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Joe PagettaJanuary 18, 2024
Students at Assumption College for Sisters in Mendham, N.J. This is the only accredited liberal arts college in the United States that is specifically for women religious.

In 2021, Marietha Kimaro of the Holy Spirit Sisters in Tanzania was almost a dozen years into her mission in the United States. She had spent most of that time in Key West, Fla., and recently had been reassigned to Philadelphia.

“We do everything,” she told me by phone about the Holy Spirit Sisters. “We work in the hospitals. We are teachers. We are social workers. In Key West I was doing pastoral work—visiting the sick, teaching religion at the Catholic school and the parish and to the homebound.”

But by the time she got to Philadelphia, she was beginning to feel burnt out and in need of a change. She asked her mother superior back in Tanzania, Sister Dorothea Massawe, if she might be able to further her education. She had a high school degree but wanted more. Sister Dorothea was supportive. Sister Marietha recalls her mother superior asking her, “Do you have an idea of where you want to go? Or what you want to study?”

Sister Marietha had an idea. Years earlier, two other sisters from her order had attended Assumption College for Sisters in Mendham, N.J., the only accredited liberal arts college in the United States that is specifically for women religious. Initially an extension of Seton Hall College (now Seton Hall University), it was incorporated in 1961 as an independent college.

It offers associate’s degrees in the arts and religious studies, and is often a springboard for obtaining bachelor’s degrees.

Sister Dorothea quickly contacted Sister Joseph Spring, then the president of the college, and Sister Marietha’s application was set in motion, though they soon learned the incoming class was already full. But when the visa application for another sister from Kenya was not approved, a spot opened up and Sister Marietha took a step toward her dream by entering the college for the fall semester of 2021.

“That was a miracle for me,” said Sister Marietha. “I thank God for that spot. And I am really grateful for the sisters.”

When it was founded in 1953, Assumption College for Sisters operated out of the Mallinckrodt Convent Motherhouse of the Sisters of Christian Charity, but in 2015, the motherhouse was renovated to accommodate more sisters, leaving no room for the college. Fortunately, it found a new home in an old place: a vacated convent of the Sisters of Christian Charity on the campus of Morris Catholic High School in Denville, N.J.

It was the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Paterson who recommended the old convent. Though in disrepair, it had bedrooms, spaces for classrooms, a dining room and a chapel with a stained-glass window depicting the Sisters of Christian Charity’s founder, Blessed Pauline von Mallinckrodt. “It was the perfect thing,” says Sister Joseph. “It was readymade for us.”

Louis Scarpa, director of institutional advancement for the school, who like thousands of others (myself included) was educated by the Sisters of Christian Charity in grammar school, said that the school’s new location in a walkable, urban area helped to keep the sisters from feeling isolated. “The townspeople all know the sisters; they see them walk to daily Mass at the local parish,” he said. “And the pastor there was so thrilled to have them just up the road.”

Forming Servant Leaders

While a big transition, the college’s move to Denville was not the first time in the school’s history that it has had to pivot to stay true to its mission, which states that “through education and community,” the school “forms servant leaders who transform lives.”

For its first four decades, Assumption College for Sisters educated only its own members, Sisters of Christian Charity who were in the postulancy and novitiate stages of their formation. The opportunity for a college-level education for sisters joining the order directly out of high school was unique.

The opportunity for a college-level education for sisters joining the order directly out of high school was unique.

Retired educator Mary Murphy entered the college in 1964 as a postulant to the Sisters of Christian Charity. She earned her associate’s degree and immediately went on to get her bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in education at Marillac College in St. Louis before she began her teaching mission. While Ms. Murphy eventually decided not to profess final vows in the congregation, she remains grateful for the opportunity Assumption provided and says the school offered an excellent foundation for her long career in education.

For many other women’s religious communities at the time, the sisters’ education ran concurrent with their teaching careers. Ms. Murphy said that many women religious who began teaching at 18 or 19 years of age had to pursue their degrees during weekend hours over the course of several years. “We didn’t have to do that,” she said. “We had this established thing.”

Sister Joseph earned her associate degree at Assumption, as did Sister Marie Pauline Demek, the school’s current president. By the time Sister Marie Pauline studied at the school in the 1970s, the Sisters of Christian Charity and other orders took their lead from the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life” (“Perfectae Caritatis”). It urged religious communities to return to their sources and understand their initial missions and charisms. In fulfillment of this mandate, many participated in two years of mission work between earning an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. But the college’s students had learned so much and accumulated so many student credits by the time they went to get their bachelor’s degree, that the gap was negligible.

“We were very well educated back in the day,” says Sister Marie Pauline, who before being appointed president of Assumption was the director of the Villa Pauline retreat center in Mendham. “We had over 100 credits [when we graduated]. We took so many courses when we were in the postulancy and the novitiate. [But] in those days, you didn’t have to have, especially in Catholic education, a bachelor’s degree.”

