Friending Sisters: Celebrating National Catholic Sisters Week

Whenever Tia Clifford and her five college housemates catch one another getting worked up—dwelling on the past or stressing about the future—they quote the mantra of a Catholic sister on campus, abbreviated and attached to Twitter parlance: “Hashtag BWYFA!”

The acronym, which they pronounce “boy-fah” and invoke daily, stands for “be where your feet are.” It is the oft-repeated slogan of Linda Lee Jackson, O.P., a campus minister at the University of Dayton, and a call to live in the moment. And it is one of many ways Sister Linda Lee has proved surprisingly relevant to Clifford, a busy college student who sometimes struggles to attune her head to the whereabouts of her feet. “So often we are glued to our phones,” Clifford acknowledged.

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The two women recently enjoyed a weekend of bonding as participants in the kickoff of National Catholic Sisters Week, connected to National Women’s History Month and celebrated the second week of March each year. Nearly 60 sister-student pairs from more than 50 colleges and religious congregations gathered at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., March 7-9, to help launch the ambitious three-year program funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The campaign is intended to elevate women religious and connect them to young women. Ultimately, the hope is to open up more Catholic women to the possibility of religious life.

How to go about that—the church’s million-dollar question—is not a matter of a slickly produced marketing campaign, insist the co-directors of NCSW, but of presenting a stripped down, heartfelt narrative. That is exactly what took center stage during the kickoff gathering of the initiative, when four sisters shared turning points in their path to consecrated life using the quirky storytelling style of The Moth Radio Hour, the national public radio show that won a Peabody Award in 2010. Perhaps the promotion of religious life is more “Charlie Rose” than “Mad Money”—fewer blinking billboards, slower cuts. The young women in the audience seemed gripped by the uninterrupted tale of Carolyn Martin, I.S.P., who was fitted for her postulant outfit decades ago as she glanced out the window at her boyfriend, waiting in the car and unprepared for imminent breakup. And college students polled about a name and icon for NCSW expressed preferences for the “simple” and “plain,” turning down a bright, boxy design that felt too busy.

Storytelling comes naturally to Irishmen like Archbishop Emeritus Harry J. Flynn of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, who began a homily by recounting a prostitute’s decision to walk away from her lucrative gig: She was convinced by the words of a nun who had taught her in grade school, repeating again and again, that she was made in the “image and likeness of God.”

“Where would the church in the United States be were it not for the religious women?” Archbishop Flynn asked. “You have been a light to the feet of so many. Because of you, they have come to know that tender, tender love of Jesus Christ.”

The names of religious women belong in history books—Helen Prejean, C.S.J., and Mother Mary Francis Xavier Warde alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Blackwell. Trailblazers, fundraisers, prayer warriors, visionaries. The prospect of folding Catholic sisters into National Women’s History Month made perfect sense to Molly Murphy MacGregor, executive director and co-founder of the National Women’s History Project and a product of Catholic schools taught by Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sisters of St. Joseph. “People do not get to see real honest-to-God nuns,” MacGregor said. “One of the things we deal with all the time is how invisible women’s contributions are—and that’s really true in the church.”

Ditching the Egg

Harnessing the Internet is a powerful way to spark real-life friendships, even if 140-character messages on Twitter feel superficial—an objection raised by a sister during social-media training. The women religious were advised to be personal in their online outreach, which begins by replacing the egg that automatically appears as a person’s Twitter avatar with a real photo. “I have to remove my egg!” Sister Linda Lee said afterwards.

Honorata Grzeszczuk, C.S.S.F., attended the same session, wearing a habit and tapping notes on her Nexus tablet. “I learned more about the power of social media and the need for our presence there. I mean open presence, not one holy corner in the Internet but an active presence,” she said.

Julie Vieira, I.H.M., co-director of A Nun’s Life Ministry, is an expert at marrying old-fashioned storytelling to high-tech media. She shot videos of 10 groups during the weekend and spoke about her growing awareness of women religious. Sister Julie said she was 25 and sitting in spiritual direction when she was struck by the fact that her spiritual director, a Catholic sister, was wearing black pumps. The shoes did not strike the young adult as conventional nun-footwear. “If the high heels were surprising,” she recalled thinking, “what else had I missed? I was intrigued.”

Sister Julie soon experienced the “circle of sisterhood,” a sense of spiritual camaraderie that washed over her during Come and See, a weekend retreat for those wanting to learn more about life in a particular religious congregation. She felt it again during the NCSW kickoff. “There was an overwhelming sense of sisterhood that transcended age, culture and geography and whether the participant was a student or sister,” she said.

