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Blessed Are The Workers

Minnesota owes more to its nuns than most of us know, but their numbers are in decline. Can a new volunteer program be the sisters’ next great act?

Blessed Are The Workers
Photo by Mike McGregor

(page 1 of 2)

The knife fights have died down a bit. The drugs are gone, or at least out of sight. The former Dairy Queen next door, once dubbed “Scary Queen” because of all the trouble it attracted, has long since melted into memory. But still, on many days, the Peace House is anything but. It is a refuge for the homeless and the hard-up, an ordinary house surrounded by empty lots, squatting on a corner of south Minneapolis like the sole survivor of a bombing campaign. It is a place to warm up, clean up, eat up, and generally leave feeling better than when you came in. It is far from fancy: the stairs creak and the cold creeps in. The floors are no more straight than the paths that lead the down-and-out to its blue door every day. Yet for two hours every weekday, something resembling peace does fall over this humble home. A gong is struck, the sign in the window is flipped to “closed,” and the couple dozen people inside sink into chairs. It’s meditation-and-a-meal time—the place’s signature event.

A young woman takes a seat beneath a sign admonishing that drug use and dealing will not be tolerated—“You are being watched,” it warns—and calls the gathering to order. She is Lila, a native of Minnetonka. (“South Minneapolis was the place not to go,” she recalls from her suburban upbringing.) She opens the session by asking those present to share their name, their favorite food, and something that has made them happy that day. Then she reads letters from former regulars now in prison (“To all my Peace House homies,” one begins). Lunch is served out of an ad-hoc kitchen that features a strip of flypaper hanging from the ceiling. And by the time a woman calling herself Tiger Woods (she has all of the golfer’s charisma but a few less teeth) passes around pecan pie, Lila seems to have the group’s respect. No one’s troubles have boiled over into outbursts; no one really needs watching. It is a good day.

This kind of work—serving at the margins of society—was once the regular province of nuns. In fact, Peace House was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a Catholic order. The CSJs, as members are known, came to the Twin Cities in 1851, when St. Paul was still a cholera-ridden backwater, and built the area’s first health care and educational institutions: St. Joseph’s Hospital, the College of St. Catherine (now the largest women’s Catholic college in the country), and schools ranging from Cretin-Derham Hall to the Academy of Holy Angels. At one time, the CSJs served in 90 schools in Minnesota and North Dakota. When you add various academies of music and nursing, as well as social-service institutions, ranging from the 11 St. Mary’s health clinics for the uninsured to Sarah’s shelter for tortured and abused women, we may owe a great deal of our fabled “good life” to a group of celibate women in black.

But Lila, the Peace House facilitator, is not a nun. Not many Americans are anymore. From a peak of more than 181,000 in 1965, there are now fewer than half that many. The average age of a CSJ in St. Paul today is about 75. Lila may sometimes sound like a nun, as when she speaks of the homeless as the “lepers of modern society.” And she may live somewhat like a nun: simply, and with other women doing similar work. But she is not a sister or even Catholic. She is part of the St. Joseph Workers program, a CSJ initiative that for the past five years has recruited young women from around the country to spend a year in the Twin Cities living together while working for social change. There are no vows, no obligatory prayer sessions, and no concern for whether the women are Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist—or dating.

The CSJs know that the old ways of religious orders—vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—have, in America at least, largely gone the way of the Latin mass. The Workers, it’s hoped, will help continue their mission. “The world is changing,” says Andrea Pearson Tande, a former St. Joseph Worker and now a coordinator for the program. “It’s not that the work isn’t important anymore, it’s just that it has to be done in a different way.”

The idea is catching on: 13 Workers now share two homes and three cars in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They are bona fide lilies of the field.

TO SAY THAT VOLUNTEERS like the St. Joseph Workers are the latest wrinkle in religious orders is like saying the iPod is the latest development in music. They are very, very late to their respective parties. The first Christian monastic communities formed during the third century. They were inspired by the devotion of virgin women who, in the decades following Jesus’s death, dedicated themselves to purity and the Lord’s work. The virgins were called “Brides of Christ,” a name that has stuck with nuns.

