My Solar Sisters

September 11, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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In 1961, when I was 14, my family moved from the tiny stucco house in which my brother and I had shared a bedroom for seven years to a bigger stucco house a few miles south. A number of noteworthy changes accompanied the move: finally being able to have my wooden dresser, previously out in the hall, inside the room where I, and I alone, slept; the crabapple tree in the yard that bloomed for my birthday every spring; and the regional rail line, with a stop at the bottom of the hill, that carried me to the museums and bookstores and libraries of Philadelphia.

Another change was less welcome: instead of going to Archbishop Prendergast, the Catholic girls’ high school where my parochial school classmates went, I was forced to enroll at Notre Dame Moylan, staffed not by the order of sisters at my grade school, the West Chester IHMs, or even some of the other familiar archdiocesan orders–the Chestnut Hill SSJs, or the Glen Riddle Franciscans–but by an order of nuns I’d never heard of, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. What I couldn’t get over was that if we had bought a house on the opposite side of the street, we’d have become members of the next parish north, St. Madeline’s, whose girls went to “Prendie,” as we called it. But we were on the Saint Rose of Lima side of the street. So I started taking the bus every day out Rose Valley Road to Notre Dame.

As it turns out, this bizarre wrong-side-of-the street development was one of the most significant of my life.  The “Ess-En-Dees,” as we called them, turned out to be the most educated and internationally sophisticated adults I had ever met, introducing me to literature, music, world events, and equally to the point, to a progressive, justice-oriented Catholicism  about which I had never dreamed. My years at Notre Dame overlapped with the Second Vatican Council, of course, so I wasn’t the only white-ethnic working-class Catholic being introduced to a renewed, mission-oriented church. But the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur introduced us in a galvanizing, unforgettable way. I have been grateful to them, and in communication with them, ever since.

Forward-fast the DVR forty years or so and picture me in another house, this one a few blocks from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Graduate Theological Union, where my husband and I are teaching. It’s the height of the real estate boom, 2005, and my brother the tax attorney informs us that if we are going to sell that house, we should sell it right now. So we do. And we make a sock of money. I won’t go into the details except to say that when the fourteen outrageous offers, each double what we paid for the place, come in, I say to my esteemed companion,” Keith, I’m not sure it’s ethical to sell this house for so much,” to which he replied, “Oh, for God’s sake, Marian, if we sell it for less, somebody will buy it and then resell it for that much.” We did, however, undertake a certain kind of penance for making such a killing–we gave a chunk of it away.

And this is where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur came back into the picture. I learned from one of their newsletters that the congregation, which is international in scope, had undertaken a photovoltaic–that is, solar–project to make electricity available to the schools, clinics and hospitals they staff in The Democratic Republic of Congo and in Nigeria. Launched in 2005, the SND African Photovoltaic Project now provides electricity, clean water, and internet access in Fugarand and Awkunanaw, Nigeria, as well as in Ngidinga, Lemfu, Kitende and Pelende, Congo. In the last three of these locations alone, the photovoltaic project serves 1100 hundred primary school students, 840 secondary students, and 220 people in hospitals and clinics.

These figures are impressive, of course, but perhaps a tad abstract for Euro-Americans like me (like us?) whose lives are almost incomprehensibly easier than those of the people of central Africa.  Until the photovoltaic project began operating in Ngidinga, Congo, in 2008, for example, the x-ray machine in the sisters’ hospital had never been used, for lack of electricity. And one of the major obstacles to women and girls being educated in Africa is that they spend huge amounts of time hauling clean water over long distances; because of the clean water provided by the photovoltaic project, women and girls can not only come to school–they can learn to use Microsoft Word on a computer, and can watch educational videos over the internet for the first time in their lives.

Each of the six photovoltaic systems cost $300,000, an amazing amount of money for a congregation of Catholic sisters to raise. And Keith and I are proud to have played a small part in that. The six systems  are now in place, but that’s just the beginning of the effort. Among the sisters’ goals for the future are to

  • Maintain and grow the systems in Nigeria and Congo

  • Educate sisters and co-workers in skills related to the project, such as: electrical engineering, business management, construction, oversight etc.

Having invested in this transformative endeavor, it only makes sense that we would support the sisters as they continue their work for the health and education of the people of Nigeria and Congo. Please won’t you join me?



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  1. How wonderful, Marian.


    • Marcella, you just made my day. Thanks so much.

      Love, Marian


  2. Marian,
    You continue to amaze me with your goodness and your scholarly/human writing.
    Thank you for continuing to love us, the Ess-En-Dees.
    This one loves you and thanks you for your presence in my life.
    Marcella M.M.


  3. Really lovely post.

    Jeanette Stokes Durham, NC Blog:

    REPEAL Amendment One


  4. Marian,
    I remember hearing SND’s Sister Augusta Neal’s name mentioned while I was an Ursuline novice or junior nun. Some years after I left the convent, when I read Kenneth Briggs’ book Double Crossed Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns, I appreciated even more her influence on the Ursulines. For example, we got our BA degrees at the College of New Rochelle before being sent into the classroom.
    Your energy amazes me, and your strong sense of social justice makes one proud to be a Catholic. Thanks for each of you blog entries I just got caught up with – every one of them!


  5. My aunt, Sr. Thelma Flanagan, was an SND in Cleveland, but I don’t know if they are deNamur or anything else, I never heard, and she died of breast cancer while I was in college. We were never taught by them, but I am so glad to hear of this great work. Thank you for your brilliant writing, as always. take care, Margaret


  6. Your latest entry made me feel very nostalgic. As a former SND de N teaching during your years as a student at NDHS, I found myself asking which of us was more fortunate. It makes me happy that we continue to appreciate each other.


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