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?

Pope Francis and Those Disloyal U.S. Nuns

August 14, 2013 at 10:42 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Earlier this month the environmental columnist Sharon Abercrombie posted an article on the National Catholic Reporter‘s Eco Catholic blog page, “Francis’ Call for Amazon Protection Echoes Work of Sr. Dorothy Stang.”  I find it provocative for several reasons.

Sister “Dot” Stang  was an American sister who spent forty years in Brazil, working with indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon Basin, as Abercrombie reminds us, comprises forty percent of Latin America and produces twenty percent of the world’s oxygen, a non-optional substance. Sister Dorothy worked to help the indigenous people of the rainforest in Brazil to learn sustainable farming practices. She also got them into contact with lawyers to defend them against loggers and ranchers intent on driving them off their land in order to clearcut the rainforest and raise huge herds of livestock there. In February of 2005 Sister Dorothy was shot dead by killers hired by just such loggers and ranchers. They were angered by her efforts to protect the people and the rainforest. In the years since her death, the situation in the Amazon has grown even worse due to government-sanctioned agribusiness and the construction of hydroelectric dams and mining infrastructure.

Abercrombie’s article suggests that during his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis emphasized the same values that Sister Dorothy lived and died for, telling the Brazilian bishops that the defense of the Amazon is relevant not only for the future of the church but of the whole society. He met with and encouraged some of the same indigenous peoples that Sister Dorothy served.

I am glad that the pope highlighted protection of the Amazon during his visit to Brazil. The church, in my opinion, spends far too little time stressing the environment as a “right to life” issue. Yet as the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)  begins its annual meeting this week, I can’t help reflecting somewhat sardonically on the connections between the Pope’s words about the Amazon, Sister Dorothy’s work, and the current situation of the LCWR.

First of all, let’s recall that although she held dual US-Brazilian citizenship, Sister Dorothy was a member of a U.S. province of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a group that belongs to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Now, in point of fact, as Abercrombie mentions, Sister Dorothy did spend some of her time in Brazil “organizing religious services and spiritual formation classes for children and adults alike.” But a major emphasis, and the cause of her martyrdom, was her political-environmental work against ranchers and loggers doing enormous harm to the Brazilian rainforest, actions Sister Dorothy understood to contradict Catholic social teaching.  She seems to have spent little (or no) time denouncing homosexuality and abortion.

In other words, Sister Dorothy was exactly the kind of U.S. Catholic sister whom the Vatican condemned in the “doctrinal assessment” it issued in April of 2012–a document which the current pope declined to rescind or even modify. The archbishop whom Pope Benedict sicced on U.S. sisters is still overseeing their meeting this week in Orlando, Florida.

Yet the values that this emblematic U.S. Catholic sister died for are precisely the values expressed by the new pope during his recent visit to Sister Dorothy’s adopted country. And commentators have remarked that this pope has said very little about the pelvic issues that have obsessed the Vatican and the hierarchy since Vatican II– something the sisters were also criticized for in the doctrinal assessment. Pope Francis had better be careful, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be issuing a negative assessment of him before long.

Who Needs e. e. cummings?

January 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Last Saturday, January 12, I went to Philadelphia for the funeral of another friend, my high school classmate, Susan Donahue. I have decided to stop lamenting about people in my generation dying, though I surely miss them. What can we do? We’re getting older.

But even if I’m not lamenting, I keep on observing things, –in myself and others. And if it’s not too weird to say, I rather enjoyed my friend’s memorial service. A hundred or so people came. Susan had been a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur for about half her adult life (more or less–the details were vague) and a bunch of SNDs and former SNDs and almost SNDs, some of whom I’ve known for fifty years, came to the memorial. Clearly Susan had a good life, teaching school in the South and then working in a free health clinic in DC while she was a sister, and later working with the CDC on HIV/AIDS. And she had wonderful friends who testified to the enormous difference she had made in their lives. We should all do so well at the end.

One thing that kind of put me off, though, was the reading of a poem by e.e. cummings during the service; Susan had apparently loved cummings’s poetry her whole life,  so we heard one of his works, along with a passage from Isaiah, before the eulogies started.

I should perhaps confess at this point that I have ambivalent feelings about the world I came out of. Delaware County, just south of Philadelphia, was in the 50s and 60s mostly white, working class, and Republican; I put a lot of energy into getting out of there. I also love (or loved) a lot of the people I met there.

