EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a two-part series.
As Sandra’s profession was the focal point of the first part of our trip, the celebration of Sister Joana Dalva Alves Mendes’ 25th anniversary as a Sister of St. Joseph was the central event of the latter part.
Joana’s desire was to hold the celebration at Cachoeira Alta, the town in which she grew up and where she first met the Sisters of St. Joseph. Joana also wanted the celebration of her jubilee to be a joyful, spiritual experience for the people of her town, her family, all of the sisters and all of us who were privileged to share the experience.
She chose the theme of vocation around which to plan the jubilee. That theme, of course, allowed full celebration of God’s call to Joana and her response, but it also included an invitation to all of us to remember and celebrate God’s loving intervention in our own lives and how we have responded to it. What are the implications of our baptism? Do we understand that we are truly called to holiness? That, in God’s providence, we deepen and share that holiness not only in our prayer and acts of worship, but in the events and experience of daily living?
The community responded generously to Joana’s hope. They opened their homes to us visitors. (Sister Maureen Finn, my niece Grace Hastings and I stayed with Rubens and Neusa de Carvallo). They organized prayer experiences and meals. There was an evening devoted to sharing stories of faith and their memories of Joana. On another evening we enjoyed a festival of religious music which awarded prizes to musicians and composers.
Woven in and through the days of celebration there was a special feature which flowed beautifully from the spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Joana and community leaders organized a program of visitation meant to build bridges with neighbors, to offer consolation to the mourning, welcome to strangers, companionship to the lonely and to share with others the spirit of joy they felt on the occasion. Teams of visitors fanned out through the city and spent several hours each morning reaching out to their neighbors. It was my pleasure one morning to accompany Sister Katherine Popowich and Grace as we visited an old friend of Katherine’s who recently lost her husband and who has been tormented by back pains.
When I first went to Brazil in 1981, Cachoeira Alta was one of the stops on my itinerary. At the time Katherine and Sister Suzanne Wills were ministering there. They knew Joana when she was a little girl. They were the first Sisters of St. Joseph Joana ever knew. All were present for the jubilee, as was Sister Maria José Monteiro de Oliveira, another daughter of this village who joined the congregation.
During the conversation of which I was a part, Joana and Katherine reminisced about a time when Joana insisted that she be allowed to attend a program on religious vocations that Katherine was offering to young women. Katherine at first refused, telling Joana that she was too young, but finally yielded to the young girl’s persistence. A wonderful jubilee story.
Central among the guiding principles through which the Sisters of St. Joseph give expression to the Gospel in their daily living are to serve their neighbors without distinction, to do all that women can do, to join neighbor to neighbor and neighbor to God.
I have known them to do that since I was a high-school boy. In those days I knew of their work in a classroom context. Over the years a grace in my life is to have seen the sisters embody those values in many different settings and contexts.
The profession and jubilee celebrations I have mentioned were rich in the ways in which the sisters called the community together for the purpose of serving their neighbors without distinction. Strangers and old friends felt welcoming among the sisters and because they did they experienced something new about God’s gifts in the community; and, I am sure appreciated something new about their own dignity and goodness.
And talking about doing things! These women are rich in talent and generous in sharing it. Sister Barbara Orczyk and Sister Chris Burgmaier are nurses who have cared for patients in Brazil for more than 35 years. Sister Ellen Kuhl has done wonderful work in infant care and development. Sister Marie José is an attorney who advocates for the incarcerated. Sister Jean Bellini has committed years of energy and care to land reform. Sister Marlena Roeger is deeply devoted to advocating for and supporting families to develop farms on property they have received through land reform. Sister Anne Marvin accompanies indigenous people in their efforts to develop a more secure life. By day, Sister Ireny Rosa da Silva is a secretary in a school located in a very rough neighborhood. Nega, as she is called — tiny as she is — does much to promote peace and encourage people.
All of the above are but examples of the wide range of work in which our sisters are now engaged. If I listed all that they do now, you’d be reading for a long time. If I added all that they have done all the years … well, you get the point. The story is incredible.
Some words of thanks:
- To the sisters in Brazil for their incredible witness of faith and loving service and for renewing my awareness that all of us in the Diocese of Rochester have enjoyed similar gifts from our Sisters of St. Joseph since we were still a part of the Diocese of Buffalo.
- To you, the people of our diocese, for the many ways in which you have offered spiritual and financial support to our Sisters of St. Joseph in Brazil and to our Sisters of Mercy in Chile for more than 40 years.
- To Fathers Jerry Donovan, Colin O’Flanagan and Tom O’Shea, faithful friends of our sisters, for their cordial hospitality.
- To Grace for her companionship, support on this and other journeys.
- To my coworkers whose generosity and skills allow me to live in the moment on these visits.
Please continue your prayers for all of our sisters and brothers in and from the Diocese of Rochester who give powerful witness to the Gospel in their lives and ministries in religious life.
Peace to all.