Women of Vision

March 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 7 Comments
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Well, you haven’t been hearing from me much of late. But I have an excuse!

I’ve been finishing a book that I’ve been working on since the middle of 2015. It’s called Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, and it’s almost done. As I understand it, the book may well be out in April, published by the Apocryphile Press, Berkeley, CA.

Here’s the copy from the book’s back cover:

Women of Vision is a book that expands significantly public knowledge of the contributions of Catholic laywomen to church and society over the past century.

Despite historic advances in women’s recognition and equality in recent years, the significant roles played by Roman Catholic laywomen in church and society still go largely unacknowledged. With Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, Marian Ronan and Mary O’Brien contribute substantially to remedying this situation.

Founded in the Netherlands in 1921, just after World War I, the Grail movement was focused, from the outset, on using laywomen’s extraordinary gifts to resolve the crises in which the world found itself. By 1961, the movement had spread to twenty other countries, including Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and nine African countries.

Drawn from interviews done with Grail founders in many of these countries, Women of Vision highlights the relentless and often heroic work done by Grail women, founding and staffing hospitals and schools, supporting indigenous women and girls, preparing local women for church and Grail leadership, and in some cases, assuming governance roles in their own countries and at the United Nations.

If i weren’t such a technological nitwit, I would also include in this post the cover of Women of Vision. But I can’t figure out how to do that; maybe I’ll be putting that up next time.

In any case, you may be sure I’ll be providing you the link to the book on Amazon as soon as it’s available. Stay tuned

Farewell, Dear Mothers

March 1, 2015 at 6:51 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Uncategorized, women | 6 Comments
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If you are an (early) baby-boomer like me, or older than I am (almost 68), what I’m going to say here won’t be anything new to you. If you’re a lot younger, maybe. But in any case, perhaps we can share reflections and begin to come to terms with some of this hard stuff.

My mother, God bless her, did her best. But she was not noted for her warmth or supportiveness–at least not to my brother and me. Some of the cousins fared better; Mom sometimes rose to occasions. But as for me, I spent my younger years looking for a mother, or mothers, to make up for certain significant lacks.

One of the groups who rose to the occasion big time were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who staffed the Catholic girls high school I attended in the early 1960s, Notre Dame, Moylan, south of Philadelphia. The nuns at that high school were the first genuinely educated people I had ever met, and the love and support they showed me is hard to describe adequately. A number of them still send me birthday cards, and pray for my husband when he’s sick, and love the things I write.

Toward the end of my senior year at Moylan, one of the Sisters of Notre Dame there, Sister Marcella Marie, invited a member of the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, to come and speak about the Grail. After Veronica Barbato’s talk, I began going up to the Grail’s center on Chester Avenue in Philadelphia for programs and liturgical events. The Grail seemed to me to be the perfect embodiment of the Second Vatican Council, which had just ended.

Eventually one of the Grail women drove me out to the group’s national headquarters, Grailville, in rural southwestern Ohio. I began spending summers there while I was in college and teaching the fourth grade–don’t even ask!!–after which  I joined the Grailville staff for four years (1975 to 1979). While I was at Grailville I co-authored my first book, led programs, met nationally-known feminist theologians, became concerned about the environment (Grailville is an organic farm) and more or less started being the person I am today. It was an extraordinary experience.

In my encounter with the Sisters of Notre Dame, and again with the Grail women, I was most deeply influenced  by those a generation ahead of me, women who were in their twenties and thirties for the most part. This means that I have been in conversation with–and loved–a number of them for fifty years.

And now they are dying. I said to someone recently that being in the Grail for me now is like having fifty mothers all in their eighties. And it’s true with the SNDs as well.

Let me illustrate this with two stories.  A few years ago, at the funeral of a Moylan classmate,  I ran into a woman named Eileen Holahan. She had been an SND for many years, and the director of the glee club at Notre Dame, an activity that had given me great joy.  Eileen had left the convent somewhat later in life than a lot of women did, and worked as a professional for several decades. At the time of my friend’s funeral, Eileen was in her early eighties, but in good health, and we had a few wonderful visits when I was in Baltimore, where she lived. Then last winter, one day, her sister called to say Eileen had fallen on the ice outside her apartment building, damaged her brain, and died. I still can’t believe it. I keep expecting her to telephone me.

