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*This article is from the Fall 2019 issues of Archways Magazine*
Sisters, Teachers, Healers, Leaders
In the evolution of the Catholic Church, there are a handful of certainties. One is the unfailing mercy of Jesus Christ. Another is that women will be crucial in carrying out His ministries.
Photographs by Gerri Hernandez
The story of women in Catholicism begins with Mary. Before Jesus anointed Peter as the rock upon whom the Church was built, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she had been chosen by God to bring His son into the world. Jesus showed great deference to His mother during His lifetime, and to this day the Church holds her in the highest regard of all the saints. After Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mary is the most prominent spiritual figure in Catholicism.
In its first centuries, women played a pivotal role in building the Church. Their work and stature were recognized by Paul in his letter to the Romans (16). “I commend to you our sister Phoebe,” he wrote, “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, I ask that you receive her in the Lord” – and went on to name a number of other women among the most influential Christians of Rome. “Nor is there male and female,” he wrote in Galatians (3:28), “for you are all one in Jesus Christ.”
But the early Church delivered a mixed message when it came to the role of women. In another passage ascribed to Paul (1 Corinthians 14:34), we are told, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.” Many scholars believe that Paul did not actually write these words – but someone wrote them, and no one deleted them.
Fortunately, in the ensuing centuries, many women chose not to remain silent, and their voices and leadership helped build the Church and spread the message of Christ’s mercy throughout the world.
In Medieval times, powerful abbesses established orders and missions and sometimes dominated Church governance in significant regions of Europe. Among these, St. Brigid of Kildare founded monasteries across Ireland and is believed to have been instrumental in preserving and restoring Christianity in Europe after the continent fell into chaos during the Middle Ages. In Germany, St. Hildegard of Bingen founded two monasteries, advanced the science of medicine and stood up in the name of the Church to Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. Near Burgos, Spain, the abbesses of Las Huelgas acted as bishops, establishing parishes for 36 villages and deciding what priests could say Mass and hear confessions in their diocese.
St. Frances X. Cabrini
Laywomen also made their mark: St. Joan of Arc led the French army to victory over the English at Orléans; St. Catherine of Siena was a brilliant theologian and devout mystic, a trusted adviser to popes and a diplomat who helped the Church find its way through the dark days of the Great Schism. Generations of mothers formed children in the values and doctrines of Christianity, and lay and religious women stepped forward again and again to initiate new ministries.
St. Teresa of Calcutta
In America, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton established the Sisters of Charity in 1809, a powerful force for faith-based education and support for orphans and the needy. In the 20th century, St. Teresa of Calcutta answered the call to serve the poorest of the poor and founded the Missionaries of Charity; St. Frances Cabrini ministered to immigrants and opened schools, or-phanages and hospitals on three continents; and Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement, a lay community focused on social justice
At a time of change in the Church, with vocations declining, the role of women seems certain to gain more influence. As Catholic historian Gary Macy has observed, “Eighty percent of the ministry in the United States is done by laypeople.… And 80 percent of that 80 percent are women…. The implications of that haven’t hit people yet.”
On the following pages, you will meet a few of today’s women of the Church in the Archdiocese of New York: religious sisters and lay leaders, educators and healers, administrators and communicators. These women, and others like them, will help lead us into the future of our faith through example, prayer and action.
CEO, Elizabeth Seton Children’s
Established by the Sisters of Charity in 1988, Elizabeth Seton Children’s delivers specialized services to children with multiple physical and neurological conditions and disabilities.
Pat Tursi, a lay associate Sister of Charity, joined the center in 2001 and has overseen its move from Manhattan to a state-of-the-art facility in Yonkers and its expansion to 169 beds, making it the largest provider of pediatric post-acute care in the U.S.
As a Catholic, I was very excited 18 years ago about coming to Elizabeth Seton Children’s. I had worked in not-for-profits my whole career, and I had worked in health care, but never in a Catholic facility. One of the board members, Sister Carol Barnes, SC, was my mentor and really helped me to understand the sisters’ charism of humility, simplicity and charity, and revealing God’s love in the work they do, especially for the poor. And that’s who we care for: 99.9% of our families are on Medicaid.
Our kids are very medically complex. In many cases they can’t speak, they need feeding tubes to eat and they can’t walk, so they rely on staff to be their eyes, their ears, their hands. And our staff gets to know very small nuances of the children.