The Sisters of St. Joseph formed in France in 1650, and were different from their fellow “brides” from the start. They sought to be out in the world helping people, not cloistered like most nuns at the time. But to do so, they had to disguise themselves as widows—the only unmarried women permitted on the streets without escorts. Thus, they donned black attire—outfits now known as habits and still associated with nuns. The CSJs—despite being banned along with all religious orders in France during the Revolution, when seven CSJs were guillotined—are among the largest orders in the world today, with some 14,000 members spread from India to Africa to Latin America.

The CSJs in St. Paul currently number about 300. And they are still a little different. Which is to say, they don’t look or act the way we think nuns should. They don’t play guitars on mountaintops as in The Sound of Music or rap students on the knuckles with rulers as in The Blues Brothers. They hug. They joke. They blog (the daily thoughts of Sister Irene “The Blogging Nun” O’Neill can be found at www.csjministriesfoundation.org). Sister Suzanne Herder, who heads the St. Joseph Workers program, was even married once: she joined the order in 1963 but left before taking final vows; she then married, raised two kids, and divorced before rejoining a few years ago.

But although the modern-day CSJs put their Levi’s on one leg at a time like most people, their ministry is still relatively radical. These women have been arrested dozens of times for civil disobedience. They wave anti-war signs from the Marshall Avenue Bridge in St. Paul every week. They protest land mines outside Alliant Techsystems, a defense contractor in Hopkins. A documentary about the four McDonald nuns (Brigid, Kate, Jane, and Rita)—sisters with both a big and small “s”—is said to be rated “R” for “rebellious.” If there is a mass media model for these St. Paul nuns, it may be Sister Helen Prejean, the death penalty abolitionist featured in the film Dead Man Walking, who is in fact a CSJ.

Religious orders abide by a kind of spiritual directive called a charism, which differs from order to order. The charism of the CSJs is often boiled down to: “Love God and neighbor without distinction”—a call not just to reserve judgment but to actively engage the world. The women pride themselves on addressing the immediate needs of the world, then moving on to other needs as they arise. “People often say, ‘If the Sisters of St. Joseph didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent us,’ ” Sister Irene O’Neill says. The work is essential, she believes, and few have been willing to do it. These days, even fewer.

Theories on why vowed membership has declined in America are as varied as the orders themselves, ranging from cultural shifts that began in the 1960s—the sexual revolution, a general questioning of authority—to betrayals by the church itself. Experts agree, however, that it is probably no coincidence that membership began to slip in 1965, when the Vatican II conference was completed. That landmark overhaul of Catholic teaching created new opportunities for lay women to serve as parish administrators, education leaders, and in other roles previously the domain of priests and nuns.

Vatican II also signaled that nuns should integrate with the wider world, and could throw off the habit (which most did). At the same time, the need for nuns in schools and hospitals had diminished with the onset of good public education and growing nursing programs. So they turned to what O’Neill calls “street ministries”—homes for battered women, centers for runaway youth—that addressed greater needs but had the effect of making nuns less conspicuous. “I think of us as an invisible force of hope,” says O’Neill. “People have no idea how we kind of keep things pinned together.” That invisibility may just be the issue: the sisters’ lower profile, experts agree, may well be contributing to their declining enrollment in America.

The St. Paul CSJs long ago acknowledged the need for new ways to reach young women. Some 20 years ago, they instituted a program in which women—and men, actually—could join as non-vowed members of the community (called “consociates”), agreeing to live out the sisters’ ideals in their daily lives but without permanent obligation. There are now about 90 CSJ consociates, mostly older folks, in Minnesota. Still, O’Neill desired a program that would build up new female leaders to directly take on the order’s work—a sort of parallel, or sister, community to the sisters. The St. Joseph Workers were born in 2002, with just two volunteers.

O’Neill is convinced that young women today want to share in the sisters’ charism—even if they have never heard the word. “I recognize the passion inside them,” says O’Neill. “It’s the same passion I had at that age.… They have this leadership desire to make a difference in the world but don’t know where to go. Our programs needed help. And that is exactly where you learn to show your leadership, asking, ‘What are the needs and how do I respond?’”

O’Neill insists the St. Joseph Workers program is not a marketing tool, introducing women to the Sisters with the hope that they will join them. Indeed, none have. It is simply a new way of doing the work. “The goal is to wake up the intention in these women to respond to the needs of the times,” says O’Neill, “to stoke up their courage.”

O’Neill has challenged the Workers to decide where and how they will make an impact. “Civil rights was my movement,” she tells them. “What’s yours?”

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