By Carole Garibaldi Rogers
Oral histories of American Catholic women religious repeatedly reveal courageous steps out from traditional roles into ministries that serve the poor and marginalized. They also illuminate historical trends in both the church and society.
In 1994, when I interviewed Sister Marie Gilligan, a Sister of Charity of Saint Elizabeth from New Jersey, she was serving as pastor of St. Helen’s, a tiny Roman Catholic Church in Amory, Mississippi. At that time, 11% of the 19,331 Catholic parishes had no resident priest pastor. The 2011 data show a marked change in both numbers. There are now 17,782 parishes, of which 18% have no resident priest pastor. The total number of priests in the US declined in that same period by more than 9,500.
But Sister Marie didn’t go to Amory to be a pastor. She went in 1973 to be with the poor, the predominately white parishioners of St. Helen’s and the predominantly black townspeople.
“It was the people here and their needs and their warmth and their faith that I felt comfortable with. I got involved with encouraging them to go to the Welfare Department for food stamps. I encouraged them to send their children to Head Start. We started a Girl Scout troop and out of that troop four girls are in college. I did adult basic education. They would invite me to their houses and they would say, ‘Y’all want something to eat?’ And I would accept it. And one of the women would say, ‘Sister Marie, white people never eat in black people’s houses. And you make no difference between people.’ That’s how they expressed it. ‘You make no difference between people.’”
Twenty years after she had arrived in Amory, the priest there retired and Sister Marie was appointed resident pastoral minister for the parish of 52 families, who on Sundays all crowded together in ten pews. What she could not do: say Mass, hear confessions and anoint the dying. For those tasks, a priest would travel to Amory, sometimes once a week, more likely, one Sunday a month. When asked directly if she would like to be a priest, Sister Marie said:
“I can sympathize with those who feel called to ordination and I say they should be allowed to be ordained. I’m just doing what I have been called to do at this moment in history. I’ve heard people say, ‘You’re a pioneer.’ On the other hand, you’re in a position where you can do this, but you can’t do that and people say, ‘Isn’t that terrible?’ Well, it is terrible, but I just think it’s important for me to continue doing what I’m doing. I see it as keeping the Catholic faith alive.”
When Sister Kathy Quigley joined us for dinner at the tiny brick parish house, a second oral history interview began. She, too, is a Sister of Charity of Saint Elizabeth and had arrived in Amory six years after Sister Marie. She told her own story, but backlit Sister Marie’s.
“I was alive and well in New Jersey [in 1980] teaching biology, and I was very happy teaching biology. At that same time our congregation said that some of us should work with the poor all the time and all of us should work with the poor at some time. I had never worked with the poor. So I volunteered [in Amory] one summer. It was 106o that summer, every single day. It was awful. But there was a deep spirituality in everything that Marie did. I didn’t have it and I wanted it. I knew it was really, really important. Wherever I would go with her in Mississippi, the people were so simple and so poor, and yet so wise and close to the earth and close to God. I felt like a little animal trailing Marie around. I didn’t know what to do, but I loved it.
“She’s been trail blazing from the very beginning. Everything continues to be new and exciting in the parish, but at the same time, we have never let go of the other work because the people don’t let us. Like tonight, in the middle of everything, we got a call that a pregnant girl’s water broke. She has no transportation, she’s mentally retarded and also mentally ill and she needs to go to the hospital. So we drop everything, and we run take care of that issue and then we come back home. The whole county is your parish. It’s very exciting.”
By the time Sister Marie and Sister Kathy left Amory in 1999, the number of families at St. Helen’s Catholic Church had grown from 43 to 70. During Sister Marie’s time as pastor, the tiny parish had built and completely paid for a new church that could accommodate all its members. In October 2009, at the age of 80, when the Sister who had replaced her as pastor needed a medical leave, Sister Marie returned to Amory for eight weeks, once again gathering the people for Sunday worship. She had authorization to preach at liturgies on the two Sundays a month when no priest was available.
Sister Kathy teaches now at Marylawn of the Oranges, an all-girls Catholic high school where the students are primarily African-American from poor urban neighborhoods. While she was in Mississippi, Sister Kathy composed more than 125 Scripture-based songs and produced seven recordings, always using the voices she heard around her. Now she uses voices from the Marylawn community.
In December, 2009, when I re-interviewed Sister Marie and Sister Kathy, Sister Kathy offered what I consider one of the best summaries of the current realities for American Catholic nuns.
“I think women religious in the church are at our finest moment in history. I have no regrets about our lifestyle because we have matured spiritually, we have matured emotionally, and we’ve matured ministerially. We are working as hard as we can. Most of us are way over 60, and almost none of us is under 60, and yet we are giving a thousand per cent every place we go.”
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. Read her previous posts “Behind the controversy: Sisters serve” and “Who are the women behind the latest Vatican reprimands?”.