By Carole Garibaldi Rogers
As women religious in the US once again stand accused of misdeeds by the hierarchy, it is worth asking: What have these women done? They have demonstrated with their lives that they are simply following the Gospel message to serve the poor.
Most often, that ministry has happened quietly in places like rural clinics or inner city parishes, far from the headlines. At other times, serving the disadvantaged has required that nuns become activists and create controversy. They have also had to step up and deal with controversy brought on by the misdeeds of the clergy.
In one of the first clergy sexual abuse scandals to become widely public, Father Bruce Ritter was forced to resign in 1990 from Covenant House, the hugely successful international agency he had founded to protect runaway teens. He was accused of having sexual relations with some shelter residents and improperly loaning Covenant House funds. The agency’s tarnished reputation led to a drop of more than $20 million in financial support, most of it from individual donors, within a year.
Sister Mary Rose McGeady, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, with years of experience working with emotionally disturbed kids, was selected as Father Ritter’s successor.
“Covenant House found me. One day the phone rang, and a gentleman introduced himself as a member of the search firm looking for a new director for Covenant House. He said, ‘We would like to know whether you’d be interested in applying.’ I said, ‘Well, no, thank you. I have a very nice job.’ He didn’t take that. He said to me, ‘Could I come and talk to you?’ So he came and he spent three hours in my office. And then he asked me if I would come over for some interviews with some of the board members, which I did. After about a month of this I felt that it wasn’t my decision. It was really like a call from the Lord.
“I’d been reading the papers. I was sixty-two years old, and I said to them, ‘Can’t you find anybody that’s thirty-five? I don’t know if I can do it.’ And they said, ‘Well, we would like you to try.’ One of the guys I worked with in Brooklyn, said to me, ‘Mary Rose, your whole life looks to me like it’s been a preparation for Covenant House.’ And that kind of capped it for me.
“When I was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, I was preoccupied with where we were going ice skating on Friday night and where we were going bowling on Saturday night and what movie we were going to see. These kids are trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their drunken father who beats them or who sexually abuses them. Or they’re kids forced into prostitution to have money to buy their school books. What a different world it is. What it does, it just whets my appetite for what we do, to try to give these kids the second chance they need to get started over again. People will say to me, ‘How can you do that work all the time? Don’t you begin to feel overwhelmed by all these kids?’ And I always say, ‘The only way we can make a mistake is to stop.’ The only time the church fails is when it stops being a caring community.
I’ve been thinking lately that when I was young, after the war, we went through an era of great prosperity, and the fifties and sixties became like the Golden Age. It was the Golden Age of religious life; we had more vocations than we had ever had in history. And then we had the Vatican Council, which created a real euphoria in the church. Now it seems to me like it’s all fading away. And I think it’s so sad that we haven’t been able to maintain that energy. You know, God is still God, the church is still the church.
“I see this roller coaster. We were high and now we’re low. I guess hope and confidence in God have always been dominant themes in my life. But retrenchment is really hard. I often think, ‘Well, okay, God, you gave me the good years and they were wonderful and I thank you for that. Now I’ve got to love you just as much in the tough times as I did in the good times.’”
Sister Mary Rose’s words from 1992 sound prescient now. She remained at Covenant House until 2003 when, because of her health, she returned to her community’s motherhouse in Albany. I interviewed her again in 2010, this time by telephone.
“My heart was broken at leaving Covenant House. My body was also broken. I have to be in a wheel chair now because of injuries from falls I had while visiting some Covenant House sites. No matter how hard we tried, the number of homeless kids increased so much. All over the world they wanted us. ‘Come here…Come here…’ I went around the world talking about the needs of these homeless teenagers and people responded. After I came here, five women from the Lutheran church asked me to help them establish a shelter for homeless mothers with children and it awakened in me a sense of what I had been doing. So I’ve been working at that for five years now. I’m 82. There’s always something else to do.”
Carole Garibaldi Rogers has been an independent oral historian for more than 20 years. Her research and writing focus on the intersection of women and religion. She is the author of seven books, including her most recent Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns. Look for her next post on the controversy tomorrow and read her previous post “Who are the women behind the latest Vatican reprimands?”.