As an alternative to a traditional spring break, 12 college women from California came to New York to live, work, pray and speak freely with religious sisters.
The University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, students stayed at the old convent at The Mary Louis Academy, Jamaica Estates, March 10-17, as part of an outreach project originating from the university’s Caruso Catholic Center.
The week overlapped with National Catholic Sisters Week, March 8-14, and had a vocation theme, but was not intended specifically for those seriously discerning a religious vocation.
“I would say they are discerning life,” said Sister Jeanette Kong, V.D.M.F., a campus minister at UCLA, who joined the USC group as part of a joint ministry effort. The two universities have different spring break weeks so her students could not join in this trip. “Our work is not to spoon-feed them. It is to walk with them… to accompany them.”
Broad View of Religious Life
The women on the trip – ranging from freshmen in college to a law student in her early 30s – met religious sisters in varying roles at different stages of life, fulfilling various ministries.
On Monday, March 12, they spent the day at the St. John’s Bread and Life Soup Kitchen in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The next day, they drove out to the Brentwood Motherhouse where they learned about how the sisters tackle environmental issues and care for the elders in their community.
On Wednesday, they visited Hour Children, an organization ministering to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children run by Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, C.S.J. On Thursday, they visited the United Nations and met with religious who serve in NGOs working for the betterment of the world.
The group started and ended each day with prayer. In the evenings the ladies shared a meal with sisters who came to speak to them about their own vocation stories including Sister Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, S.C., diocesan episcopal delegate for religious and Sister Joan Dawber, S.C., founder and executive director of LifeWay Network.
Sisters with Global Impact
Sister Jeanette said it was important for students to see sisters exhibiting strength in their everyday lives as they tackle the problems of the world.
“They saw religious taking the bull by the horns,” she said. “It is important for them to know that we look at and address problems concerning human dignity.”
Political science and pre-law students Paola Morales, freshman, and Mikaella Ahn, sophomore, both said their favorite day during the trip was visiting the UN.
Morales said she had scholastic knowledge of the UN from her studies, but being in the building changed her whole perspective on the organization.
“It’s not what the UN does, but what the people in the UN do,” she said. She added that she was amazed that so many religious sisters work with NGOs at the UN tackling issues that ultimately concern world peace.
Ahn said seeing nuns in these roles made her realize that ultimately humanitarian work is a glory for God because God created all of humanity. She said offering her good works to God brings her service to a new level in a way that she did not experience in previous humanitarian projects in which she was involved.
“It does not invalidate my previous service,” she said. “It enhances the experience.”
More Realistic Perspective
Having time to reflect on religion and theology allowed her own relationship with God to grow. She was also thankful to be able to ask frank questions to the sisters without fear of judgment.
“I was always loyal to the church because my family is Catholic, but there was a naiveté to it before this trip,” she said. “Now it is more realistic as to what the Catholic faith is.”
Sister Jenny Zimmerman, S.N.D., the campus minister at USC who organized and came on the trip with her students, said the most surprising aspect was how many questions the students had, ranging from do all nuns wear habits and the difference between a sister and a nun, to why God allows suffering in the world.
Morales said the trips helped her debunk a lot of myths she believed about her own religion, especially regarding religious sisters. For example, she did not realize that many religious sisters did not wear habits and that there are many different religious congregations.
“I think I got to know myself a lot better on this trip,” she said. “It helped me understand where my relationship with God has been. It helped me grow.”
She said she gained an appreciation of all the important work religious sisters do and the beauty of living in community.
“I might even just become a nun,” she said.
Junior Manika Tolentino, a communications major, said she most enjoyed visiting the Motherhouse in Brentwood, where she was amazed at the breadth of the issues that religious women tackle there.
They not only take care of their elders, but also address important issues such as environmental care of the earth, even discerning a balance between dignity of the human body after death and a natural burial for the good of the earth.
“This is not front-page news,” she said, “but it is what is important.”
Tolentino said she has more of an appreciation for these women for humbly tackling these issues that are often forgotten by the larger society.
Sister Jenny said it is always a danger on these kind of trips that the focus is on travel, not spiritual growth. However, in listening to her students, she has seen that there has been much fruit from this effort and hopes to follow up with each student in the weeks and months to come.
She is also thankful to Sister Marie Mackey, C.S.J., who arranged everything for the trip in New York. She sent an email to the sister, whom she knows from the National Religion Vocation Conference, and Sister Marie made sure the ladies were well taken care of on their trip.
Strong Support Network
Sister Marie said the project was a bit more complicated than she first anticipated, but so many people donated time and resources that the college ladies were able to visit without any major problems.
The first challenge was to find a place for the students to sleep. After not having too much luck elsewhere, Sister Marie said she realized the students could sleep in the old convent at The Mary Louis Academy. The building was maintained and freshly painted, but had no beds. The sisters from the convent at Bishop Kearney H.S. in Bensonhurst, helped supply some permanent beds and the rest were air mattresses.
Sisters from The Mary Louis Academy helped provide transportation and other logistical support. The National Religion Vocation Conference also provided financial support as part of its outreach during National Catholic Sisters Week.
Sister Marie said she is excited to have used the space in Jamaica to its full potential and is open to extending an invitation to future service groups.