Celebrating sisters who ‘have a story to tell’

One sister is part of the Greatest Generation and the other Gen X. They come from different backgrounds, have different career interests and belong to different religious communities. Diverse as they are, these two sisters share a bond with women religious around the world who have devoted their lives to serving God and caring for his people — though too few people know about it.

During the third annual National Catholic Sisters Week (NCSW), which is being held March 8-14, Catholics and others across the country will have special opportunities to learn about, celebrate and meet women religious such as St. Joseph Sister Mary Madonna Ashton and Adrian Dominican Sister Mary Soher.

“Sisters have done so much [but] people still don’t have any idea of who they really are today,” said Sister Mary Soher, co-executive director of the event. “We’re encouraging people during National Catholic Sisters Week to take that time to reconnect with a sister or to meet someone today.”

‘Curiosity about sisters’

National Catholic Sisters Week was started in 2014 at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a $3.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The event seeks to honor women religious through a series of local events and projects across the country in order to bring their lives and contributions into greater focus.

One of its goals is to encourage people to get to know sisters in their area, said Molly Hazelton, who serves with Sister Mary Soher as NCSW co-executive director. “We want people to think they can celebrate the sisters in general but specifically the sisters who are in their community, in their neighborhood, who do that good work there,” she said.

This year, religious communities, colleges and other organizations have been awarded 41 grants through NCSW and the Hilton Foundation to create the events and projects to be held during or around National Catholic Sisters Week that will shine a light on religious women across the country.

According to the NCSW website, as of late February, there were 131 events listed, which include a tea for sisters, moms and preschoolers, dedication of a Little Free Library and a quinceanera retreat for teenage girls, Hazelton said. Visitors to the website can search by zip code to find nearby events.

“People have a curiosity about sisters, but they’re not sure how you approach them ... and the sisters are at a point right now where they have a story to tell about the people they’ve served,” Sister Mary said.

Call to religious life

Organizers also hope to show young women who may be discerning their vocation the beauty and vibrancy of religious life.

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Sr. Mary Soher

“We’re hoping to show that religious life is a very viable and vital opportunity for young women as well as religious life in general for both men and women,” Sister Mary Soher said. Long before Sister Mary Soher embraced her role of promoting sisters and telling their stories, she wondered whether God was calling her to become one. While working as a beach lifeguard in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, God showed her that as he once called fishermen to be his apostles, he could also call lifeguards.

Sister Mary Soher said there isn’t just one type of person called to religious life. “Every day we just work to become better to be more like [Jesus] in what we are and what we do.”

The San Francisco native, 50, shares her passion for religious life with college students and anyone else who crosses her path. Through social media, networking and even while working out on campus, she tries to create community.

Honoring a leader

National Catholic Sisters Week is celebrated in March during National Women’s History Month, which highlights women’s contributions to events in history and contemporary society, and this year’s theme is women in public service and government. One of the women being honored for her work is Sister Mary Madonna, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul.

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Sr. Mary Madonna

Sister Mary Madonna, 92, said she sought to bring an ethical and moral perspective to health care. She has served as president/CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis, the founder of a network of clinics for low-income persons and as Minnesota’s first woman health commissioner, where she addressed teen smoking and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Recognized for her leadership, Sister Mary Madonna remembered a time when her path wasn’t so clear. When she was a new convert to Catholicism while studying graduate social work, she asked God to show her whether he wanted her to become a sister.

Sister Mary Madonna is a woman of deep faith who is always open to new things, new places and new people, said St. Joseph Sister Carolyn Puccio, who has served with her over the past 10 years.

Navigating the tumultuous post-Vatican II period was challenging, Sister Mary Madonna said as she recalled putting away the congregation’s habit to wear secular suits in the late 1960s. Though not the first sister to change, she debuted her new clothes after sneaking into the chapel during a community day of silent recollection when no one could comment.

As National Catholic Sisters Week honors women religious, Sister Mary Madonna noted that all sisters have, in a sense, lived undercover.

“It’s only in recent years that people have begun to notice that maybe some attention should be given to the works of the sisters,” she said. “We’ve never gone about trying to get publicity for what we do.”

Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.