October 25, 2013

A generation ago, students from rival Catholic schools enjoyed camaraderie and competition while under the tutelage of nuns in black habits.  Though hairlines have receded and waistlines have expanded, appreciation for the nuns who schooled them has endured.  So a group of Catholic school alumni pray their former classmates will join them at the first annual Golden Habit mixer on Black Friday to give back to the sisters who gave so much to them.

For the past several years, Sister Irene O’Neil, Principal Foundation Officer for the CSJ Ministries Foundation, (www.csjministriesfoundation.org) has shared coffee, donuts and memories on Thursday mornings with alumni such as Michael Flood, Kevin Berg, and Bill Miley – men from large families who represent a generation that was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Through their discussions, they realized the women who had shaped and schooled tens of thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics had become invisible to their former pupils.

The Sisters of St. Joseph came to Minnesota 160 years ago.  Initially, they focused on educating immigrants from European countries.  As the Irish, Italian, German and French newcomers learned a common language they also became stricken with cholera. So the sisters opened hospitals to care for the sick.  When adults died and left their children parentless, the sisters opened orphanages.

Once 1000 strong, currently the order has roughly 250 sisters in Minnesota. For generations, the sisters have identified a need, found a way to eradicate it, and then moved on to the next burgeoning issue.

Why did they become invisible? At the behest of Pope John Paul II, the sisters revisited their founding documents and discovered they were meant to blend in with society, O’Neill explained.  While nuns in other orders remained cloistered, the CSJ closed their convents and exchanged their habits for skirts and slacks.

As they left the convents, they identified the neighborhoods with the greatest needs.  They moved into areas where drug dealers operated in plain sight, opened their doors, and waited to see who would walk through them, O’Neill says.

O’Neill speaks with pride of the women who make bold moves with an impact.  But she also speaks frankly of the need for financial support, not for the sisters, but for the social justice work to which they are committed.

In her infectious manner, O’Neill has broadcast a call to action to former students, their friends, and loved ones with an invitation to The Golden Habit Mixer.  The evening after Thanksgiving, the sisters will join with alumni and friends at the Cretin Derham Hall Field House for live music, dancing, food, games and camaraderie (www.goldenhabitmixer.org). But the event will also offer an opportunity to give thanks for the sisters’ service with a financial contribution.

Shari Taylor Wilsey, mixer chair, says, “We were blessed to have been given the gift of a Catholic education.  To honor our parents and our faith we are asking everyone who has gone to Twin Cities Catholic schools to join us in an old school mixer with all funds raised going to support the CSJs.”

The sisters continue to help immigrants to be productive and contributing members of society. With the Twin Cities not only a resettlement area but also home to the Center for Victims of Torture, immigrants hail from dozens of countries and come with great needs. Many have fled their native lands, leaving behind children and other family members.  They are scarred – physically and emotionally – and have few skills to begin life in a new land.

They may have been tortured or trafficked or separated from their families, so they seek safety.  Unable to communicate independently, they need help navigating systems that can be daunting for Americans: human services agencies, health care, immigration, employment, and housing.

Rather than replicate existing services, the sisters connect the needy with those who can best meet their needs, while tending to the spiritual needs of people of many different faiths.

At “Sarah’s Oasis” the sisters, staff and volunteers have provided safe shelter to 600 women from 65 different countries over the past 18 years (www.SarahsOasis.org). During a typical 18-month stay at the St. Paul residence, women who come from countries that may not be on friendly terms learn to live as a family.  They, too, become sisters as they teach each other their languages, prepare meals together and venture out into the community to become educated and employed.

The nuns are still teaching. Since its inception in 1994, Minneapolis-based Learning in Style has opened its doors to people from 80 different nations. Students learn English and math and use computers to prepare for citizenship tests. While parents learn upstairs, children play downstairs – all at no cost to them.

While the nuns may have become invisible, their students have not. “The community we served before is strong and doing well,” O’Neill says.  “We have tens of thousands of alumni. We know who they are.  We remember them. We taught them to help, we taught them to serve their neighbor. Now we are saying to them, ‘We need your help.’ We believe in them. If everyone gives a little we can float a lot of boats.”