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Kentucky or India, gospel thrust marks SCN outreach

NCR Staff
Nazareth, KY.

This particular evening, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth June assembly had a task before it -- to elect the director of “The Archangel Choir.”

The gatherees approached the vote as a political convention -- state delegations all lobbying for their candidate. Mississippi fielded a lone delegate, Maria Vincent Brocato, who attempted to command a following as antebellum-gowned “Miss Melanie Magnolia Moore,” extolling the state’s “pecan trees, beautiful cotton and the most hospitable people you’ll ever find in your life.”

Unsuccessful at the “fun night” election, Brocato received a different distinction -- in September she started a five-year term as SCN president.

As such, said Brocato, back in her day clothes, she and her team of Srs. Shalini D’Souza and Mary Elizabeth Miller, have member-generated priorities -- to make the congregation’s governing structure “more relational and simpler,” to reflect the order’s current numbers and international nature, and to “strengthen our international ties,” which will include discernment regarding Africa.

There’s a marked contrast between the aging of the congregation and the energy behind its activities. Take as one example the many-acred Nazareth motherhouse campus itself. It’s practically a self-contained hamlet -- yet open to everyone.

There’s a Montessori school for toddlers and two Nazareth Villages providing accommodation for more than 150 elderly and people with disabilities.

There’s Heritage Hall Museum, plus a conference/retreat center -- retreats that can (for a small fee) include massage and other holistic services.

The surrounding community uses the campus, its walks and its lake as its local park -- the order uses it as an environmental issues training ground -- plus the community participates in Nazareth Arts for Life programs that use the arts and performance for everything from recreation to therapy.

Like many alert, large congregations with declining numbers, the Sisters of Charity have been looking to the future, and to consolidation, for years. Early into Social Security, they have had leaders who, said outgoing president, Sr. Elizabeth Wendeln, shepherded the order’s income into investments and began monitoring, 25 years ago, the corporations in which they invested.

In the past, the community received assistance from the fund for aging religious, she said, “but not currently because we know other communities are worse off than us. The day may come again.” Wendeln said that projections suggest the congregation, cautiously, can handle the next two decades financially.

In the United States the sisters’ activities range from Covenant House work in Florida to social services in Brockton, Mass., and Maryland.

But continuing this core outreach work also requires a change in mindset. “We’ve been very hesitant in the past,” Wendeln said, “to be the link between people who want their money to go to places of need” and those places. “Now we see we can be,” she said.

“Vincent de Paul did that,” she said. “He had the Ladies of Charity who couldn’t be present to the poor but who could give and the Daughters of Charity who could be with the poor and did not have the money.”

During Wendeln’s term, as buildings continue to be converted to meet new requirements, the sisters have created a development unit to handle fundraising.

To date it’s helping in Belize City, where the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have worked since 1975. They’ve opened their first SCN Center -- to serve as a boarding house for women from outlying areas trying to get their high school and college degrees. Sisters will help tutor them. In Independence Village, Belize, two sisters tutor women villagers pursuing high school diplomas through correspondence courses.

In the United States, earlier leaderships, she explained, consolidated the hospitals and clinics, and brought lay trusteeship to schools and colleges, closed institutions when necessary; current leaderships grapple with less tangible questions.

“We’re now looking at greater depths inwardly,” she said, “at transforming our own value system. The last assembly called it ‘transforming consciousness.’ Those might just be words, but they are deep because they are a call for conversion.

“We’ve started some international teams in the congregation, and this,” she said, “was not understood at the beginning: Why are we having sisters go to international meetings -- why are we paying for it when the money could serve the poor? Why is it the executive committee had a meeting in England -- yes, it’s halfway between India and the U.S., but so what? Can’t the U.S. meet here and give India a call?” These were the questions.

What’s occurring, said Wendeln, is a switch on where the congregation spends some of its money, “and that touches a nerve in some people. But the deeper part of it is our ability to communicate with one another as sisters. We’re an international order.”

“When one comes from another country, another culture, what one says -- the words may be English words yet come from an experience that is totally different. It’s the same with Belize with our African-American and Spanish-speaking sisters here,” said Wendeln.

“When I say something from my most sincere heart,” said Wendeln, “it could be understood as totally opposite when it goes into the ears of a person of another culture.

“If you’re trying to communicate by fax, that makes it that many levels harder. You try telephone conferencing, but the electricity in Patna [India] doesn’t permit it. So we do it in person -- to try to look at among ourselves how my behavior affects your behavior affects my behavior.

“It’s so easy to say we’re interconnected,” summarized Wendeln, “so hard to live it. Transforming our consciousness is still in process. But it is coming. It’s more than just exchanging recipes and dress and rituals. Though it’s hard to articulate, it is exchanging hearts.”

It is also sharing risks, some quite serious: Sisters in Belize have publicly sided with banana workers seeking better pay. In India, where anti-Christian attacks are rising under India’s current fundamentalist religious government, sisters have been in the organizing forefront, especially on women’s issues.

Last year Sr. Ann Moyalan and Fr. Tom Nelly organized 500 Parkala villagers to protest atrocities against women. Women and children’s health issues mean outreach work in towns and villages and cities -- a shelter for women and children in Gurgaon where, in collaboration with the Italian lay Movement of St. Francis Xavier, House of Hope shelters the marginalized and prostitutes, and promotes literacy and health-care.

Sometimes the work brings conflict with church authorities, too. Vice President D’Souza, until recently working with prostitutes in New Delhi, was called before the nuncio and the local bishop for distributing condoms to prostitutes to protect them from AIDS.

The support from her sisters was superb, said D’Souza, especially the letter from “the congregation president [Wendeln] saying that whatever the bishop says, remember, we are behind you.”

“The funny thing was,” said D’Souza, “after being corrected by the bishop, he met me at a party and said, ‘How’s the rubber factory doing?’ So I felt that in his moments away from the office he was able to understand.”

In the larger context, Wendeln told NCR, “there’s such a diversity of where God’s calling us today. It’s like starting all over. But centering that in the Christ, finding our link with the Roman Catholic church, keeps us in a paschal mystery of death and new life.”

“I believe we, too, are a challenge to the church,” she said. “And how that continues to grow I don’t know. I pray we and I will be very much a part of that healthy tension. The religious life according to our Holy Father is not a part of the hierarchical church but a gift to the church.

“A charism is a gift to the church. If we truly live the charism we will be stretching ourselves and the church,” said Wendeln. “It’s a holy task, and I pray we continue it.”

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth
Founded: 1812 in Nazareth, Ky., by Fr. (later Bishop) John Baptist David with Mother Catherine Spaulding.
Membership: 592 strong in the United States, but only 140(24 percent) are under 65, and only 12 sisters are under 50. In India -- founded as a province in 1947 -- 96 percent of the 194 are under 65, two-thirds of them under 50. Candidates: United States 4; India 15.
Apostolates: Opened orphanages, hospitals and schools, including today’s Spaulding University and Presentation Academy, Louisville, and Our Lady of Nazareth Academy in Wakefield, Mass. The schools today have their own lay trustees; the hospitals and clinics as a single group entered in 1997 into cosponsorship with 11 other congregations in Catholic Health Initiatives. The congragation is member of the Federation of Sisters of Charity and the U.N. non-governmental organization network and is deeply committed to monitoring corporate responsibility because of its own investments -- and from pressure from SCN Indian sisters who see the downside of multinational expansion in their country.
Missions: In 1947, at the invitation of U.S. Jesuits, sisters began work in India. They have worked in Belize sisnce 1975 and Nepal since 1977.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999