We are not a sad place at all; we are a happy place – but you do deal with all of life’s challenges. We have kids from the time they’re two weeks old up until they are 21 years old. Sometimes our kids are able to go home, and sometimes they stay here their whole life. So it is all the phases of life.
I don’t think anybody else does the work like we do it. And I think that is because of the Sisters of Charity. The philos-ophy and the mission, and everyone feeling the mission every day, are what sets us apart. The sisters are the foundation and rock for us.
Mary Ann Tighe
CEO, New York Tri-State Region of CBRE; board member, Inner City Scholarship Fund; trustee, St. Patrick’s Cathedral
I grew up in the South Bronx. My mother worked as a secretary in the rectory at the parish of St. Peter and Paul. My father and all his siblings had gone to the School of St. Peter and Paul, and my brothers and sister and I are all graduates as well. (The school has recently closed, but the parish is alive and well.) Later, I was fortunate to get a scholarship to Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, and then to Catholic University of America.
Because of my good fortune, I learned the value of giving a child a scholarship. The first thing is the value to the family, who really may not have the discretionary income to devote to tuition – what a blessing it is to a family. But a second thing that’s not immediately apparent – and I’ve seen this with our scholarship winners over and over – is how the very act of awarding the scholarship tells a child, you are special, you are a child apart. The confidence that this instills is a lifelong blessing.
Very happily, in 1982 my family and I established a scholarship in my mother’s memory at Cardinal Spellman, and to date I think we’ve given more than 60 scholarships in the name of my parents, Edith and Frank Scarangello. In addition, I’m a longtime board member of the Inner City Scholarship Fund.
I have also been a member of the Finance Council of the archdiocese for more than 25 years, and I’m a trustee of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I’m especially proud to have played a part in the re-zoning of Midtown East in Manhattan, which resulted in the archdiocese monetizing 1.1 million square feet of air rights over St. Patrick’s – a six-year effort on the part of many people that will endow the cathedral into perpetuity if the money is well invested.
As Catholicism embraces the 21st century, I think we will not just be redefining and expanding the role of women – which has been very strong for a long time – but recognizing and celebrating that involvement. I am a product of the nuns who taught me. I got married in the former home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity, who were my teachers in elementary school. Those ladies taught me lifelong lessons that I treasure to this day.
Some women in the Church have received recognition, but we haven’t fully appreciated and recognized the contributions of women in general. I think that’s changing at an incredibly rapid rate now, and that is a delight for me.
Sr. Donna Dodge, SC. DONNA DODGE, SC
President, Sisters of Charity of New York
America’s oldest and largest order of women religious was founded in 1809 by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Institutions founded by the Sisters of Charity include the New York Foundling Hospital, St. Vincent’s Hospital and Elizabeth Seton Children’s.
Sr. Donna Dodge entered the order in 1966 after graduating from Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. She began her career in elementary education, then earned a master’s and eventually an EdD in higher education, going on to work 10 years at the College of Mount St. Vincent and 14 years at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, where she was vice president of mission and planning. Subsequently, she became the assistant director and later the executive director and CEO of the Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation. In March, she was elected president of the Sisters of Charity of New York.
Our mission is basically to respond to those in need – anybody in need – by revealing God’s love to all people. Our three main areas have been in education, child care and social services. Most of our sisters who are not retired are now in some form of social service – working with immigrants or with housing, or to empower the laity to take over some of our ministries. Wherever there is a need, we’ve tried to respond.
As an example, when human trafficking came to the fore as a problem, we had a number of sisters who volunteered to work in a safe house and study human trafficking and work as advocates. Those who aren’t able physically to work full-time write letters to legislators and work for change in that way. They’re really inspiring, people in their 90s, still trying to change the world.
Unfortunately, we have not been successful getting new vocations in the U.S. – we have had some success in Guatemala – so we are concerned about the next generation. We are working very hard with our lay colleagues to make sure that our ministries and our mission continue, doing our best to enable others to carry on, whether they are sisters or not.
The institutions that the Sisters of Charity founded, especially the bigger ones, are all run by lay people. Those people are very dedicated, and they grasp the mission of the Sisters of Charity and pass it on to their staff. What’s important is that the mission continues.
