Thanksgiving offers a full serving of memories, from families gathered around a table recreating the Pilgrims’ and Indians’ get-together or kind of resembling the Norman Rockwell painting, to watching the giant Spider-Man balloon floating over New York City at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or seeing the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions play their traditional football games.
The long Thanksgiving weekend offers a time to thank God for our blessings and to reflect with gratitude on the people who made, and continue to make, a difference in our lives, like our family members, friends, coworkers and neighbors.
But for anyone who graduated from a Catholic school, or has been helped at a Catholic hospital or social service agency, it can also be a time to thank the women and men religious who built our nation’s Catholic educational and health care systems and continue to impact people’s lives every day.
In early November at the annual dinner in Washington for the group SOAR! – Support Our Aging Religious – Sister Regis Krusniewski, a School Sister of Notre Dame, thanked the group for its $20,000 grant to her religious community.
SOAR! helped provide nearly $1 million in grants to 52 congregations of women and men religious in 2016. The group was formed 30 years ago by concerned laity who read a Wall Street Journal article about the huge shortfall in retirement and health care funds faced by the nation’s Catholic religious orders, whose members in earlier decades often worked for stipends with no retirement benefits.
A separate effort unfolds each year in the annual collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious taken up in parishes across the United States, which is slated for the weekend of Dec. 10-11. That collection, coordinated by the National Religious Retirement Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, raised $30.7 million in 2015 and helps support the nearly 33,000 elderly Catholic sisters, brothers and religious order priests whose communities lack adequate retirement funding.
The SOAR! dinner highlighted how Catholics’ generosity has helped religious communities make their facilities accessible for their retired members, provided physical therapy and medical equipment, and nursing call systems. But in expressing gratitude for the grant to the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Krusniewski noted another way that the nation’s Catholics can express thanks to elderly religious.
“If there’s a religious priest, brother or sister who has touched your life, consider writing an email or letter or making a phone call to them,” she said, adding that will make the day of an aging religious. “I can’t tell you how much that means to them.”
Reconnecting with a religious can make their day, and make your day, too. I know this from experience. A couple of years ago, I was reporting on the SOAR! dinner for the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, and I sat at a table with some members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame from the Baltimore province.
I told the sisters that my favorite teacher, Sister Kathleen Donovan, was a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and had taught me in the fourth grade at St. Joseph School in Kimmswick, Missouri, and I gave them my business card and asked them to pass it on to anyone who might be in touch with the St. Louis branch of that order.
More than a year passed, and one night while I was reading a bedtime story to our youngest son Matt, my iPhone beeped with an email message. It was from Donovan, whom I hadn’t been in contact with for more than four decades.
My business card had floated around for months, like a message in a bottle, before a sister whom I had met at the SOAR! dinner was able to share my contact information with Donovan.
“Believe it or not, I often think of you,” Donovan wrote in the email. “I still have the school photo of you wearing the red bow tie.”
Amazingly, earlier that very day I had written a column for the Catholic Standard for the Year of Consecrated Life, noting how Donovan “read Charlotte’s Web aloud to me and my fourth grade classmates and instilled a love of reading and creative writing in me that has shaped my life and work.”
“No wonder Charlotte’s Web remains my favorite book, and Donovan remains my favorite teacher,” I wrote in that column, which was being printed that night at the plant but had not been posted online yet.
I believe with God, there are no coincidences, and that week I had already made plans to fly home with my son and visit my elderly parents in rural Missouri. I emailed Donovan back, and we made plans to meet.
Donovan drove down from St. Louis and joined us for Mass at St. Joseph Church. I brought along my red, clip-on bow tie (my mom saved everything), and Donovan and I were able to recognize each other. We were both older now, but she had the same smile and sparkling personality that I remembered.
We rode together to my parents’ home, where my mom was caring for my dad, who had Alzheimer’s. Donovan, who has been a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for more than 50 years, brought along her computer tablet and after joining us for breakfast, showed me samples of her students’ work at the Catholic elementary school where she teaches art.
Since then, Donovan and I have kept in touch with cards, emails and phone calls, and one Sunday afternoon during one of my visits home to Missouri, we were able to enjoy brunch together at a restaurant in the little river town where she taught me fourth grade.
“You gave me the spark!” I said, grateful for the chance to thank her personally.
At St. Joseph School, Donovan fostered my love of writing and drawing. Sister Mary Annette, another School Sister of Notre Dame, encouraged us to go for gold stars in our spelling tests, and to write clearly in cursive, and the dictionary at my elbow and my signature today reflect the lessons she taught us.
At St. Pius X High School in Crystal City, Missouri, Sister Clothilde and Sister Mary Andrew from the Adorers of the Most Precious Blood in Ruma, Illinois, helped us navigate algebra and mathematics and broached no monkey business in their classes.
In my years working as a reporter and editor at the Catholic Standard, I believe that women and men religious remain my teachers, as I witness their lives of service and their legacy in our Catholic schools, hospitals, nursing homes and social outreach programs.
Like many other Catholics across the country, I feel no hesitancy in saying “thanks” to elderly religious when special collections are taken up on their behalf. But for me, the greatest blessing has come from being able to offer personal thanks to the sister who inspired me, and continues to inspire students in her classroom.
To amend slightly the famous phrase spun by Charlotte the spider in her web, I’d just like to say, “What a Sister!”