Then this past Christmas Eve I called Carolyn Gratton, an internationally known Grail member whom another Grail member, Anne Burke, used to take me to visit when Carolyn was a graduate student in psychology at Duquesne in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s.  Carolyn finished her Ph.D. and went on to be a recognized expert and author in the areas of spirituality and spiritual direction. I didn’t always agree with her–she was so much more benign a person than I am–but we had been talking throughout my entire adult life. When I called her on Christmas eve, I told her I’d be up to Toronto to see her in the spring. Next morning there was an email from the Grail saying that Carolyn had died in her sleep.

Then there’s Ruthie Chisholm, another Grail member who had spent decades nursing with the Grail team at Rubaga Hospital in Uganda. I lived with Ruth for a while at the Grail Center up in Cornwall, New York, after she returned from Uganda. Ruth had a terrible stroke a few years ago, so her death was not unexpected;  in many respects,actually,  it was a blessing, because she had been totally disabled by the stroke, she, a woman who had always been active.  But it’s hard to imagine the world without her.

As I said at the outset, none of this should be all that surprising. Indeed, it’s the new normal; people get old and then they die. So will I, I’m told. But it’s unbelievably hard to imagine a world without these and the  other radiant women who impacted my life so significantly.

Perhaps I’ll just stop writing now and go have a visit with them.

Loving the Elders

May 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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By now, you’ve probably figured out that something has been up. I haven’t blogged for a while. The thing is, my esteemed companion, Keith A. Russell, has convinced me that it’s not a good idea to announce in advance that we’re going on holiday, lest somebody drop by our Flatbush apartment while we’re gone and clean the place out. So I just disappear and ask your forgiveness later.

Ten days ago we drove out to southwest Ohio to visit with a number of members of the International Grail Movement–women seventy to a hundred years old–who had flown in from all over the world for a gathering of “Grail elders.” Some of these women had an enormous impact on me when I was in college and in my twenties and thirties. At the risk of sounding morbid, I was a bit afraid that if I didn’t get myself out there, I might not have another chance, especially to see the ones who had come from Europe and South Africa and Australia.

I “met the Grail,” as we say, when a Grail member gave a talk at my Catholic girls’ high school in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1965. I began going to meetings at the Grail Center in Philadelphia, and then I visited Grailville, the Grail’s farm and program center outside Cincinnati, and then I went there for several summers while I was teaching the fourth grade, and then I joined the Grailville community and lived on the farm for four full years. There’s no way I would be anything like the person I am if I had not done so. And a number of Grail women who were in their late thirties and forties when I was in my twenties were the most astonishing role models a working class Catholic baby-boomer could ever have hoped for. Somebody was always suggesting that I compile and edit a prayer book for the community, or go take a grant-writing workshop, or work up a feminist version of the Easter Vigil to celebrate during Holy Week. They helped me to believe that anything was possible.

Forty years later, some of these women have left us. I walked down to the cemetery behind the Grailville Oratory one morning to have a chat with them. But lots of others were at the elders’ gathering, so I got to visit with them, and pray with them, and recall a wide range of amazing experiences we had shared. With Francine Wickes, my dear friend from Bangor, Maine, I recalled dancing to Pachelbel’s Canon during a liturgy in the Oratory, and I resolved to go up soon to interview her about the twenty years she spent with the Grail in Indonesia. With Carolyn Gratton, the gifted spiritual director and psychologist from Toronto, I recalled running a summer program at Grailville in 1975 where several of the participants who had come up from Louisiana played Miles Davis music on the loudest setting of their tape recorder for the entire month.

I sat next to another old friend, Alice Dougan, during the Trinity Sunday liturgy. The priest, the Grail’s dear friend George Wilson, SJ, announced that instead of giving a sermon, he wanted us to talk with one another about an experience we had of the mystery of God. Al shared with me that her senior year in high school, she had been so deeply moved by Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain that after graduation, she joined the Poor Clares, a contemplative religious order. She only lasted a year and a half, she told me–by then she had discovered that she was a “doer”–but in that year and a half, she learned how to pray . Something that came in handy during her six decades of Grail service in Africa and the US, I’d warrant.