What came to me about the e.e. cummings part of Susan’s service was, “Deliver us from the poetry we learned when we were teenagers, O Lord. Surely Susan got beyond e.e. cummings!”

I did not say this out loud. Another friend smacked me at a funeral last summer for saying something negative about the deceased,  so I kept my mouth shut this time. But that didn’t stop me from thinking.

Then, a few days after Susan’s funeral, I came across a reference to Dana Green’s new biography of the poet Denise Levertov. I have been in the habit in recent years of reciting a poem to myself as the Q train takes me across the East River from  Brooklyn to Manhattan: “I thank you God for most this amazing day.” I suppose it functions as a prayer for me, though if it’s a prayer, it’s one I sort of say to the Brooklyn Bridge, since I always look at the bridge as we cross the river. Anyhow, I had forgotten who wrote the poem, and then it occurred to me that perhaps Denise Levertov had.

So I googled “I thank you God,” and guess whose name came up? e.e. cummings.

I am writing this blogpost as an act of penance for being, once again, a judgmental twit.

Susan, I hope you’re laughing up there.

Sex Abuse Intolerable; Diphtheria Less So

April 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I may have spoken too soon. As my Catholic cousin Maureen Dowd reports in today’s New York Times, the AP has broken “the latest story pointing the finger of blame directly at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quoting from a letter in Latin in which he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually molested children.”  So here is the proof I said in a previous blog didn’t exist. The pope, in his previous position, took years to respond to a letter from the bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, asking permission to “defrock” an admitted child abuser. And when he did respond, “God’s Rottweiler” urged “the diocese to give the 38-year-old pedophile ‘as much paternal care as possible’ and to consider his young age” as well as “the good of the universal church.”

Now it’s possible to quibble a bit with Dowd’s  interpretation.  For example, we might take into account a report on NPR Saturday attributing part of the problem here to Pope John Paul II’s decision to staunch the flood of men leaving the  priesthood after Vatican II by making it much more difficult for them to receive laicization.  

But this is precisely the kind of buck-passing for which the Vatican is much criticized of late. Let’s stick to Maureen Dowd’s column. Let’s consider, for example, the column’s sub-head: “Suffer the little children. Don’t make the little children suffer.”

Now it seems perfectly obvious which little children Dowd is referring to here: the thousands of American and European Catholic boys and girls who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests. In recent years, however, I have become interested in another group of little children, those who live in the Global South and die in large numbers from water-borne diseases (diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera, for the most part). Experts tell us that one child dies of such a disease every fifteen seconds.

Now you may well think that there’s no comparison between the millions of children who die of these diseases every year and children abused by priests. After all, the children in the Global South die. Their sufferings are over. Sexually abused children, however, suffer for the rest of their lives.

My late mother would disagree. When she was four, her six-year old brother, my uncle Jimmy, died of diphtheria. Mom told me many times that her parents never recovered. After her brother was buried (he could not have a funeral because of the contagion), her father sat looking out the window for six months. My grandmother took in laundry so they could eat. And that grandmother heaved deep and frequent sighs throughout my own childhood.

Others may argue that unlike sex abuse, these diseases are natural. Nothing can be done about them. You will note, however, that epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid, or cholera are pretty rare in the US these days. After World War II, we became rich enough to put in sewerage systems and make potable water almost universally available. The debt-burdened countries of the Global South, on the other hand, can’t afford to do this, so their kids die in droves. 

There is something you can do about the suffering of some of these little children, however. The nuns who educated me, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, are constructing a photovoltaic grid in Congo, where their African sisters work, to provide electricity. Such electricity will, among other things, make it possible to purify the water that local children and their families drink.

You can make a donation right now toward the construction of this photovoltaic  grid.  Just send a check made out to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Here’s the address: Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Congregational Mission Office, 30 Jeffreys Neck Road, Ipswich, MA, 01938.

But perhaps you are hesitating. Your life is pretty complicated. You have many commitments, many things to consider. You’d better not hesitate too long, though, because just since you began reading this column, a child or two died. And if you wait much longer, someone may denounce you for temporizing while little children suffer, much as Maureen Dowd denounces the evil Cardinal Ratzinger  in today’s Sunday Times.

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