Sr. Antoinette Gutzler
President, Maryknoll Sisters, Ossining
The mission of the Maryknoll Sisters is a response to the Gospel, to be in service to the poor and mar-ginalized of the world. Though we began in the U.S., from the beginning women of other cultures have joined us. This is something that we have to contribute in a world that is very fragmented: to live in a community that is very intercultural.
I entered Maryknoll in 1964, when I was 18. I studied for a bachelor’s degree in theology, then in 1971 I went to Tanzania. After studying Swahili, I taught religion in high school and worked with young students. In 1978 I was assigned to Taiwan. I studied Mandarin and Taiwanese and became director of the Solidarity Young Workers Center in Kaohsiung. I got to know the lives of the workers from the inside. One of the most exciting aspects was helping young women workers, asking, “What are your dreams, and how can you awaken to what you are as women?”
Right now, religious life is on the brink of a paradigm shift. As we Maryknoll Sisters moved out of more tradi-tional work in schools and hospitals, we became more engaged with the marginalized. Where are those to whom no one wants to minister? That’s where we find our call.
It’s important to realize that women are not only part of the Church, but an indispensable part. If we look back at the epistles of Paul, we find him acknowledging women as his co-workers in Christ. That is our inheritance – a discipleship of equals – an inheritance that has become forgotten! As a woman religious with a doctorate in theology, I have a voice that other women are denied. We need to join the voices of all women to bring a new vitality into the life of the Church.
In the Church of the future, the laity – both women and men – will be a more dominant force. I see seeds of hope for the flourishing of the Gospel in communities where people long for a deepening of spirituality and see the link between spirituality and service. In this, I believe the role of religious sisters will still be vital.
Sr. Gertrude Lilly, FHM
Mother General, Franciscan Handmaids of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, New York City
The Franciscan Handmaids were founded in 1916 in Savannah, Georgia, by an African American woman and a French missionary priest because of a bill in the Georgia legislature that would have made it illegal for whites to educate blacks in the state. Fr. Ignatius Lissner was concerned that the bill might become law. He was running a school for black students, maintained by white Franciscan sisters. To protect the ministry, he got permission to start an order of black sisters to teach black children and invited Elizabeth Williams, who became Mother Mary Theodore, FHM, to lead the congregation.
The New York Handmaids began in 1923, when Cardinal Hayes invited some of the sisters to New York to found a nursery for black children. The congregation established a house on Staten Island in 1929, and for the next 80 years followed a mission of education, social justice and serving the poor.
In 2010, the average age of our sisters was around 78, and we had so few vocations that we had to decide whether to close. Through prayer, we chose to follow the mandate of the pope, who said we should all get out of our comfort zone and become vibrant evangelizers. Then in 2014 we had an invitation to go to Africa, and now we have vocations coming from Africa and the Caribbean.
We are missionaries now, so we send people all over. Our members, according to their talents, will be assigned in the USA, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Carib-bean, Africa, wherever we are needed. Their mission will be social justice and pastoral care in communities and parishes in need. The sisters in Africa so far are in parishes serving in mar-riage preparation, home care of the elderly and rural clinics.
In New York, we still run the St. Edward food pantry on Staten Island, which serves 20,000 families in a year, and we are transitioning in Harlem to expand our mission of early childhood education to include an after-school program for children in need, plus food and nutritional support for homeless children and services for single mothers. We are currently negotiating for small houses we can use for this program, taking care of children holistically and helping their mothers rise above the poverty level.
Sr. Marjorie Robinson, OCD
Discalced Carmelite Sisters, Beacon
The Carmelite Order traces its origins to the 11th century on Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land; the original Carmelites were hermits. By the 16th century, there were monasteries of women. St. Teresa of Jesus was a nun at the monastery in Avila, Spain, who dreamed of a simpler life that would reflect the essence of the original Carmelites: a life of prayer, silence and solitude. After many trials and set-backs, St. Teresa and her co-reformer, St. John of the Cross, established the Discalced Carmelite Order.
As a contemplative community, we don’t have an apostolic ministry outside the monastery. The life of prayer is our mis-sion and service in the Church. Those who believe in the power of prayer, including priests and bishops, have always turned to contemplative communities to ask the sisters to pray for them and their needs. The contemplative life is rooted in faith; we do not expect to see the “results” of our prayer.
In the past, the contemplative life was often called “the hidden life.” However, we no longer have grilles or wear veils to physically separate us from the world. We reach out to others in ways that flow from the life of prayer. Some years ago we hosted several afternoons for women. One of the sisters gave a brief talk followed by silent time for prayer. What meant the most to each of the women was that period of silence.