Another person whom I had not seen in a very long time was South African Grail member, Anne Hope. During one of our conversations, I told her the story of how a Grail member who had influenced both of us enormously, Eleanor Walker, had become a Catholic. While she was a Ph.D. student in French at Columbia during World War II, Eleanor read a lot of French medieval literature, and decided she wanted to join the Catholic Church. This can sound pretty crazy now, but in those days, and for decades before, Catholicism’s medieval vision of the world attracted many people who were searching for an alternative to the increasing violence of modernity and industrialization. Eleanor went to the rectory at Corpus Christi, the famous Catholic parish at Columbia where Thomas Merton also was received into the church, and said she wanted to be baptized. The priest asked her if she knew a Catholic who could be her godparent, but she said no, she didn’t.  Probably because she was a student in French, the priest at Corpus Christi  gave Eleanor the phone number of Jacques Maritain, the famous French neo-Thomist philosopher who had fled Paris with his Jewish convert wife, Raissa, to escape the Nazis. Maritain did, indeed, serve as Eleanor’s godfather when she was baptized, and she went to the Maritains’ apartment for tea (well, wine, probably) every Sunday afternoon thereafter until the Maritains moved to Princeton. Anne Hope had never heard the story, and urged me to write my memories of Eleanor, who died in 1979. Anne herself had just finished her memoirs, including the story of how she had been forced to flee South Africa under apartheid because of her work with Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid hero.

There were sixty women at the meeting, which means there are many more stories I could tell  you,  but it’s time for me to go slice the collards for supper. I’m sorry to have been AWOL for so long, but probably you can see that it was worth it. I’ll write another post soon.

Still Life with Chickens

November 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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So you haven’t heard from me in a while because I’m in Loveland, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, at the tri-annual general assembly of the US Grail, a branch of the International Grail. The Grail is a women’s movement in seventeen countries around the world. We’re meeting at the Grail’s organic farm and conference center. I’ve been coming here since I was a college student, in the late sixties.

The topics addressed at the meeting are pretty interesting—Thursday, the Grail’s enviironmental work, Friday our work at the United Nations, particularly with the Commission on the Status of Women, and Saturday, our spirituality. But to tell you the truth, what I’ve really been thinking about is chickens.

Now just so you know, I’m a city girl. I was born in a city, and have lived in cities for most of my adult life. When I was a kid, my Mom and Dad used to take me to Manhattan on a Trailways bus (my Uncle Hughie worked for Trailways and got us free tickets). They’d walk me around  and tell me that New York is the greatest place on earth. I believed them.

So perhaps you can imagine my amazement when I found myself on a farm in Lovelend, Ohio, circa 1974, in charge of a coop full of chickens. The Grail had, since it’s US founding in the early 1940s, been deeply involved in the back-to the-land movement and the Catholic Rural Life Conference.  For many years (but no more) in order to join the Grail you went to the Grailville farm and got formed. My experience with the chickens was at the tail end of the formation-on-the-farm era.

I was really terrible with the chickens. Let’s be clear: I’m a writer. I basically make my way from the library to the computer to the coffee pot and back. The chickens baffled me. When I brought the bucket of food into the chicken coop, the chickens would be in the manger (or whatever you call it). I would put down the bucket and shoo them out. By the time I picked up the bucket again, they’d be back in the manger. They were not responsive to reason. I also regularly left the lights on in the chicken coop. The rooster would crow in the middle of the night. The people in the house closest to the chicken coop would then call me and I had to walk over and turn off the lights.

Before long, one of the Grail women in leadership sent for me and said it seemed that the chickens were not my greatest strength, and so, instead, would I please compile an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I did so, and basically, never looked back. Within the next decade I co-authored a series of books that grew out of a series of feminist theology programs we had at Grailville.

So why, you may ask, am I thinking of chickens this week, between sessions on climate change and the UN? Because while I’m here I’m staying with a Grail friend who lived here on the farm with me in the seventies, and then married the son of a local Grail member, had a family, and lives down the road. She’s a fabric artist, and her husband runs his own construction company, but in previous years, he was a farmer. Soon after I arrived, Becky announced, with some enthusiasm, that she and Pat are now raising chickens. She took me out to the ingeniously designed coop and showed them to me. There are eight of them, and a rooster, and they lay eight eggs a day. But there’s no manger, and no lights, either. They mostly eat vegetable waste left over from the family meals. Becky says that if you don’t wash the eggs, you don’t even have to refrigerate them. I think I’m going to eat a couple of them for breakfast, for old time’s sake.

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