Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I obviously am not posting enough about nuns

In Deeds, Nuns Answer Call of Duty By JIM DWYER Tesa Fitzgerald began her day on Tuesday by welcoming a new resident to the house that she runs in Long Island City, Queens, for women who are getting out of prison and have nowhere to go. Joan Dawber, in Brooklyn, spent Monday evening with three women who had just moved into the new safe house that she helped build for victims of human trafficking. In the Bronx, Lauria Fitzgerald was organizing evening meals that she serves to drug addicts and prostitutes who work under the Major Deegan Expressway and other dim elbows of the city. Related These three women, who work and live in New York City, are members of Roman Catholic religious orders. The old-fashioned word is nun, a noun. They are verbs. “Do what you can, with the life you have,” Sister Tesa said. Last month, the Vatican said it was time to overhaul an organization that represented about 80 percent of religious women in the United States. An investigation had found “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life.” It acknowledged that the sisters showed great vigor on matters of social justice, but said they were “silent” on the right to life from conception to natural death, and did not promote church teaching on sexuality and family life. The investigative technique outlined in the Vatican report seemed to lean heavily on reading speeches and documents, finding occasional fault with what was said, but more serious problems with what wasn’t. To read the report here in New York is to feel that somewhere along the alleys and switchbacks of power in Rome, the actuality of life as lived by religious women in much of the United States was lost. The pews in the churches may be empty, but they have turned the lowest places into cathedrals. “We had a woman come in this morning from prison who was pregnant,” Sister Tesa said. “Sister Eileen went to pick her up. We always give a ride home, and take them out to lunch. She had been in for three months. Another woman came in last week; she had been away for 25 years.” In 1986, Sister Tesa began offering a few women who had just been released from prison a place to stay in a convent. Now, the organization she and others founded, Hour Children, has five buildings that give 60 women and about 80 children a place to live when the mothers return to society. “Sister Kitty, who is the principal of an elementary school, and Sister Carol, who teaches at St. Joseph College, live in My Mother’s House with 12 women and their children,” Sister Tesa said. “The women are out to classes and programs during the day; they pick up their children, one of them had to make dinner, and we eat communally. Then there’s homework. Cleaning. The usual stuff that you and I take for granted but many of the women never had in their lives.” TWENTY years ago, two students were killed in separate attacks at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, just as the mayor was arriving for a visit. Sister Mary Burns and Sister Kathy Maire, who were working with poor and immigrant women in Bushwick, became leading forces in a movement to break up many of the enormous high schools that, like Jefferson, were more warehouse than school. “I got multiple sclerosis and downshifted a little,” Sister Mary said. She now works at a girls high school in Downtown Brooklyn. A friend in her house, Sister Frances Gritte, who gives her age as 85 two weeks prematurely, works in a mobile soup kitchen operated by St. John’s Bread and Life. “I help out, preparing the meal then going around to Coney Island and Brownsville,” Sister Frances said. Sister Joan, the head of the safe house for women who have been trafficked, spent the better part of seven years planning and building it. “When I first heard about it,” she said, “I thought, this isn’t for me.” But 33 religious congregations got together and created Lifeway Network to help people who were being exploited for farm work and in the sex trade. On Long Island, religious women run Mercy House for the severely mentally ill, and in the Bronx, others run the Mercy Center for immigrants and poor people. Different places, same old mercy. “No bishop or anyone told them what to do,” said Sister Camille D’Arienzo, a leader among religious women and an author. “It’s the conscience element. The gospel call. The solidarity among ourselves. It can’t be shattered. We’ve been around too long.” Twitter: @jimdwyernyt

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