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Sister to All: 6 women religious who are changing America


Photo credits: Sr. Brenda Valdes: Catholic Extension; Sr. Heather Stiverson, Sr. Karen Bland, Sr. Sandy Sherman, and Sr. Joanne Belloli: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation; Sr. Mary Scholastica: Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 09/09/16

New campaign seeks to make the public more aware of the essential role sisters still play in the world today

When Conrad N. Hilton, the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain, died in 1979, he left his fortune for two things: to help disadvantaged and vulnerable people, and assist Catholic religious sisters and their work. Sisters played a big role in Hilton’s life; he counted them among his friends and supported their congregations. In his last will and testament, he stipulated that the largest gifts made by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation would be dedicated to Catholic sisters in all parts of the world.

Recently the Foundation announced the results of a market research study its staff conducted which showed that Catholic sisters, while highly respected, remain a mystery to most Americans. In response, the Foundation launched a public awareness campaign called Sister To All, to draw attention to and increase the understanding of the powerful work Catholic sisters do in the United States.

“Conrad Hilton realized that wherever good things are happening for the marginalized and disadvantaged, there are likely to be sisters not just involved, but making a tremendous positive difference,” says Sister Rosemarie Nassif, SSND, Ph.D., Director, Catholic Sisters Strategic Initiative at the Hilton Foundation. “We hope all who see this campaign will be encouraged to learn more and help us further promote the lives and works of sisters.”

Aleteia is pleased to highlight six sisters who are making such a difference.

Underground Agency

Sister Brenda Teresita Hernandez Valdes, Daughters of Immaculate Mary of Guadalupe (HMIG), Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota

Sister Brenda is one of three sisters who started a new ministry in semi-rural North Dakota to serve residents from Mexico and Central America, who come seeking work in the area’s boom-and-bust oil and gas industry. She wears a habit with a gray cardigan and veil, and can often be found in the Walmart parking lot, handing out flyers and inviting shoppers to join her and other sisters for Mass in Spanish or English.

Habited or unhabited, who are the “real” nuns?

Sister Brenda, what is your typical day like? 

Our central focus is working with Hispanics. Day-to-day we accompany them morally and spiritually and in all respects. On weekends we have catechism and the Eucharist. Naturally, we dedicate ourselves to prayer, to the Rosary and to the Eucharist. And we study English together.

Before the other sisters and I arrived here, there was no outreach to Hispanics. No one was spreading the word of God to the recently arrived. Many do not have family with them because they came here to work. In the Church they find family. And they find true friends so that they don’t feel so alone.

Underground Agency

Sister Heather Stiverson, Order of Preachers (OP), Dominican Literacy Center, Detroit, Michigan

Sister Heather teaches at one of three literacy centers in Detroit, run by the Adrian Dominican Sisters and staffed by a mix of religious women and lay people. She serves residents working to obtain their GED, learn English, update their computer skills, and acquire a host of other useful skills and strategies. Most of her students are Yemeni immigrants who moved to Detroit to work in a factory, only to find themselves out of work when the plant closed.

What drew you to become a sister? 

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a sister because I wasn’t Catholic. Being a sister never crossed my mind. When I was 18, I started working for the Dominican sisters as a nursing assistant while I was going to college. I went to some of their liturgies and thought they were beautiful. I was attracted to the Eucharist. A year later, I converted to Catholicism.

I spent the next few years working with the sisters, getting to know them, their values and charism. I was really attracted to their joy and work in social justice, especially with people on the margins. They began to ask me, “Have you ever thought about being a sister?” One day I said “yes.” I met with the Vocation Director and she set me up with a sister mentor. I started praying about it and going to daily Mass with the sisters. I spent a year in Discernment, talking to God and talking to other people. I felt God was calling me to something more in my life, to be a sister.

Underground Agency

Sister Joanne Belloli, Sisters of the Precious Blood of Dayton Ohio, Livingston County Catholic Charities, Howell, Michigan

Sister Joanne is a clinical social worker specializing in mental health and the treatment of substance use disorders. Growing up, she was influenced by great aunts and great uncles, as well as teachers at her Catholic high school. Sister Joanne joined the Sisters of the Precious Blood because of their focus on caring for others.

What would you like young women to know about religious life? 

The religious life is not something new and strange. It’s been around for a long time and comes  with a deep spiritual history, from the inspiration of women and men religious who have lived this life for hundreds and hundreds of years. Sisterhood is for women who long for community life and out of that life are able to be present to the world as God would call them to be present.

Underground Agency

Sister Karen Bland, Benedictine Sisters of Chicago (OSB), Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, Grand Junction, Colorado

During the first several decades of her religious life, Sister Karen was a teacher, then a principal, then a Catholic university administrator. But for the last 17 years, she has served as Executive Director of Grand Valley Catholic Outreach in Grand Junction, Colorado, and is known throughout the state for her leadership in preventing and ending homelessness. Sister Karen was recently selected to participate in the Sisters in Public Life Project, created to strengthen the public voices of women religious who are working for social justice.

What do you love about religious life?

I love the fact that I can be open to many possibilities, that I have discovered gifts and talents within me that were previously unknown and can use these gifts for the good of others. I love that in my ministry I can represent religious sisters through my interaction with people of all faiths and walks of life. As I minister to those in need, people come to know a little bit more about who sisters are and Who and what we represent. I love that though I may be far from the hub of my community, I am immediately incorporated back into it when I return to the monastery and am held in prayer when I am away. Being a religious sister has afforded me the opportunity to live a most fulfilling life and that I am able to serve “where there is need.”

Underground Agency

Sister Mary Scholastica, O.C.D. (Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles)

Sister Mary Scholastica is the Director of Advancement for her congregation, which runs several Catholic schools, infant care, and preschool programs. Her congregation also operates a bustling retreat center and three elder care facilities that are in the process of expanding.

What do you wish people knew about religious life? 

The spirit of joy is what drew me to our sisters. People tend to have the misconception that people called to religious life are grouchy, that something sad or negative is at work. They say, “You give everything up, why would you do that?” I want people to know that there is so much joy in giving your life over to the Lord, even if times are tough.

Underground Agency

Sister Sandy Sherman, Order of Saint Ursula (OSU), Rahab’s Heart, Toledo, Ohio 

Sister Sandy has been ministering to women who work as commercial sex workers on the streets of Toledo, many of whom were victims of child sex trafficking. One of her sisters (by birth), LeeAnn Campbell, founded an organization to serve these women. In 2014, the Ursuline Sisters elected Sister Sandy as their General Superior.

What gives you meaning in your life as a religious sister?

What first comes to mind and heart for me is the blessing of the many and varied encounters of holy and sometimes lasting relationships with the people of God, with which I have been gifted with in my 41 years as an Ursuline Sister of Toledo. There is a Sister from another community in our nursing home whose blood sister is the mother of three children I had my first years of teaching over 37 years ago years ago and it is just a blessing to hear her stories of those same children as adults and send them greetings from their “old” teacher.

With special thanks to the “Sister to All” campaign for use of their materials and to Francesca Koe for her assistance.

Photo credit: Underground Agency

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