Once a month in the late afternoon, I take the subway uptown to Spanish Harlem. There, I celebrate Mass for a small community of sisters—the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The subway leaves me at East 116th Street, and I walk on for several blocks through a world very different from mid-Manhattan’s upscale glitter. Bodegas, tortilla shops and other small Hispanic establishments abound. In warm weather, people lean from tenement windows calling in Spanish to friends below, and boom boxes fill the air with Latino songs.
The sisters live in a small row house on 118th Street. Besides the sisters themselves, several guests are usually present by 6 p.m., when the liturgy begins. Afterward, we share a simple meal. These visits are a refreshment for both body and spirit—not only because of the Eucharist and the meal, but also because they keep me in touch with a congregation that has much in common with the Jesuits. The constitutions of the Society of the Sacred Heart, in fact, are modeled on those of the Society of Jesus. And like the apostolates of the Jesuits, theirs are principally in education. But like the Jesuits too, some sisters work among the poor. This is the case with most of those on 118th Street, but also with the first community I came to know two decades ago, when I was assigned to St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C.
St. Aloysius is near a low-income housing development called Sursum Corda. It was given this Latin name—taken from the beginning of the eucharistic prayer in the Latin Mass, “Lift up your hearts”—because the parish played a role in planning what is in effect a small village of low-rise houses set amid trees and open spaces: a rarity in housing for poor families. A group of R.S.C.J.’s, as they are known, were among the first to move in. Their presence served as a support for families struggling with poverty, drugs and violence.
One of the Sursum Corda sisters, Alice McDonald, was a public health nurse who visited poor homes. Although retired from that job by the time I arrived in 1980—she was already in her 70’s—she and I became fast friends. We often met for spiritual conversation after the early weekday Mass, the kind of conversation that helps a priest become humble. Though frail of build, she spent one day each week preparing a huge pot of thick and nourishing soup for the homeless people who sleep on the heating grates downtown in the area around the State Department. The Catholic Worker who came for it would arrive for Mass beforehand, then have a small bowlful before loading the soup into a van.
Alice had an unusually loving heart, not just toward the homeless, but toward everyone. Walking down the gritty sidewalk of North Capitol Street on her way to early Mass, she made a point of greeting passersby, whether she knew them or not. Once a surprised African-American woman returned her greeting with: “You have brought God into my life this morning.” She thus epitomized not only the name of the housing project itself, Sursum Corda—she did indeed lift up her heart both to God and to others—but also the order’s name, the Society of the Sacred Heart.
Weakening with age, Alice herself made the decision to move to Kenwood, the order’s retirement home in Albany, N.Y. Her meager possessions fit into a few paper shopping bags. When the call came in February telling me of her death, I was asked to celebrate her funeral Mass. Afterward, we shared memories in Kenwood’s community room, where family members and others spoke of how Alice’s life had touched theirs, as it had touched mine. She is frequently in my thoughts when I take the subway to Spanish Harlem. Alice would have been right at home in those poor surroundings, a loving presence among the Hispanic families—just as she had been among the African-American families in whom she saw the face of God at Sursum Corda.