MISSION AND MINISTRY IN LOUISIANA
Sister Helen Mary Harmey,OP
In 1860 seven sisters from Cabra went to New Orleans, Louisiana and founded what was to become St. Mary’s Congregation, New Orleans.
In 1968 three years after Vatican II, St. Mary’s requested sisters from our Congregation in order to help staff their schools, namely, St. Leo the Great, later St. Rosalie and Mater Dolorosa, Independence.
Because of the time constraint I am choosing to focus on two aspects that I think emanated from Vatican II, the concept of collegiality and the role of apostolic religious sisters of whose lives we were part. Pius IX at the first Vatican Council brought in papal infallibility and Vatican II as a corrective to that promoted collegiality – collegiality among the bishops and to filter throughout the Church. Did it?
In my experience, as a woman religious, being in New Orleans was my first mission and ministry. The Catholic school system at its best was collaboration between clergy, religious and laity. In all our schools – St. Leo’s, St. Rosalie, Mater Dolorosa, Marian Central, they were experiences of working together, at times painful but always rewarding.
It is true that after Vatican II many women left religious life but equally many stayed. I discovered that the women religious were quite poor. Generally, the only piece of property was the motherhouse which housed the novitiate, the elderly and the community (a word they used for Congregation). Sisters had to return to the motherhouse at holiday time as the house on the school campus belonged to the parish and depending on the wealth of the parish and the vagaries of the pastor, the house was often closed during holidays. The sisters were not paid a salary or pension but received a stipend. Sisters studied during the summer in order to get their degrees. Sisters in health care fared somewhat better.
Vatican II brought new life for the sisters in America. Many studied theology and scripture for the first time and today we have many fine schools among them. Many broke new ground in establishing adult learning centres, social justice offices, direct services to the poor and needy, lobbying and protesting for human rights and basic necessities such as adequate housing and health care.
All of this was done in a collaborative manner. We experienced collaboration among congregations and schools in the areas in which we lived and worked especially around justice issues.
Hope House where Sister Lilianne Flavin still works was originally founded by collaboration from the following congregations: sisters from Mercy, Mt. Carmel, St. Josephs and brothers from Sacred Heart and De La Salle. It was a beacon for work with the poor, the illiterate, prisoners, and lobbying against the death penalty.
One of the great gifts of the Americans is I think, that of organisation and this gift was used to promote collaboration and sharing of power and resources for ministry.
The Dominicans of the USA, men and women, came together under the auspices of DLC – Dominican Leadership Conference. One of the initiatives was Parable which promoted preaching for men and women. A Parable retreat used the format of morning, evening prayer and Eucharist. The preaching at each session was shared between a team of two brothers and two sisters.
Parable also promoted Dominican authors and publications. The Dominicans in the USA provided many workshops for man and women on preaching for example University of St. Louis provided a comprehensive course for preaching. DLC enabled ten congregations of sisters to establish a common novitiate for Dominican novices which is still in existence today.
Over the years the organisation changed to promote collaboration in different areas and levels. The latest innovation has been enabling the seven congregations who came together to form Dominican Sisters of Peace. The important thing here is that the coming together is for Mission not survival. It took a lot of faith, generosity and endurance on the part of all. It could not have been done if there hadn’t been previous experiences of working together around formation, finance, justice, preaching and ministries. Collaboration based on equality of power and resources takes time, transparency and truthfulness.
I had the opportunity to serve on the National Board for LCWR – Leadership Conference of Women Religious.. Each year they have a General Assembly and make a yearly visit to Rome. LCWR has provided education in theology, scripture, liturgy, justice, ecology, social policy. It has been an organisation open to all membership no matter what the label – conservative, progressive, liberal etc. Bi-annually, it has a shared Assembly with the men religious.
It has done a lot to promote women’s rights. Joan Chittister in a recent talk to graduates asserted that “Two-thirds of the hungry of the world are women Two-thirds of the illiterate of the world are women. Two-thirds of the poor of the world are women. That can’t be an accident; that has to be policy.” Together with the stark reality is the scary piece about it being policy. And unfortunately our church reflects an unjust policy also.
When it came to light about the poverty of the women religious and their lack of pension scheme in ministry and State, an organisation was set up called the Tri-Conference Retirement Fund. Here again it included men and women religious and the Episcopate. In the States there also existed a group of conservative women religious who did not want to join LCWR as they viewed them too liberal. But because they were not members they could not access the funds from the Tri-Conference Fund and went to Rome seeking to establish another recognised conference. This went on for some years. LCWR pleaded with Rome not to split the women religious into two groups, stating that this group could be members of LCWR and have access to the funds. Rome did not listen – divide and conquer! They were not interested in unity.
This has been injurious and over the last few years it seems as if Rome are intent on disbanding LCWR under some pretext or semantic. What they perceive as to be their organisation Women Religious of USA will be the one they can control. What has happened to them now is a misuse of power. And they frightening thing is that this misuse could spread to other Organisations.
One of LCWR’s goals all along was to be pilgrims with all the other pilgrims in the Church – to walk with the people. In that journey, there have been mistakes, extravagancies but equally great work has been done for the issues of our age – justice, collegiality, education, environment and women.