Mary Soher, O.P., executive co-director of National Catholic Sisters Week, echoed that observation. “Among the sisters there was such a claiming of sisterhood. There really is this sense that we are all sisters working in the mission of Christ.” That reality was evident during prayer on opening night, Sister Mary said, when the group split into three levels, gathering around a central atrium. “We were raising our voices in song, and the sound of our prayer rose and filled the building. I was thinking, ‘This is it!’”

A college senior, Morgan Agia, has felt awed by the robust community among women religious ever since she attended World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011. That is when she first contemplated religious life. “I was surrounded by young, vibrant sisters who were just gorgeous,” she said. “I wanted to be around them more.” Attending the NCSW weekend, Agia said, drew her closer to religious life. “Hearing the breadth of ministry sisters get to participate in is really attractive and something that fits my desire to do more than just one thing with my life.”

The sister Agia was paired with, who called the 22-year-old she had never met before a “kindred spirit,” demonstrated that breadth well: Dorothy Fabritze, M.S.C., lives in a mobile trailer and ministers to the circus community. Learning about NCSW prompted Sister Dorothy to reminisce about her teen years, becoming a postulant at age 17. She had been inspired by the missionaries who visited her school and showed slides of the exotic island nation of Papua New Guinea. “I realize that my vocation came about from someone telling their story,” she said, “so I want to do that for other women.”

Doling Out Love

Sister Dorothy has already done that for Agia, who ably pinpoints the Italian-Irish sister’s charm: “I most admire the precious way she doles out love on the world.”

When asked about their NCSW sister, many students used the word love.

“I like that the Dominicans are about peace and love,” Tia Clifford said. “That may sound really hippie.”

She and Sister Linda Lee had just posed for a photo taken by an iPad. “My daughter from another mother,” Sister Linda Lee had joked, pulling in Clifford, 44 years her junior, for a cheek-to-cheek hug.

“I admire how she sees the good in people,” Clifford later said. “She tells you what you’re good at.” And Clifford knows that Sister Linda Lees sees great potential in her as a sister. “I’m discerning,” she said.

Being explicit about the possibility of a religious vocation is something not enough sisters do when interacting with young women, said James Lindsay, executive director of the Catholic Volunteer Network based in Takoma Park, Md. He has heard from multiple sisters that they do not want to make young women feel “uncomfortable,” and he recognizes this reality in his own communications with alumni of Catholic volunteer programs. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, however, has found that nearly two percent of the Catholic women who participate in a volunteer program become sisters. “This would compare to probably less than a tenth of a percent among non-volunteers,” Thomas P. Gaunt, S.J., executive director of CARA, wrote in an email. “A huge difference.”

The Catholic Volunteer Network is now setting out to explore the link between volunteer programs and religious life, creating more opportunities to volunteer with a religious congregation and measuring the impact of relationships with sisters on young women considering a vocation. The undertaking is being funded by a new grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, piggybacking on the work of its related grants, including National Catholic Sisters Week.

Nearly half of the women who made final vows last year say they were personally encouraged to consider a vocation by a religious sister or brother, according to a CARA study. Parents, parishioners and relatives were reportedly much more likely to encourage men to pursue religious life than women, whereas friends were nearly five times as likely to encourage women as men.

Some of those encouraging friendships began at the NCSW weekend, where young women cemented nascent bonds by friending each other on Facebook. “They found such peer support among other young women who also have this hunger to learn more about sisters,” said Sister Mary Soher, the co-director.

Moving forward, all of the students are invited to create oral histories of women religious, settle into one-on-one relationships and share their finished videos on www.SisterStory.org, a digital hub for National Catholic Sisters Week. Sister Mary asks young women and women religious to check the website in the coming months as she and her colleagues tweak the oral-history pilot program and begin rolling it out at other colleges. She hopes to continue the momentum from the inaugural NCSW by engaging with a broader audience online and looking into regional meetings in 2015.

Clifford, for her part, intends to bring more women religious to campus so her peers can benefit from their wisdom like she has. After taking off from Minneapolis and landing at the airport in Dayton, Ohio, she and Sister Linda Lee discussed their plans during a pancake supper at Cracker Barrel. “We both love breakfast food!” Clifford said.

Then they piled into Sister Linda Lee’s Chevy Malibu and made the 20-minute drive to school, when they discussed their concept of God. “We have a similar view of God—this loving character who really does care about you, who is not going to tear you down for your sins,” Clifford said. “You are probably going to do that enough yourself. He is just going to love you.”

Sister Mary is filled with hope when she imagines what students like Clifford might create in response to National Catholic Sisters Week. “This is just the beginning,” she said. “And it is an incredibly beautiful and energetic beginning.”

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