Diocesan News

In Brooklyn, Immigrant Nuns ‘At the Feet of Jesus’

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There are nearly 100 different communities of religious sisters and brothers actively working and praying in the Diocese of Brooklyn. None are originally founded here.

“All of us are from somewhere else,” said Sister Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, S.C., episcopal delegate for religious at an event where religious brothers and sisters gathered to honor their communities’ cultural roots.

The “Diocese of Immigrants” gets its nickname not just because the laity of the diocese are from all over the world. The religious communities that serve the area are as culturally diverse as the people who fill the church pews.

“The richness of who we are has an impact on the diocese,” she said. “We all share a common history.”

Thriving in the Face of Great Adversity

That history is one of thriving in the face of great adversity, always doing what it takes to care for God’s children. At the Sept. 15 event titled “Roots and Wings” and held in Immaculate Conception Church, Jamaica Estates, around 60 religious sisters and brothers sat in small groups to discuss the history of their orders. The stories of origin ranged from 13th century Germany to the 1990s in Colombia. Some orders first came to the diocese by boat and stayed because their original plans of going to the Great American West were obliterated and others came in planes to bring divinely inspired music to 21st century children.

Among the original orders in the diocese are the Sisters of Mercy. They have been around for nearly as long as the diocese has been in existence, Sister Theresa Aliardi explained. Founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831 Ireland, the sisters made their way to the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1865, less than a decade after the diocese was established. The sisters continue to work for the people of Brooklyn with a wide range of issues including legal and housing. Sister Teresa herself helps families at birth and death, preparing them for baptism and helping them through funerals.

Another order that helped the diocese find its footing is the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. The order itself started in France in the 1800s, recounted Sister Pat Moran. In 1905, they came on a boat to New York, expecting to meet a priest that would take them out west. They never found him. Although they found themselves in a strange new land with nowhere to go, they knew they were not alone. Jesus was always with them and His servants on earth, the Little Sisters of the Poor took them in. The Bishop of Brooklyn asked them to stay and care for the sick poor in their homes. By 1917, the sisters opened a nursing hospital and expanded their ministry to Long Island, which at the time was the same diocese. They eventually gave up their Brooklyn motherhouse to build a home more suited to care for elderly sisters.

Having served the people of Long Island for over a century, the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor once again found themselves in a situation of need. And once again their fellow sisters came to their aid. As their numbers began to decline, there are 35 of them now, most of whom are retired, the sisters realized they would need help to continue their ministries. So they entered into a covenant relationship with the Sisters of St. Joseph, who will take on the responsibilities of the Sisters of the Sick Poor when the need arises.

“We’re all related somehow,” said Sister Carol Woods, SFNA.

Sister Peggy Warren, O.P., told of her Dominican Order, which started in 1200s Germany. Their plan in coming to the U.S. in the mid-19th century was to offer their services to German immigrants in Pennsylvania. They too, could not find the priest they planned to help. So instead they went to teach in Most Holy Trinity parish in 1853, which at the time was a German parish.

Of course sisters have never stopped coming to the “Diocese of Immigrants” to help God’s people. Some come with a specific ministry mission; others come for education and help out while they are here.

Sister Mary-Ann Afiakwah, S.M.M.C., is a sister from a diocesan order in Ghana. She is here studying theology at St. John’s University. It’s her second year and she is learning not only her school lessons but also how to live in this society. The snow was a tough challenge for her. Even the fast paced walking of New York through her for a loop. But she does not feel overwhelmed.

“You sit at the feet of Jesus and He will direct,” she said.

While here, Sister Mary-Ann is a religious education teacher at Queen of Peace church, Kew Gardens, and visits the sick in their home, bringing Jesus to them.

Retired Colombian Bishop Alfonso Cabezas, C.M., was the guest speaker at the “Roots and Wings” event, a missionary himself, he gave attendees some tips on how to approach an different culture.


Love is the Root of All Culture

“The root of all culture is love,” he said. Therefore if it is prideful to think that one’s own values and way of thinking are supreme. He gave a suggestion. The first thing to do is “to take it easy.” Then, go in front of the tabernacle and in prayer, with the aid of Scripture, and ask God how He has chosen to show Himself in this culture.

Expressing her love has been among the challenges for Mother Maria Amador P.C.M. She and her sisters of Preachers of Christ and Mary, are a relatively new order that started in Colombia in 1995. They came to Brooklyn in 2004. Mother Maria now works as the pastoral associate at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral and helps youth find God through beauty in things like dance and music.

In Colombia the concept of a personal bubble doesn’t really exist and Mother Maria has to remember to respect people’s space. But these are just small differences, she said. God and love are the same. And she and her sisters have felt welcome not only by the people of the diocese but also by all their fellow sisters.

Sister Agnes Nguyen, I.H.M., depends on the kindness of the sisters in the diocese. She is from Vietnam studying for a doctorate in education leadership. She never learned English before coming to the U.S. and she is the only one from her congregation in this diocese. Yet, she is joyful.

“The American sisters are very welcoming,” said Sister Theresa Huong Nguyen LHC, who is in a similar situation.

Sister Helen Oko, H.H.C.J., from Nigeria is also the only one from her congregation here, but she is here to minister as a chaplain at McKinney nursing and rehabilitation in Brooklyn. Sister Helen, who became a medical doctor after becoming a sister, had many twists and turns in her religious life. But she goes where she is needed and is happy to bring spiritual direction to sick people. Culture shock, she says, can be difficult. But the answer is simple, let preconceived notions go and just let people be.

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