At this painful time, we are praying for the Church and those who suffer because of the abuse crisis: the victims, the Catholics in the pews, and those who continue to serve God’s people with dedication and integrity. During a low point in the crisis, the nuns in one of our monasteries sent out a notice inviting people to an evening hour of silent prayer. Their chapel was filled. This kind of spontaneous invitation springs forth from our contemplative way of life.
As much as we would like new vocations – women to whom we can pass on the charism of Carmelite life – I realize vocation is a gift from God. I want today’s young women to know that the contemplative life is a fulfilling life, a challenging life, a life that expands the heart to embrace peoples of all times and places, a life that opens one to the depths of God’s love. Through the life of prayer, I’ve grown in ways that would never have taken place had God not brought me to Carmel.
Principal, Holy Rosary School, Staten Island
When I was 11, I saw a picture in the paper of a young girl with Down syndrome. She was one year older than I was, and she had been kidnapped and found deceased. At that moment, I said I wanted to help children like that.
As an adult, I got a master’s degree in special education and worked as a special ed teacher. At 27, as I was coming to the end of a job at New York Foundling, I said a novena to the Sacred Heart, asking God to lead me to where I was needed. On the eighth day, I received a call from St. Paul’s on Staten Island. After St. Paul’s closed down, I said another novena, and got a position at St. Dorothy’s. After Hurricane Sandy, I said the novena again, and got hired at St. Adalbert’s. This is my first year as principal at Holy Rosary.
We are fortunate to be one of the schools where the archdiocese has funded an enhanced special education program, with integrated co-teaching and a resource room for special needs students. I would like us to be the first Catholic school in New York to really embrace a multisensory approach to learning, using instructional strategies beyond sight and hearing to help students process information.
To survive, Catholic schools have to go beyond the ideas of 60 years ago. It’s going to take a lot of dedication and leadership. We need to become a resource for our families. We have to be a part of the community.
Looking at the crisis in the Church today, I really hope for another great awakening. Too many people are falling away from their faith because of disappointment and anger. We need to come together as Catholics, not walk away from the faith we need.
Sr. Mary Stephen, RDC
Principal, Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Elmsford
When I was 13 years old, my father enrolled me at Our Lady of Good Counsel in White Plains. I observed the nuns – Sisters of Divine Compassion – and all that they did, and I deeply admired them. I always wanted to be a teacher, and it was their example that inspired me. I entered the order straight out of high school.
I came to Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1966 as principal of the school and superior of the convent, which has since closed. At that time, there were five nuns on the faculty and the rest were lay teachers. Since then, there have been many changes. Family life has changed considerably – and tech has come to the forefront of education. I think that we have kept abreast of the changes without compromising our values. Through smart use of the technology, our test results have been outstanding.
I think there’s no greater vocation than education. I would hope that through our education of the children, a legacy of compassion has been transmitted, so when they go into the world and to their workplaces they carry that charism of compassion to everyone they meet. I don’t think there is anything more vital or important in the world today.
The Church wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for women. There probably will be more opportunities for women in the Church, and I hope that we’ll be able to serve in whatever capacity we’re qualified for. That’s why we’re here.
Kathleen Davis and Marilyn Van Millon
St. Martin de Porres, Poughkeepsie
Marilyn Van Millon
St. John the Evangelist, Pawling / St. Charles Borromeo,
Usually they are called “parish secretary” or “administrative assistant” – and often the role they fill is more like a chief of staff or the COO of a small corporation (the CEO being the pastor). They are linchpins of pastoral opera-tions, storehouses of knowledge and glue for the parish community. Kathleen Davis and Marilyn Van Millon (who recently announced her retirement) have combined experience in the role of more than half a century.
KD: We have a parish of 2,200 registered families. When I first started – I’m in my 26th year – I did the bookkeeping and the bulletins and Masses and you name it, I did it. Then Fr. McWeeney, the pastor at the time, decided to build a new church, so I was in on managing construction and finances for all that as well. Then we added onto the school, and of course I was in on those meetings. I’m also the administrator of Calvary Cemetery. Now I have a wonderful administrative assistant, Patti Norman, who works alongside me. We actually help to run a multimillion-dollar corporation – that is, the parish.
