Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a series, “Nun Better,” which takes a look at the lives and the service of women religious in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — For Sister Caroline Tweedy R.S.M., it wasn’t an “Ah-ha moment” that led her to join the Sisters of Mercy. Rather, it just seemed like the practical thing to do.
“I didn’t have those moments that people talk about, (such as) ‘God whispered in my ear.’ For me, it’s a pragmatic approach. I just thought I was entering a religious community that did the work that I was interested in,” she recalled.
That work involved helping the poor and outcast of society — something that is central to the mission of the Sisters of Mercy — and something she continues to do today as the executive director of St. John’s Bread & Life, an organization based in Bedford-Stuyvesant that provides meals and social service to people in need. The organization helped 56,000 last year alone.
St. John’s Bread & Life, founded in the 1980s by the Sisters of Charity and Vincentian priests, started its work in Bedford-Stuyvesant on the original site of St. John’s University. “It was really reflective of the social and political response to the times. People were getting their benefits cut. The sisters and the priests were responding to requests for help,” Sister Caroline explained.
A point of pride for Sister Caroline: St. John’s Bread & Life has never turned anyone away. It’s central to the program’s philosophy — a philosophy she shares. “We treat people with the dignity they deserve. This is not a handout. It’s a collaboration,” she said
Sister Caroline, 61, has served at the helm since 2016, having arrived there after working for 28 years as chief development officer at Mercy Home for Children, a non-profit providing housing for the developmentally disabled.
She admitted that it was hard for her to leave Mercy Home. “I thought I would stay there until I retired,” she said. “But this (job) was advertised on Indeed.com. And somebody that I know said, ‘You’d be perfect for this.’ I didn’t think so.” But she applied for the position anyway and was hired.
Sister Caroline was born and raised in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and attended Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church growing up.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was really very industrial, but it was a community, and we’re still very connected, my family, to the community, even though we no longer live there. We still go to Visitation Church. That’s our parish,” she said.
While she didn’t hear God whispering in her ear, there were inklings early on that she would live a life of service. She recalled being inspired by her grandmother, Elsa Kullen, who owned a bakery in Red Hook. “She was very charitable, and she inspired me about giving back and making a difference in the community, but doing it in a quiet way with no fanfare,” she said.
She professed her initial vows with the Sisters of Mercy in 1989 and her final vows in 1992. By 1992, she had already lived a full life, earning a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Brooklyn College and a master’s in administration and supervision from Fordham University. She had also taught at Catherine McAuley High School in East Flatbush — her alma mater — for five years.
At Catherine McAuley, she interacted with the Sisters of Mercy (the religious order founded the school in 1942) and was impressed by what she saw. “I was always inspired by their generosity, persistence, and kindness to people. And the joy that they brought to their jobs,” she recalled.
On her decision to enter religious life, she said, “It took me a while to make sure I was doing the right thing.”
She persevered by focusing on the reason why she wanted to join: The desire to do the work the Sisters of Mercy are doing.
“The sisters were right on the front lines, working with people who were poor,” she said. “In our community, we serve the poor and the sick. I love the social work aspect. of it. We didn’t own colleges or high schools. We really did the hands-on — the frontline stuff. And I always wanted to do that.”