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Blessed Sacrament Sisters in the news and among the poor

NCR Staff
Bensalem, Pa.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in the past few months have been on “60 Minutes,” (women religious in corporate responsibility work), in U.S. News and World Report (the canonization process for an extremely wealthy founder who chose to live in poverty), and are in a recently filmed but not yet broadcast “ABC World News Tonight” segment on how women religious today use modern means -- E-mail, web sites, videos -- to get out their message.

The sisters have videos on founder Mother Katharine Drexel, their work among African-Americans and Native-Americans and about their two sisters in Haiti.

Sr. Faith Okerson works on internal and external communications full-time. “Full-time,” as any active sister in any congregation these days knows, means one full-time job among many responsibilities.

The word around Rome is that Mother Katharine, who already draws 18,000 visitors a year to her shrine here, may be canonized as part of the church’s millennium celebrations. Pope John Paul II wants to raise up a saint on each continent to mark the new era, and Drexel’s cause is quite far along among U.S. candidates. Or the canonization could come on its own this year.

The publicity and pending canonization though are not the work. They are adjuncts to what Drexel set out to do in 1891 -- create an order of women religious that would dedicate itself to working with blacks and Indians.

This congregation is not for sissies. The order’s history tells of some Southern Catholic bishops’ intransigence when sisters pressed to march on Selma, Ala., and integrate their schools.

Drexel didn’t back down. Whether it was supporting the NAACP in antilynching campaigns, or Roy Wilkins trying to change the almost “slave-like” conditions for blacks working on 1930s’ federal projects, or sisters in the 1960s pushing integration and attempting to swing the church behind the “black power” movement, these women stood firm.

Katharine Drexel was a remarkable woman with possibly one of the most thoroughly documented lives of any U.S. congregation founder. From her years of letters to Fr. (later Bishop) James O’Connor -- who knew her first as a 14-year-old -- agonizing over her vocation, to her voluminous (literally) retreat notes and letters to sisters, Drexel’s 96-year-long life (she died in 1955) is known.

But for many U.S. women’s congregations in fields as distinct as education and medicine and inner-city work with the poor, the impact of their contribution to U.S. education, health, social development and justice, and their place in U.S. history, has barely been noted, let alone charted.

The Blessed Sacrament sisters (who have a daily requirement of an hour in prayer, 30 minutes of which is before the Blessed Sacrament) not only are a good historical case in point, they are frank enough to talk publicly about today’s difficulties -- the traumas of trying to shrink, consolidate and survive without relinquishing the work and the vision.

The leadership team’s priorities, set by their assembly, includes improving recruitment, mission effectiveness, and internal and external communications. “Not the big splash,” said President Sr. Monica Loughlin, “that’s not important, but getting out the mission message and getting folks to buy into it is.”

The message has always been the same, she said: “It’s how do you read what Jesus said. Do you believe in the equality of all people? And if so, how do you live that out in your life. And how do you act that out in your life.”

Recruitment? “In 1964,” said Loughlin, “I was looking to cure the world of racism. I’d probably do that in a few years and then off to Tanzania. The reality now is that any young woman who wants to cure the world of racism isn’t going to be looking at the sisters as the means to do it. Necessarily.

“If you’re looking for a deeply religious and spiritual life, hungry for a group you want to commit to,” said Loughlin, “that’s a whole different angle.”

At present, with one novice, two sisters in temporary vows and no candidates (“we get one every other year”), the question goes deep.

With so many elderly sisters, why would a young woman commit? She’d need to be part MBA, part gerontologist and major wunderkind.

“We do have to be very clear what their future might look like,” admitted Loughlin, “and they don’t have to be with us long to figure it for themselves. The more important thing is that we have to be astute in who these women are -- we can’t go by earlier models. If they’ve got rings in their eyebrows we can’t right away say no. We need to listen clearly or we’d reject everyone. Society has changed, we need to hear what they’re looking for.”

At the same time, she said, the sisters “can’t appear so tired, so struggling with what we must do, that there’s no appeal.”

The congregation is downsizing, pushing subsidiarity and local and personal decision-making while the leadership “concentrates on the big items and plans for the future.” And those “big items” can be nightmares.

Loughlin, vice-president for academic affairs at SBS-founded Xavier University in New Orleans until her 1955 election, said, “Our mission’s always been clear. But with fewer and fewer sisters -- and we have not always been pro-active -- what do we do and how do we do it?”

She gave two examples, one ahead, and a tragedy in the near past.

Work with the Native Americans in a white society has always been as problematic as work with the black community for the sisters, but in a different way. It has called for a different type of endurance, a different understanding.

Were mistakes made in both? Drexel had to start with single-race schools in the South. Out West, the argument for residential Indian schools can be seen in the Western reality -- the distances were so great between settlements, even for bands within the same tribes, that local schools weren’t possible.

Those same distances create unique problems now as the sisters seek to hand over their Indian schools to their natural constituency. Said Loughlin, of the lay-run future for St. Michael’s College in St. Michael’s, Ariz., “It’s a hard transition. Just to get a board named is difficult. People travel 100 miles and 200 miles just to come to the board meeting. This is not a community where people live close together.”

Loughlin explains, using the fate of St. Catherine’s Indian School for Pueblo Indians in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to illustrate the dilemma. “There’s not a whole lot of models out there for these types of institutions. In cities it’s easy to find people who have experience with boards, with administration.”

St. Catherine’s runs deep in congregation history. Drexel helped build and maintain it before she even founded the order. It was the first Indian school the new sisters staffed once they came into existence.

Closing it “was an extremely painful experience,” said Loughhlin, “and some of it was our naivete as a leadership group in thinking there was leadership present to work with us and we’d make this transition. It didn’t work.

“In 1992-95 and 1996-97 we tried at least two models of governance,” she said. “We had real critical questions, too, in terms of physical plant maintenance, preventive maintenance, funding; real uncertainty about the dormitory model.

“Finally, we said we don’t think this can continue.” The lovely but rundown buildings have been leased to another school that belongs to the Pueblo people -- not the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- “but it is not touching on values or religious education,” she said.

“We didn’t even do a satisfactory job of letting the Pueblo people know early enough on that this was our reality. We’re still working with them, looking at what the future can be.”   With St. Catherine’s as backdrop, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament now look to St. Michael’s, which has the largest number of sisters, many of them elderly, of any SBS foundation outside Philadelphia. There is a small endowment and an active development program. Yet “planning for its future is a slow and difficult struggle,” said Loughlin.

But the issue is to be faced, and face it the sisters will, as with every other challenge. Including the aging and diminishing numbers. “We don’t talk a lot about what it’s going to be like when nobody’s here,” said Loughlin. “We do talk a lot about what it’s going to be like when we’re smaller.”

Across the range of most U.S. congregations for women religious, that remains the issue of the hour. That and forthrightly continuing to take the vision and mission to all who will listen -- in any way they can.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacraments
Founded: In 1891 in Bensalem, Pa., by Mother Katharine Drexel.
Membership: 265 sisters, 179 (68 percent) over 65, and only 30 sisters are under 50. Nineteen sisters are African American; six are Native American. One novice; two sisters in temporary vows. There are 108 SBS associates, from 29 in Los Angeles to three in St. Martinville, La. Each is required to go through almost a year of orientation and conversation with Blessed Sacrament groups for individuals before membership.
Apostolates: Opened schools for African-Americans and Native-Americans, including Xavier University, New Orleans. In 1955, there were 501 sisters at 65 sites, in 21 states; today the sisters staff 48 sites in 12 states.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999