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?

The knife ï¬ghts 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 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?”


OF THIS YEAR’S WORKERS, eight live together in Minneapolis, five in St. Paul. They eat, shop, and talk together. In fact they talk, by their own admission, all the time—sharing the details of their days, as well as their hopes, fears, and insights. More than mere roommates, they are living, to use their term, “in community.”

“We want to know what’s going on in each other’s lives. We’re accountable to each other and the program,” says Katie Heil, who joined the Workers after graduating from St. Cloud State University and now assists Latino families through Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul. The women carefully consider their actions in the context of the group’s stated values of simple living and social justice. For instance, should they drive or should they walk to be more environmentally friendly? “Your whole life is a lot more intentional,” says Heil.

Living in community is an exercise in understanding. Decisions that affect everyone in the house are made by consensus, even when it takes hours to decide whether to buy groceries at the co-op (to support local, organic farms) or at Cub Foods (in solidarity with the population they serve). Each residence has a contract, worked out by the women when they moved in, codifying the house rules. But discussions continue throughout the year. One Worker, for instance, has strong feelings in favor of fair-trade coffee (sold at above-market prices to better compensate Third World producers). “If someone were to buy Folgers,” she says, “it would really hurt my feelings.”

Most of the Workers are in their early twenties. Some have lived in similar situations before, such as co-op-style houses in college—quarters whose inhabitants have a specific focus denoted by their names: Environmental House, Social Justice House, etc. The Workers’ dwelling in St. Paul might at first be mistaken for Grandma’s House. It is large and comfortable with lace curtains and wildlife prints on the walls. A game of Boggle sits in one corner, a couple of sewing machines in another. But come Sunday night, you’ll find all of its inhabitants discussing the week’s business and chores. On Thursdays they gather again for “Community Night,” when the women choose a group activity, such as bowling, or, as they once did at the St. Paul house, making aprons. On Monday evenings, they gather for “Sharing of the Heart,” to talk in-depth about their week. The objective is to better understand each other and that which can only be understood through faith: the realm of spirituality.

“Sharing of the Heart” is a Sisters of St. Joseph tradition going back centuries. A question is asked, generally relating to simple living, social justice, leadership, or spirituality. These range from “What sustains you?” to “How were you a leader this week?” to “What experience in the past week had spiritual significance to you?” The Workers pass a rock called a Talking Stone; each has the floor while holding it. Since church or prayer time is not required of the Workers, this is as close to programmed spirituality as they get. Even then, it’s more rap session than confession. On a recent Monday, the women discussed why they became Workers.

Tande served as moderator that evening. She wore a medal depicting St. Joseph: carpenter, father of Jesus, patron saint of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Being a laborer (as St. Joseph the Worker he is celebrated in the Catholic Church on May Day, a traditional time for honoring workers), he epitomizes the sisters’ hands-on approach. Before Tande became a Worker at age 22, however, she had never met a nun, much less thought about patron saints or charisms. Not many of the Workers had. But that generally changes as the women get to know the sisters.

In charge of recruitment, Tande speaks at colleges, staffs a booth at volunteer fairs, and otherwise unearths potential Workers around the country. Alena Chaps, a San Francisco native, first heard of the Workers at a volunteer fair. She now leads adult-education programs at Hope Community, a large affordable housing complex founded by the sisters in Minneapolis. Chaps describes her family as “activist”—people who “wanted to make the world a better place”—and though she’s not Catholic, she went to a high school and university run by Jesuits. It was the all-female aspect of the Workers that drew her in, she says. In her recruitment talks, Tande always points out that of the 200 to 300 volunteer programs available to young Americans, the Workers is one of very few, if not the only one, that emphasizes female leadership.