By the time Sister Marie Pauline went to finish her education at Felician College (now Felician University) she was well prepared. She and her fellow sisters had earned more than enough credits at Assumption and were exempt from some classes. “[Administrators at Felician] were astounded that we knew what we knew,” she recalls. “And having been out in education and teaching in the classroom, some of the courses were very easy for us. We sort of breezed through them because we had the experience.”

By the late 1990s, with the declining interest in religious vocations, there were fewer Sisters of Christian Charity postulants and the faculty grew increasingly older. The school began to admit student sisters from other orders and, more noteworthy perhaps, other countries.

By 1999, sisters from Vietnam, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Guatemala began to arrive.

This shift started in 1996 with the welcoming of the Salesian Sisters of John Bosco in nearby Paterson. By 1999, sisters from Vietnam, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Guatemala began to arrive. This was how Sister Marietha’s predecessors in the Holy Spirit Sisters of Tanzania came to attend the college, and how Sister Elizabeth Pajoc Siney, from the congregation Mother of Orphans in Guatemala, found her way there.

International sisters are strongly encouraged to return to their home countries after completing their schooling, in order to help bring what they have learned back to their communities. Sister Elizabeth graduated from the school four years ago with an associate of arts degree and returned to Guatemala, where she is serving with her congregation and working toward her bachelor’s degree in theology.

“My experience at Assumption College for Sisters was wonderful,” Sister Elizabeth tells me by email from Guatemala. “It was a surprise for me, because before that experience, I never thought that someday I would come to America to study. But I saw that my congregation needed it, so I went there to learn more about faith, culture, leadership and evangelization.”

Like most international students at the school, Sister Elizabeth spent her first year in the three-year program learning the English language.

“At the beginning it was hard because I did not know the language, but after six months, I started to talk a little bit,” she adds. “Then after two years, I felt more comfortable with the language. Because of the wonderful experience at Assumption, I am studying now, little by little, to get my bachelor’s degree in order to help my community life and the people whom I serve every day in the parish where I am now.”

Last September, 17 students arrived at campus, three short of the usual and desired 20 after three students were unable to secure visas. All the students are perpetually professed sisters from sisters from religious communities based outside of the United States, including sisters from Vietnam, Tanzania, Zambia and Cameroon. None of them will have to pay for their education. Students at the school are fully sponsored—including tuition, room and board—thanks to the efforts of Mr. Scarpa and the school’s development team, and a passionate group of generous donors, who together raise the school’s $600,000 annual budget. The school receives no federal, state or diocesan funding. A large portion of the school’s fundraising occurs during its annual springtime Caring Basket Gala, which includes a scholarship auction and awards ceremony honoring some of the school’s biggest supporters.

One of last year’s honorees, Sole Anselmi, treasurer and chair of the finance committee on the board of trustees for Catholic Charities in Paterson, took the opportunity to honor the women they were there to support.

“To the Sisters of Assumption College,” she said, “who learn so they can teach others and transform lives: Your fidelity, grit, grace and beauty humble us all. These are the true honorees of tonight, for they have provided us with an example of how faith, compassion and selflessness can guide our everyday lives.”

Our slogan is ‘Teach a Sister. Touch the World.’ And that really is quite ambitious.

Sister Joseph, who spoke at the gala just a month before her retirement and has had a dynamic tenure in her almost decade and a half at the school, remains optimistic about the school moving forward.

“First of all, I hope that there’s a permanency right now,” she says, following the uncertainty that led to the move back in 2015. “Mother Pauline’s vision was to serve God, no matter what. And that’s what I hope for the college…. We form servant leaders who transform lives. Our slogan is ‘Teach a Sister. Touch the World.’ And that really is quite ambitious.”

What’s certain is that the sisters will continue to learn from one another, through both the curriculum and community life. Sister Joseph used to teach a Fundamentals of the Catholic Faith course that focused on the already mentioned Vatican Council document “Perfectae Caritatis.” She would include the history and charism of the Sisters of Christian Charity and then ask students at the end of the course to do a presentation on their own communities, charisms, histories and ministries.

“There are more similarities than anything,” says Sister Joseph. “It’s very interesting to see commonalities between all the different congregations.” Community life is hard enough, she adds, and is compounded by both personality and cultural differences. But somehow, with patience and grace, it all works.

“Assumption is my second home,” says Sister Marietha, the Tanzanian sister now in her third year. “The harmony of that place is everything to me. We are from everywhere, but we became one. Our difference is only that we are from different communities. But the way we are together and studying together, we share everything with love and a spiritual idea.”

“It has been four years since I left there, but I still miss everything,” echoes Sister Elizabeth (of Guatemala). “I really felt like I was at home and had everything I needed. I learned from every sister, from their culture, customs, talents and charisms. Each one of them helped me.”

And while there are sisters like Sister Elizabeth all over the world ministering in their communities with what they have learned at Assumption, the Sisters of Christian Charity benefit as well.

“We have been enriched by the presence of the international sisters,” says Sister Joseph. “It has opened our eyes to a whole new world…. We’re a microcosm of the world. I tell the sisters, ‘If the whole world would take your example, it would be a wonderful place to live.’”

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