Written on: April 2, 2014
In 1942, my family moved to North Atlanta, within walking distance to Christ the King School. I entered 6th grade there and met my first Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart, Sister Mary Alma. For the next 7 years, I studied Grey Nuns and, for me personally, it became apparent that they had a spirit of graciousness, refinement and goodness, rooted in a truly Christian spirit.
I prayed that God would let me know what was stirring within me and eventually God answered. I was one of the first three Christ the King School graduates who entered the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.I began my ministerial life as a teacher, walking this ministry path for many years. I taught 6th and 8th grade at Holy Angels parish in Buffalo and 6th and 8th grade at my home parish of Christ the King School, in my home town of Atlanta. I was the first principal of St. Jude the Apostle there. Then, I taught Religion at St. Pius X High School—“PiHi”–for 4 years.
I loved my years in education! But the day came when I felt the need for a change, a fresh start, an opportunity to answer God’s call in a new way. I went into a Master’s program in Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. After I completed the program and all of the necessary certification, a friend working in hospital chaplaincy offered me a job at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. It was, as I look back on my life, a gift from God.
I became Oncology Chaplain, ministering to cancer patients and their families. Although St. Joseph’s Hospital was a Catholic hospital, most of the patients were not Catholic and certainly didn’t know Catholic sisters. I introduced myself to a patient one day and he said, magnanimously, “Ma’am, my preacher told me that even Catholics can go to heaven!” “Well, that is just wonderful news,” I said.
I ministered to many patients in my 22 years there but some remain vividly in my memory. I remember a little lady from rural North Georgia, who was dying. She was just a precious, nice lady and always seemed to be alone. She said to me, “Sister Sally, I never died before and I don’t know how to do it. Will you help me?” It just about broke my heart.
We had many patients dying of AIDS, before the days of the drugs they have now that help people to live longer. They were frightened, they were in pain, they were dying. Many of them were poor. My purpose was, as I saw it, to bring them peacefully to God at the end of their lives.
I sat by their bedsides, even by the bedsides of those who were unconscious. I would talk quietly to them, telling them, “It will be all right. You’ll be fine, you’ll be peaceful. Our loving God loves you and is waiting for you to come home.” I sang to them, prayed with them, laughed with them.
I remember Emma, a woman in her forties who had a rare form of cancer in her leg. Her leg was amputated but that didn’t control the cancer. Two of us chaplains assisted at her funeral in a Southern Baptist Church, presided over by a female rabbi. We purchased two white doves and released them at her grave. In the silence of a lonely November afternoon, the doves flew heavenward and disappeared into the sky. Emma had gone to God!
Yes, I wept as a chaplain. Yes, I grappled with God. Yes, it was a test of my faith. But I loved the people, I believed in my work and I believed that God was present, even in the suffering. It was an incredible ministry—a gift to me.
My enculturation as a Grey Nun prepared me for my ministry as a hospital chaplain. One’s life as a Grey Nun is always rooted in prayer. That is what has kept me going. If you are not called to religious life, God will let you know. As for me, I have been overwhelmed with God’s goodness in my life.