Sisters fondly recalled during celebration - Catholic Courier

Sisters fondly recalled during celebration

ROCHESTER — Father Raymond Fleming recalled learning not too long ago, while on retreat, that he was a “BVM boy.”

That was the title that an elderly sister had given him, because he had been taught by the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary while growing up in Butte, Mont.

Father Fleming, pastor of St. Monica Parish and Emmanuel Church of the Deaf, recalled this, as well as the influence that Sister Mary Borromeo had had on his mother’s life. She had been his mother’s mentor when his mother discerned a vocation to marriage rather than religious life. Sister Mary Borromeo also played a major role in his own life, when she baptized him upon his birth in the hospital following a difficult delivery.

Those anecdotes were part of many shared during A Celebration of Our Sisters, which took place Aug. 19 at St. Monica Church. The celebration was guided by the female drama troupe Women of the Well, which performed stories of sisters from a script written by member Marilyn Catherine, who had compiled it based on interviews with 26 local sisters from five congregations that had served in the Diocese of Rochester.

The production involved six women from the troupe: Catherine, Richie Smith, Deni Mack, Gloria Ulterino, Joyce McAndrew and Colleen Schantz, as well as narrator Dorothy Siegel, musical performers Judy Boyd and Tony Falzano, and liturgical dancer Sue Wollenhaupt.

“Every word that was said was a line from one of the sisters or a story,” Catherine said. “I just composed it into a story that could be shared.”

Catherine said the idea for the production started with the adult faith-formation team at St. Monica; she is a member of the team and of Women of the Well. She said the production was prompted in part by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to ensure the organization’s fidelity to Catholic teaching. Yet the assessment was not the focus of the finished production, Catherine said.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a political position, but we did feel like hearing the sisters come up in the headlines, we wanted to tell them how grateful we are and how much appreciated sisters are today,” Catherine said.

She said the event was intended to give people a chance to express their appreciation and gratitude for the things that sisters have done in their lives.

“Just about everybody has been touched by some sisters, and they have made the world a better place,” Catherine said.

Several hundred people attended the event, with the audience split between women religious and their supporters.

“I felt so much gratitude,” said Sister of St. Joseph Sharon Bailey, who said she cried through the entire production.

She said she entered the congregation just before the beginning of the Second Vatican Council opened and attended nursing school.

“Those years afterwards became years of experimenting and just trying new things,” Sister Bailey said, who noted that in the years her superior had given her permission to start a new venture and to tap resources from the community if she needed it.

In the production, sisters said that they entered because there were more opportunities open to women religious than to other women. One, for instance, wanted to work with international missions, and eventually made it to Chile as a woman religious.

Sisters spoke about what surprised them about religious life, including finding out that not everyone was as holy as they had initially appeared. Others spoke of regimentation in their daily schedule and recalled starching and ironing their habits.

Anecdotes from the stories shared through the dramatic production included a sister recalling how she and her fellow sisters pooled some of the home-cooked food their families had brought on a family visit and secreted it away in their pockets, instead of turning it over to their superiors at the end of the day. The anecdote ended with her devouring a home-cooked veal cutlet in the basement restroom.

The production noted some of the changes that came about in religious life following the Second Vatican Council, including changes to the habits they wore, and the relaxation of some rules, including allowing women to wear pajamas instead of uniform nightgowns. Sisters also spoke of how their opportunities grew, and how they found a freedom in religious life to pursue things they may not have previously considered, such as social-justice issues.

“The biggest change that came about was how we’ve grown in respect for one another,” one of the performers said during the production.

The program also featured several hymns, and Falzano wrote and performed a song for the event. Additionally, during the event, audience members were able to stand up and express their appreciation for sisters who had helped them. During prayers, they also spoke aloud the names of sisters they wished to pray for, causing a stream of names to ripple from the audience.

Some people stood up at the event and told of how women religious had helped them get back on their feet after financial hardships. Others shared of good times they had had with the sisters.

Afterwards, Jennifer McDermott of Rochester said she wanted to attend the celebration because of the positive experiences she had working with Sisters of Mercy when she lived from 1994-97 at Melita House, which serves pregnant and parenting teens and young women.

“My experience with the Sisters of Mercy was a real inspiration to me,” McDermott said.

Colleen Schantz, a parishioner of St. Monica and a member of Women of the Well, said the Sisters of Mercy have been especially influential in her life.

“They’ve taught me what it means to be part of the family of God,” Schantz said.

Sister of St. Joseph Phyllis Tierney said the production was very moving and contained a universality of experience for many of the women religious who had lived it.

“It just helped us to remember again all these different places in our lives where we felt community and God and love with each other,” she said.

Organizers said the production was videotaped and plans are being made to give a copy of the tape to each of the congregations in the area.

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