and my priestly vocation from the Sisters, for which I shall be, literally, eternally grateful. By a process of what I like to call “reverse evangelization,” I brought my parents back to the Church.
Sister Regina Rose in the fifth grade, with over seventy children in the class, predicted to my parents that I would be a priest, a teacher and a writer. She attended my First Solemn Mass; I took her out to dinner some years ago for her ninety-fifth birthday. She was able to recount episodes from my time under her loving care that I had either forgotten or wasn’t even aware of, to begin with.
Having spent my entire priestly life in Catholic education, of necessity, I have interacted with Sisters as a peer and as a superior alike. Those interactions and collaborations were uniformly positive. I was fortunate always to have nuns in my path who were both faithful Religious and highly professional educators. It’s no wonder that by second grade, my mother had dubbed me a “nun’s boy”!
While it is certainly true that a school can be thoroughly Catholic without the presence of women Religious (after all, Mother Seton was a laywoman when she began the whole adventure in our country), committed Sisters (and Brothers) offer a unique witness, that is indelibly impressed on the consciousness of their students. That is why the demise of so many communities of Religious teachers is so sad; in fact, all three communities that taught me jumped off the cliff in the mad rush to relevancy and haven’t had a vocation since.
All that said, there are still many fine communities of Sisters who either never went “off the cliff” or were established more recently to address the regrettable loss of the feminine face of the Church. I here name but a few, who remain bright, shining lights in the midst of so much darkness, shedding that light through their charism of teaching: Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco (Haledon, New Jersey); Sisters of St. Francis and the Martyr St. George (Alton, Illinois), Apostles of the Sacred Heart (Hamden, Connecticut); Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist (Meriden, Connecticut); Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Philadelphia); School Sisters of Christ the King (Lincoln, Nebraska); Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Wichita, Kansas); Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (Nashville, Tennessee); Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (Ann Arbor, Michigan); Religious Teachers Filippini (Morristown, New Jersey); Sisters of Christian Charity (Mendham, New Jersey); Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of he Church (Baltic, Connecticut); Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart (Alhambra, California). Yes, there are still many good institutes of religious life.
Saying “yes” to the invitation of Sister Clare Stephen actually created for me a kind of evening of recollection: a most grateful trip down Memory Lane for all the wonderful Sisters who made me the person, the Christian and the priest that I am; the lifting up of a prayer of hope that the good, faithful communities of Sisters would continue to thrive for the good of the whole Church, but especially for the children who will have the inestimable privilege of being formed by women who know how to lead others to Christ with a joyful spirit.
So, thanks, dear Daughters of St. Paul, for providing me with a most unexpected but most welcome early Christmas gift. I am sure many of the other 999 attendees had a similar experience.
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