Written on: June 4, 2014
My family was not Catholic. As a child, I remember overhearing a conversation my father had with a neighbor about how a new teacher in town had been mistreated by some of the people because she was a Catholic. I wondered what “Catholic” meant.
Sometime later, in the winter, a stranger came to our farm looking for work as a hired hand. My father only took on hired hands in the summer, to bring in the hay. He turned the man down but told him he could stay at our home for a few days. People did that sort of thing in those days.
A few days later, I came home from school and discovered that the man was gone. He had left behind a jacket and being a curious child, I looked in the pockets. The only thing I found was a book, a slim, pocket-sized volume of Lives of the Saints. I read the book and was fascinated by the stories of the saints, who had done so much and suffered so much for their faith. I think I decided right then that I wanted to become a Catholic and a nun.
When I think back and remember the stranger, that old quotation always comes to mind: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Greymoor in Garrison, New York had a program on the radio every Sunday at 5 o’clock and it was always about a saint. There was also a radio program about the Sacred Heart and I listened to both of those programs. I became a Catholic at 15 and entered the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart at 18.
I was sent to nursing school and after graduation from Champlain Valley Hospital Nursing School in Plattsburgh, I worked at the hospital in the emergency room. Later, I worked at the infirmary at our Motherhouse in Melrose Park.
Nineteen fifty four was a turning point in my ministry life. I was sent to Kodiak, Alaska to work at a hospital there. It was a long journey. We flew to Seattle, took a boat to Juno, a plane to Anchorage and then another plane to Kodiak.
When I arrived in Kodiak, the main street was a dirt road. Wooden sidewalks ran in front of old frame stores, just like in a Western movie. The hospital, Griffin Memorial, sat on a cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was a world away from anything I ever knew.
Five Grey Nuns ran the 18 bed hospital. By night, we lived in community in our own part of the hospital. We planted the flowers, cut the grass and shoveled the snow ourselves. The hospital was our home as well as our ministry.
Our patients were mostly commercial fisherman, descendants of Russians and Aleutian Island natives. They worked in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.
When the 1964 Alaskan earthquake caused a tidal wave, we were told to leave the hospital and move to a safer place. But Sister Mary Carmen–God rest her soul–and I stayed, worried that an injured or ill person would come to the hospital and find no one to help. Finally, a young Marine came and said to us, “We’re under martial law, sisters,” he said. “You have to leave.” Well, we left but we weren’t happy about it. We survived the walls of water and when it was all over, we worked side by side with the people of Kodiak to clean up and restore order.
I was missioned to Alaska three times. The final time, I worked in the Senior Center of Kodiak and I enjoyed it and met so many good people. I loved Alaska and I loved the people of Alaska. I never would have gotten to know that beautiful place and those good people if I had not become a Grey Nun. I am grateful to God for that experience.
I’m not good at discussing spirituality. I have always had a devotion to the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart is a symbol of Jesus’ love and sacrifice and I think that’s what we did as Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. We loved the people we cared for in ministry and we made sacrifices to live out our vocations. I feel blessed and I would do it all over again.