MVM: Our parish is much smaller. I started out with St. Charles 27 years ago, just answering the phone and doing the bulletin, and it grew over the years. I also did the book-keeping. I took care of St. Charles Cemetery. Recently we merged with St. John the Evangelist in Pawling, so now we’re going through another whole set of changes. Our jobs change with each pastor that comes in.
KD: Every time you answer the phone, you’re wearing a dif-ferent hat. You never know what’s going to happen when you walk through the door. You have to be very flexible.
MVM: I think that we need to look at women’s role in the Church. Women’s contributions need to be more respected. We are religious ed coordinators, teachers, lectors and ex-traordinary ministers, and these are important roles.
KD: I think they should allow women to become deacons. Now we can be Eucharistic ministers, but … I think if we became deacons we could do more for the parishioners.
Dr. Anne Nolte
Physician and Founder, National Gianna Center
During my training as a family physician with a concentration in women’s health and fertility, I knew I wanted to prac-tice medicine in a way that was aligned with my Catholic beliefs. Re-searching my options, I learned about Natural Procreative Technology, an approach to women’s reproductive health care that is completely in line with Catholic teaching and is also based on the best medical science. It’s also better for the patient’s health because it focuses on identifying the underlying problems with a woman’s fertility cycle and correcting them. NaPro does not rely on hormonal suppression of the woman’s fertility cycle to treat gynecologic problems or for birth control, and offers an ethical, positive alternative to in vitro fertilization to help couples with infertility.
Near the end of my medical training, I got a call from a friend, who said, “If you’ll move to New York City to start a Catholic women’s health center, I’ve found a donor who will fund it.” I told her there was “no way that I would ever move to New York City.” She said, “Well, just pray about it.”
I did, and there was a particular moment when I felt God was telling me, deep within my heart, “This is what I’m calling you to do.” I knew in that moment that I was com-pletely free to say no, but that I would be saying no to Him.
I didn’t have any business experience. I was a new doctor. I had just begun researching how to start a medical practice. It was the most unlikely of circumstances, but on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2009, with the help of the Sisters of Life and Cardinal Egan, we opened the first Gianna Center at 40th and Madison, where I still practice.
In 2012, we started a separate nonprofit to help other medical centers deliver this care nationwide. Since then, we have helped eight more Gianna Centers to open and deliver care. As of this year, in my New York City practice and a closely affiliated Gianna practice in New Jersey, we’ve had 1,200 babies born to couples with infertility or at risk of miscarriage.
When we first started, almost all of our patients were Catholic, but we now have patients from every religion, and no religion. We always invite patients to share their faith, but we don’t require it. We feel that the love we show them and the quality of the care we provide is our witness to being Catholic.
Maggi Van Dorn
Podcaster; producer of Deliver Us, from America magazine
I am a podcaster by trade. I also have a background in theology; I earned my master’s from Harvard Divinity School and my B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in California.
Having gone to a Jesuit institution, I have always tried to stay close to those on the margins of society. In college, I worked with those experiencing homelessness, then served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and worked in addiction recovery. At this particular time in my life, the stories I’m listening to most are those of sexual-abuse survivors.
Deliver Us is a podcast about the sexual-abuse crisis in the Church and where we go from here. Its mission is to help orient and accompany Catholics as we process this devas-tating crisis. Like a lot of people, I was really troubled by what I found in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. I also knew, having worked in various Catholic ministries over the past decade, that the Church had enacted a series of reforms. That raised a lot of questions: Have we truly lis-tened to survivors and their cries for justice, especially the ones who are just coming forward now? Are the reforms working? How can we hold Church leadership accountable for any past negligence or mismanagement?
I decided that my first task was to educate myself – I pored over every article and report I could get my hands on. And with the help of theologians, activists and experts, I turned my personal search into a communal one that now extends to thousands of listeners. As a lay Catholic, I understand that I am as much a part of the Church as anyone else, and I want to be a part of its healing and reform.
One of the taglines that we used for Deliver Us is, “You can’t fix something until you understand how it is broken.” This crisis is vast and in many ways really complex, so there is no easy solution. Those of us who are committed to seeing renewal and reform within the Church have to dig really deep and be committed for the long haul.
At the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal Dolan and his predecessors have consistently recognized the contributions of women, in part by appointing so many to executive roles. Some of the women in archdiocesan leadership gathered for a photo in May.