Their Hairdresser Knows

In 1984, my husband and I were struggling in our home in Windsor, Conn., to keep a healthy balance with five children, an aged mother and three grandchildren. I hassled town officials for a permit to open and operate a beauty salon in the basement of our home. The granting of the zoning variance was nothing short of a miracle that warranted our prayers of thanksgiving. It was not easy convincing the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who had recently moved into a house opposite Saint Gabriel’s Elementary School, to visit the new salon; but they came, and as I worked on them I listened to their stories.

Ann Kane, C.S.J., was a candidate for a doctoral degree in ministry at Hartford Seminary when we met. I enhanced her beauty with perms, cuts and sets, and she shared with me her thesis research on the cultural differences and similarities of multiple faith practices among Christians, Jews and Muslims. She not only broadened my views; she helped diminish prejudices I had not before recognized in myself.


I was always chuckling from the moment Rosalie Beane, C.S.J., entered the salon until she departed. This playful woman had just accepted responsibility as principal of our own troubled Saint Gabriel’s school, which was in jeopardy of being closed. Accreditation was a desperate issue; the structure had fallen into disrepair and was below town code. Parents had for some years developed a passive-aggressive approach to school policy and programs, and lay teachers were bumping into one another running for the exits.

In contrast to her outwardly carefree disposition, she was stiff-backed and unrelenting in wresting control from well-intentioned parents. She was fair, firm and consistent and requested that parents and teachers consider the same approach toward the children. This was the reigning policy when my divorced son’s three young children were accepted into her school.

Dubbed Nun-on-the-Run, Sister Rosalie attracted to herself children who were out of the loop from the othersshe tutored some herself, baby-sat others whose parents were not home from work when school was out and comforted many who were sorrowing over family problems. Enrollment soared, and a long waiting list developed. The school was accredited in 1988, remains so today and is recognized throughout the diocese for its academic excellence.

Upon entering the salon for her scheduled appointment one day, Gertrude Danaher, C.S.J., noticed a customer’s down-turned lips and furrowed brow. She approached her and asked, What can I do to make you more comfortable? Tears flowed freely as the lady revealed she was in terrible pain and scared to death of the knee-replacement surgery scheduled for the next day.

Watch me! Sister said. She pushed back beyond the basement pole in the middle of the floor to a free area where she briskly performed an Irish step dance and then explained: Last year I had my knees done. Don’t be afraid, darling, you’ll be fine in no time.

After decades as a teacher of nurses in training, this white-haired, pink-cheeked whirlwind went to work with the United States East Coast Migrant Health Progress.

When sent to our parish convent, she organized visits to the elderly, the housebound and people in hospitals. She also planned activities for young single adults and established study and prayer sessions for old and young alike. These groups continue to flourish even though Sister Gertrude now lives out her own time of aging by sharing God’s love with the bedridden sisters of her community.

In the late 1980’s, while I was perming her hair and sharing life experiences with Mary Judith Moynihan, C.S.J., she revealed very matter-of-factly that she worked with Laura Herald, C.S.J., the founder of Tabor House. This is a facility in the toughest section of Hartford, dedicated to helping AIDS victims. I thought a professional had to be under the gun before dealing with AIDS victims, I said with alarm. She merely shrugged and told me that Sister Laura, a 76-year-old retired college professor with a doctorate in biology from Fordham University, had established a place for men with AIDS who had no other housing options.

My husband and I were invited on a tour of the home. There were signs of extreme suffering on the faces of people we were introduced to, but the joy-filled spirit of acceptance and peace we encountered was striking.

During Sister Judith’s weekly visits, I learned that Tabor House was inaugurating a transitional housing program for women with H.I.V./AIDS. The goal was to help women progress toward independent living in the community while reducing or eliminating their dependence on entitlements. Participants would stay in a secure, three-family house for a maximum duration of 18 to 24 months. They would have access to services such as life-skills development, vocational and employment training, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, domestic violence counseling and family reunification.