Another selling point is what the sisters provide to the Workers: health insurance, room and board, a $100 monthly stipend, monthly leadership training, up to two free classes for credit at St. Kate’s, and access to a spiritual director if desired. And then there is the support of the sisters’ worldwide network. Nuns, it seems, know everyone. When Christie Mueller, a Worker serving at Sarah’s: An Oasis for Women, became ill in December and underwent emergency surgery, word went out on the CSJ grapevine; cards and calls immediately flooded in from around the world. When Heil needed $3,000 by noon to pay four months of overdue rent for a client and her eight grandchildren, who were all about to be evicted, she got it through the connections of the CSJs. “They’re like the Mafia, but for good,” says one Worker.

Eighty percent of the agencies where the Workers are placed are affiliated with the sisters. And Tande wonders whether the Workers might not have been nuns—“made women” in the altruistic Mafia—if they had been born into a different generation. For some, this seems reasonable to assume; for others, it is difficult to imagine, so far removed are they from an era when women who sought higher education and leadership positions had few options. Still others shrink from the sisters’ religious obligations.

But five months into the yearlong program, as Tande predicted, this group of Workers seems to be “embracing the charism.” In fact, they say they are often mistaken for nuns. They toss out terms like “right relationship”—a way of relating to people in a respectful, nonjudgmental way, as advocated by the sisters. Under the influence of the program’s values, some have even adjusted their life goals. One Worker who was previously set on attending medical school now says she’s more interested in a holistic approach to health, and is considering work in nutrition or urban agriculture. (“We’ve made her downwardly mobile,” Tande jokes.)

“We’re being cultivated into the next step of the sisters,” says Mueller. “It’s a part of us. We’ll take that [charism] wherever we go.”

THE IDEA OF LOVING GOD and mortals without discrimination isn’t exclusive to the CSJs. Plenty of people—heck, even men—strive for that goal. Back at the Peace House, volunteers of various backgrounds put this ideal into action: a 90-something man and his wife frequently drop in with food for the center’s guests; a well-to-do middle-aged woman helps keep things under control, even tackling a purse-snatcher or two.

But there is something about the sisters’ unique model for problem-solving—women, infused with faith, dedicated to addressing the day’s most pressing needs—that has been particularly effective. And enduring.

“Look at the good work that’s happened in Minnesota—all the nonprofits and all the positive change—because of women coming together around issues that are meaningful to them,” says Tande. “It’s made a profound difference in the state. If we lose that tradition of women coming together around universal good and the most important things in life and doing something about it, that would really be sad.”

Certainly, the Workers aren’t going to replace the experience of being a nun—what Miriam Ukeritis, a CSJ who has studied religious orders, calls “the opportunity for people to live out their faith commitment in a publicly radical way.” But O’Neill prefers to think of the chalice as more than half-full: the Workers are responding to the needs of today—and growing the community. The way she sees it, there aren’t just 13 Workers this year, there are 30. She’s counting the alumni from the past five years, and with good reason: they have told O’Neill that they don’t think of themselves as ex-Workers; they are, and always will be, Workers. Many continue to do service work; a few have even moved into other intentional communities.

Tande isn’t surprised by this dedication. Being a Worker can be intense, even life-changing, she says: “To have that formative experience right out of college or at the beginning of your career—that’s a hard thing to step back from and then go work at Wells Fargo or something.”

Worker alums have the option of staying in the program for a second year, and more are choosing to do so, working with sisters around the world. One second-year resident was placed with a non-governmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations, where she worked on furthering such long-term goals as reducing global poverty and the spread of HIV. She later did a third year in India.

Many, however, remain in the Twin Cities. It is Herder’s dream to one day have a third Worker house available, to be rented exclusively to former Workers. They would continue to live in community and have Sharing of the Heart.

Looked at this way, O’Neill is right: If the sisters are aging, so what? There are more Workers signing up every year. And so long as they remain tied to the network one way or another, that’s what matters. “They can go anywhere the nuns are and they would be recognized,” says O’Neill. “They have a passport to the world.”

Besides, O’Neill says, one nun could change the world. Just look at Mother Teresa. Why not one St. Joseph Worker?

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.