EDITOR’S NOTE: Inspired by Pope Francis’ declaration of the Year of Consecrated Life, this is the eighth installment in a series on religious communities in the Diocese of Rochester.
Monica Weis was only 17 or 18 when she first discerned her future vocation as a Sister of St. Joseph. She knew she wanted to be of service to others, although at that time she didn’t fully understand what that meant, recalled Sister Weis, who entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester in 1960. Fifty-five years later, Sister Weis now has a deeper understanding of what it means to really serve others.
"Being of service means being so absolutely open and vulnerable and inclusive to the needs of the neighbor," she explained.
Such service is one of the hallmarks of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The women religious in this Rochester congregation make it their mission to serve their neighbors without distinction, and many of their ministries demonstrate concern for those on the margins of society, according to Sister Sharon Bailey, congregational president. The sisters’ St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, for example, provides low-cost health care to people in need. St. Martin’s Place, which also is sponsored by the congregation, serves 19,000 hot meals a year, mentors job seekers and helps people in need find places to live. Hope Hall provides an education for students with special needs, and Daystar provides pediatric respite care during the day for young children with serious medical and developmental conditions.
Although service is a big part of the sisters’ mission, they also focus on hospitality, bridge-building and inclusivity, added Sister Weis, who recently retired after 39 years as a professor of English at Nazareth College.
"One of our charisms is uniting neighbor with God and neighbor to neighbor," she said.
The more than 200 Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester live out this charism in their daily lives, and they’re joined by more than 100 associates, or men and women who maintain their own lifestyles and responsibilities while uniting with the sisters in serving God through the love and service of neighbors.
"We call (the associates) members of the house of Joseph, and they have the same charism of caring for the neighbor, of being open, of going the extra mile and living with open hands," Sister Weis said. "And you never know what your day will bring or how you are called to reach out to the neighbor."
Sister Weis takes literally her responsibility toward her neighbors. She lives in community with a handful of other Sisters of St. Joseph in an urban neighborhood in Rochester. Every Monday night they gather with their neighbors for a potluck dinner at which they share stories and break bread with people of all different faiths and even those of no faith. She said she feels committed to be there with her neighbors in any way she can, especially since they sometimes ask her serious questions about the Catholic Church. The sisters’ presence at these dinners doesn’t fit into the stereotypical image of a ministry, yet sometimes the ministry of presence — simply being with people and really listening to them — can be just as needed as more traditional ministries, Sister Weis said.
The Sisters of St. Joseph themselves have a long tradition, as the order was founded by a group of women in France in 1650. Two hundred years later, a group of Sisters of St. Joseph traveled from Missouri to Canandaigua and founded a tiny community, which eventually became the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester. As the local community grew, the Sisters of St. Joseph soon became well-known in the region for their commitment not only to service, but also to education. They founded Nazareth College in 1924, operated Nazareth Hall and Nazareth Academy elementary and high schools for many years, and continue to operate Nazareth Elementary School in partnership with Aquinas Institute. Sisters Weis and Bailey were both taught by Sisters of St. Joseph when they were students at Nazareth Academy, and their teachers left lasting impressions.
"They were great teachers, and were so interested in us," Sister Bailey recalled. "I just loved the way they related to each other. They just laughed, and they were so human."
Sisters Bailey and Weis said these teachers were partly responsible for their own eventual vocations. These days, Sisters of St. Joseph also serve in parishes and in a number of local ministries, and several sisters carry out missionary work in Selma, Ala., and in Brazil. The Sisters of St. Joseph Volunteer Corps provides a faith-formation experience for high-school and college students, who experience a weeklong program of volunteer service, community living, prayer and fun. A number of volunteer opportunities also are available for adults.
The sisters love serving the people of the Rochester Diocese, Sister Bailey said.
"We invite you to join in our mission, however you want to hook into us," Sister Weis added.