Sitting on the floor of their little chapel in Bedford-Stuyvesant, surrounded by the women they serve, the Missionaries of Charity celebrated the silver jubilee of their work in the Brooklyn Diocese with Mass on the morning of the Feast of Annunciation, April 9.
Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto was the main celebrant.
“It is a happy day,” Bishop Chappetto said.
The bishop explained that the Church always makes it a point to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation after the Easter Octave to give it its own special day. He thanked the Sisters for their own “Yes” and for the example they give to the Church and the community.
“I’m sure Mother Teresa is looking down upon us, happy with the work that you are doing,” the bishop said speaking of the community’s foundress. “Thank you for what you have done. God bless you for the work that you will do.
“Be assured of our prayer and continue to pray for us and the people you serve.”
Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros concelebrated along with priests who worked with the Sisters throughout the years, including Msgr. Joseph Nugent, former pastor of Our Lady of Victory Church, with which the chapel is associated.
After Mass, the bishops were invited to cut a cake in honor of the jubilee.
The day was extra special for Sister Mary Marta M.C., who attended the rededication of the convent 25 years ago, when she was discerning her own calling.
She was with the Sisters for what they call a “Come and See.” March 25, 1993, the feast of the Annunciation that year, was the last day of her “Come and See.” She said the whole day felt as if Jesus was asking for her hand in marriage.
Bishop Thomas V. Daily celebrated a 3 p.m. Mass that day at Our Lady of Victory Church and then came to bless all the rooms of the convent. Sister Mary Marta said she remembers that many people and many Sisters came for the celebration. Bishop Daily was visibly exuberant. He was devoted to the care of the unborn and had invited the Sisters to his diocese to help care for unwed pregnant women.
Since that day, the Missionary Sisters of Charity have been working in the neighborhood, planting the seeds for God’s work. Sister Mary Marta recently learned of a fruit of this work when a woman asked her and a fellow sister if they were Catholic nuns. She explained that 19 years ago Catholic sisters in Bedford Stuyvesant, ones wearing the same habit as Sister Mary Marta, had helped her when she was a pregnant teenager with no other place to turn. The Sisters took her in and taught her how to care for her baby. Now, as a job, she teaches young women in Manhattan to care for their own children, teaching them what the Sisters taught her.
Caring for pregnant women was what attracted Sister Regi Paul, M.C., to Mother Teresa’s spirituality. As young woman in India, she was reluctant to join the Missionary Sisters. She did not want to, but Jesus kept on calling her to the Order, she said. She did not feel ready to leave all that was familiar to her and had no dreams of traveling the world. But she heard a preacher tell the story of how Mother Teresa saw a nearly full-term pregnant woman sitting homeless on the street when others either did not see her or looked down upon her. Mother Teresa stopped to talk to the woman and eventually took her in to her care. That is when she realized that this was indeed the congregation for her.
After she joined, she was sent to the United States and has ministered in many states and houses, including as superior of the house in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She said it was scary to leave her home and her country. But she has a weapon that shields her from evil and ill will: the Rosary at her waist. She prays to the mother of God for protection and has always been kept safe, even when she and another Sister were being pursued by gang members when they got lost at night or when walking through the City housing projects looking for people to help.
Another thing that is helpful for her when moving between convents is that each house keeps the same schedule, with the same routines. Each Missionary of Charity in the world wakes up at 4:40 a.m. and starts her day with an hour of prayer and Mass. That prepares them for their work throughout the day, which they complete with scheduled breaks for prayer.
Sister Winni Marie, M.C., currently stationed in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said that centering themselves on prayer is the only way they can truly help anyone. They need their own inner peace and light so that they can share it with the world.
For example, she said, it can be difficult at times to deal with desperate pregnant teenage girls, especially as their hormones mess with their ability to think calmly. However, she said, that with the peace and love that comes from God, she watches the young women transform. As they receive love, their hearts change.
She said the Order’s work involves giving the women shelter and food but also helping them to learn to care for themselves. They also need spiritual help, someone to listen to them and to guide them. So the Sisters schedule prayers with them, listen to them and then let the Holy Spirit guide through them.
“We have to give them light, to give them Jesus,” she said. “It is not us guiding. God is the one guiding. It is not our work. It is God’s work.”
She said it is also important to pray for their charges and make sacrifices in their name. Although the Missionary Sisters of Charity already live in what is called radical poverty, foregoing any unnecessary worldly pleasure, including, if possible, chairs at Mass and even simple things like tablecloths, Sister Winni Marie said it is still possible to make small sacrifices for the good of those they care for. This way they can help them in every way possible, not just when they are together face-to-face.
The same goes, Sister Winni Marie said, for the people they visit. The Sisters go to hospitals, nursing homes and door-to-door to encounter people literally where they are. She said, in Brooklyn, the need is much more spiritual than physical. So although the Sisters give material support where needed, they also give spiritual support – talking to and praying with those who open their doors for them and praying for the ones who do not.
Sister Regi Paul said, humanly speaking, all this would be quite difficult, but with a life centered in prayer, God makes it possible.
Father Daniel Kingsley, parochial vicar at St. Martin de Porres parish, which includes Our Lady of Victory Church, said having the sisters in the parish transforms the community. He said people have told him that they have been attracted to church through the example of the love of the Sisters.
Personally, Father Kingsley said the work of the Sisters has transformed him too. Baptizing the children born to the women living in the convent has been humbling for him as he witnessed the faith of the women who cling to the light despite the darkness of their situations, and pass on the light of faith to their children.
“The Missionaries of Charity are a sign of God’s love and presence in the world,” he said.