e-mail us


From teaching tables to changing the world


Early in Holy Week, my sister Virginia entered St. Joseph’s Hospital in Yonkers for what was to be the first of two colon surgeries -- the curse of the Unsworth clan. She emerged terribly weak from them but in good spirits, even as she chased both my brother and me off the phone.

After nearly 55 years as a Sister of Charity of Mount Saint Vincent, she was still strong. My wife Jean and I had taken her to dinner in lower Manhattan just a few weeks before and, while it was trout instead of steak, she had cleaned her plate.

But just before Holy Thursday broke, she complained to one of the sisters who shared her hospital room that she was feeling very tired. She never made it back to her bed. She was dead before she hit the floor.

It was a pulmonary embolism, a complication of deep-vein thrombosis, in which a blood clot detaches from the wall of a deep vein and moves into the bloodstream, through the heart, and along the pulmonary artery toward the lungs. If the clot is big enough, it results in heart failure and the collapse of the circulatory system.

It was a mine disaster. We are still inhaling all the secondhand smoke of different opinions about her death, all the resurrected laughter, all the meals, all the letters from relatives and friends, and all the remembered debates. (“Don’t ever write about me in NCR!” she used to warn. Ginny was prudent.)

Ginny was the 12th sister in her archdiocesan congregation to die this year. There are now 81,000 religious sisters in the United States, down over 22,100 in the past decade alone -- a drop of 21 percent. They are relentlessly aging. There are now more sisters over 90 than under 30. Although religious women tend to live longer than other females, their average age is now approaching 70. It’s likely that the vast majority will be in their graves within a few decades.

At her funeral, I looked over my shoulder at a sea of gray heads, most of them older than Ginny, who died just short of her 73rd birthday. Many resembled people at a train station, their bags packed, patiently waiting for God.

Ginny was a religious sister to her very marrow. From the time she entered high school in 1942, she was a Sister of Charity. She entered formally in 1946 and took her habit in the very chapel from which she was buried.

She loved being a sister. She lived through changes that were bigger than Vatican II itself. (Only one religious sister was even invited to Vatican II and she only as an observer. But religious women brought about far more positive changes than the men in watered silk. It may be because male clergy understood power while religious women understood love.)

Ginny shelved her coal scuttle bonnet and old habit and adopted a modest dress and congregation pin following Vatican II. She learned to drive and to put aside the dire warnings of Thomas à Kempis and his anti-intellectual Imitation of Christ that claimed that “each time I go among men, I return less a man.” She had hundreds of friends, some of them acquired while earning her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

She had an enormous intellect, one that sometimes hobbled her communications. (Once after visiting a prison in the Bahamas where she was stationed for years, a prisoner said to another sister: “Hey, you don’t talk like that one. She talks like a dictionary.” Ginny couldn’t help it. She was a classical FM station.)

Her intellect and her innate kindness sometimes clashed. At times, she sounded more like Gracie Allen. To a student who had flunked her history class, she soothed: “Now, don’t feel bad. Of all those who failed, you got the highest mark.”

Then there was the grateful Asian student who wrote her a note of thanks. His salutation: “Dear Sister Virgin Unworthy.”

I thought she might spend her life clapping erasers and teaching tables and catechism to runny-nosed kids in the Bronx. Instead, she taught at all levels in New York, Brooklyn, the Bahamas, Hong Kong, and for about half her life at the college level. She became a regional superior and, after turning down a chance to be the congregation’s leader, she became a Maryknoll Associate and went to Hong Kong where she spent several years.

Religious sisters have changed the world. They get only footnotes in church annals while the bishops look out from heavy oil paintings on the glossy pages. They are arguably the most talented group of women in the world, eons ahead of their female colleagues in other professions. Indeed, in many cases, women religious prepared and welcomed those who took their places.

Sr. Virginia had dreams of teaching in China. Her doctorate was in Asian Studies. She made working trips to Central and South America and to Third World countries in Africa. She monitored her congregation’s investments to be certain that their portfolio did not contain stock in companies that paid prison wages.

Within her community, she chipped away at the ecclesiastical church in order to move the Rock of Peter at least a little and to improve the quality of life for the sisters. She believed in parish life and took an active part in St. Margaret’s, her Bronx parish. And she volunteered in a soup kitchen, pushed wheelchair patients in a Sisters of Charity hospital, and cleaned out closets at a Harlem shelter.

Ginny was just one of thousands of sisters who served in this country almost from the first Fourth of July. My first was Sr. Philomena, my kindergarten teacher at St. Alice’s in the early 1930s. I flunked sandbox and was still too young for first grade, so I spent another year mastering blocks and drinking hot chocolate.

Since then, I witnessed religious sisters protesting the death penalty, taking part in civil rights marches, standing outside government buildings, praying silently for peace, standing up at stockholders’ meetings and calling CEOs to task, defending the rights of homosexuals even while being punished by gay clerics who hide behind their collars. In short, I think it’s safe to say that bishops derived their pastoral statements from the quiet placards of religious sisters, carried well before the bishops spoke out on these issues. (It came together for me at Ginny’s wake as I chatted with Sr. Theresa Kane, the Mercy sister who gently asked John Paul II to examine the role of women in the church in 1979. Ginny’s friend put her religious life at risk.)

In time, I suppose, given the present trend, religious sisters will become an entry in a Catholic encyclopedia that might read: “For a period of about 1,000 years, religious women performed a wide variety of tasks, especially in education, health care and work among the poor. In time, partly because they educated dedicated laity to perform these tasks, vowed, female religious quietly faded away.”

Sr. Virginia Unsworth now rests quietly on a hillside in Yonkers, together with other sisters. She shares a grave and modest headstone with one who died well before her. I might have forgotten to mention that religious sisters were likely the first to teach us not to waste anything in creation -- even their narrow resting place.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is an evolving Catholic. Evolve with him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001