I often say I owe my career as a writer to my Catholic education. More accurately, though, I owe it to the Catholic Sisters who taught me. They inspired in me a lifelong love of language, challenged me to move beyond the confines of my upbringing, and gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams.
As Catholic Sisters Week begins, I want to remember those Sisters. I’ll begin with Sister Helen Jean Everett, the Sister of Charity who taught Latin at my high school, the Academy of St. Aloysius in Jersey City, NJ.
The Academy required us to study Latin as well as a modern foreign language. I wondered how I would get through Latin. On the first day of class, Sister Helen Jean read to us. She made this so-called dead language sound like exquisite music. I can still hear her sounding out the first lines of Virgil’s “Aeneid” — Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris — pounding her hand on her desk to demonstrate the rhythm of the meter.
When our class read Cicero’s orations on politics and society, it wasn’t as though we were considering the thoughts of a man who died in 43 B.C., but of someone who could have been writing for the day’s editorial pages.
Sister Helen Jean taught us more than Latin. She was a confirmed lover of the humanities and often repeated that it is beauty and art that feed the soul and make us more fully human.
Working at after-school jobs, I saved up enough to go on a trip she led my junior year to the museums and churches of Florence and Rome. It was a life-changing experience. I was so moved by seeing up close the great works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, Rubens, David and Rafael that we had discussed in class that I cried during most of our museum treks.
The Sisters took us to the theater, the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera. This might sound elitist if it weren’t for the fact that most of the students in my high school came from blue collar backgrounds. My father drove a truck and my mother took a job in a food factory to help pay for my tuition at St. Aloysius.
My parents died not ever having seen a live performance of an opera or a ballet. The Sisters made sure that didn’t happen to their students.
Sister Lorraine Casella, the Academy’s music teacher, suggested I study abroad for a year in college, at the Sorbonne. The idea wouldn’t otherwise have entered my mind — the expense would have been too great for my parents. But once Sister Lorraine planted that seed, I set about working evening and weekend jobs to save up enough for the trip.
That year, I was befriended by not only Parisians, but students from Laos, Cambodia and Africa. It was a transformational time that confirmed my vocation as a writer and helped me see the world as much wider, more complex and more interesting than I had ever imagined.
Much later in life, a speaking invitation brought me to a Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. It proved to be another life-changing event, thanks to the Benedictine Sisters there. That visit introduced me to the contemplative life and the Benedictine values of community, consensus-building, hospitality, humility, prayer and praise.
I remember thinking after spending a few days with these Sisters — experiencing their vibrant intelligence and the warmth of their hospitality — that I had discovered something that had been missing in my life. It led to me becoming a lay associate of the monastery in 2013.
Another Sister I will never forget, I met in the course of my reporting for PBS-TV. Sister Roseanne Cook, a Sister of St. Joseph, served as a medical doctor in rural Wilcox County Alabama. At the time, 90 percent of the residents lived below the poverty level along dirt roads and some still got their water from spigots in their front yard.
Sister Roseanne became the lifeline for some 5,000 patients, many with serious chronic illnesses related to their poverty and no medical insurance. She turned no one away from her clinic.
It was sometimes dangerous work. Sister Roseanne once stopped on a roadside to help some men whose car had broken down. They ended up robbing her at gunpoint of the $6 in cash she was carrying. They then locked her in the trunk of her car, and fired several shots into the metal. All of the bullets missed Sister Roseanne, except for one that grazed her cheek.
“I take that as an act of God that I’m here to talk about it,” she told me. Undeterred, Sister Roseanne continued working at her clinic for another 15 years, retiring in 2017 at the age of 78.
While cardinals and bishops tend to live in expansive residences, maintained by housekeepers and serviced by cooks. you will find today’s Catholic Sisters on the Mexican border, giving shelter to asylum seekers; in prisons, bringing hope to inmates; and in inner cities, serving meals to the homeless.
In fact, women’s religious orders are celebrating this week in their honor by collecting food for the poor and hosting programs to highlight food insecurity in the U.S.
“They are changing the world as we speak,” Jesuit Father James Martin said in a tribute he posted on the Catholic Sisters Week website.
The ruler-wielding nun in flowing black habit, like the one who strikes fear into the hearts of con men Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in a laugh-out-loud scene from The Blues Brothers, is a familiar Hollywood depiction. It might reflect the experience some people endured in Catholic schools, but it doesn’t depict the Sisters many of us know.
Katie Gordon, national organizer of the Nuns & Nones group, which pairs Catholic sisters with a diverse group of young adult seekers, sums up the contribution of these women this way:
“Sisters’ lives offer us a blueprint for community life, a roadmap for lifelong spiritual seeking, and a how-to manual for committing our lives to social justice.”
So true. Who are the Catholic sisters who influenced your life? How can you honor them this week?