I was shocked when Theresa Fonti, C.S.J., told me that she and Sister Maureen Faenza had walked Hartford’s war zonethe north-end city alleysin search of the homeless, armed with little more than a thermos of coffee, a box of donuts and near-empty pockets.

On one visit she said: We learned of a storefront that has been empty for quite a while. The owner warned we’d have to carry a gun in that part of town. Can you imagine us with guns? I rolled my eyes and shivered for the fright of it. She caught my reflection in the mirror. With a smile on her lips and the raising of one eyebrow she continued, We have the use of the room until he can rent it. Now we need gifts of food.

A year later, when a Red Cross van became their moving symbol for the House of Bread, an avalanche of people contributed time and resources to serve alongside the sisters. The sisters’ related nonprofit programs have now grown to include a day shelter, a transitional living facility for needy men, another for needy women, affordable housing for the working poor and a summer program for impoverished inner-city children to vacation in Vermont.

H.O.M.E., Helping Our Mothers in Education, was also created by Sisters Maureen and Theresa to help women and children who live below poverty level develop basic life, parenting and job skills. Empowerment by education is the loving focus of these two brilliant women religious who tease and joke with each other and with me every time they sit to be coiffed.

Maris Stella Hickey, C.S.J., told me during one of her appointments that the keys to a former convent were given back to the Sisters of Saint Joseph by the state for their new project, Jubilee House, a community gathering place.

As I followed the progress of the renovation month by month, it seemed as though the walls of my own residence were closing in on me. We had too many people living together and too much furniture; something had to go. We’ve put ads in the paper for our old piano but nobody responds, I told the sister. The grandchildren bang away at it endlessly, and my mother-in-law threatens murder.

In no time our baby grand, with its cracked ivory key and alligator-like wrinkled finish, was spirited to a respectable music room at Jubilee House. This community gathering place is also an adult education center, an office to both the Southend Knight Riders and the Collaborative Center for Justice, a group engaged in educational and advocacy work for justice on the local, state and national levels. Better yet, I have an open invitation to visit my aging baby grand at any time.

Anne Brown, C.S.J, I learned, was a founding member of Trust House. This is a sponsored work of religious women with a long history of dedicated service to the people of Connecticut. They include Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of Saint Joseph and Daughters of the Holy Spirit. Trust House is a Family Learning Center. Its goal is to prepare local children for school and to help their fathers and mothers perfect parenting skills, get ready for the world of work and begin creating a self-sufficient life. Twenty-two countries are represented in the student body, ranging from Ukraine to Haiti, and from Taiwan to Colombia.

My oldest grandson had interrupted his high school education because of a medical condition. Sister Helen Harte, C.S.J., accepted him at her Project Hope mission and gave him one-on-one attention in G.E.D. preparation. Diploma in hand, he continued on to computer certification training.

When Sally Hodgdon, C.S.J., an attorney at law, first accepted my invitation to the salon, she was working as assistant attorney general. Her job was to persuade deadbeat parents to honor their child-support commitments. A statuesque woman, this sister needed little help from me to be a head-turner. A monthly chin-length cut, known then as the bob, was enough.

In collaboration with other sisters, she established The Communities’ Law Center in Hartford for the purpose of providing legal services to the neglected working poor. The law team focuses on family, juvenile and disability matters in an effort to mediate resolution rather than to cause division or destruction. At this moment she is also provincial superior of the U.S. Province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, located in West Hartford, Conn. This is, to my understanding, equivalent to C.E.O. of a large corporation.

What a remarkable, diverse, faith-filled and inspiring clientele! These Sisters of Saint Joseph I grew to know and to love use their training, talents and skills to help proud people throughout Hartford rise above their debilitating circumstances to obtain justice, equality and the necessary tools to better their lives. As hairdresser to those who minister in so many arenas with great devotion and love, I have been blessed with learning, healing and lasting friendships.

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