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The Branding of Catholic Sisters

The world will be a better place, says Sister Rosemarie Nassif, when people are aware of, and support the work of Catholic sisters.

Sister Heather Stiverson helps unemployed refugees with their English skills.

Sister Heather Stiverson helps tutor primarily Yemeni immigrants who lost factory jobs in Detroit. Photo: SisterToAll campaign

“The global sisterhood is a very powerful network and it hasn’t yet been fully unleashed,” Nassif says. “Unleashing that network can bring such tremendous positive realities to our entire world.”

Nassif directs the Catholic Sisters Initiative at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The foundation recently paid for public opinion research about sisters.

“We’re committed here to assure that (the sisters) network has a life, and a life that can continue to change the lives of the millions across our globe whose lives are so precious and yet so vulnerable,” says Nassif.

The Hilton Foundation is the legacy of its namesake, the late hotel founder, whose affection for sisters began when he was taught by the Sisters of Loreto. The foundation spends $17 million dollars a year funding sisters’ work to help the poor around the world. So the foundation wanted to learn more about what people think about Catholic sisters, and how Catholic churchwomen can build their brand.

“We believe that how people perceive sisters–no matter if they’re Catholic, or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu–kind of ingrains a dynamic in the culture that can influence how our works and prayers can be received, can be in some way emulated,” says Nassif.

The research found that most people–73 percent–like Catholic sisters, without having very accurate ideas about what most sisters do today. For example, many people don’t think sisters’ work impacts non-Catholics. But Nassif says that’s simply false.Data Image: Some sisters wear habits, most don't

“The truth is that sisters serve all,” she says. “No matter the religion, the ethnicity, the socio-economic status–although they do prefer the poor. And we feel that correcting that false perception among all people is very important not only to sisters–it’s very important to our nation.”

The research firm Anderson Robbins conducted about 15-hundred interviews about sisters.

“These women are trailblazers, risk-takers and pioneers,” says Anderson Robbins’ CEO Jennifer Robbins. “These are words that could be used to describe them 100 years ago and still today.”

Robbins isn’t Catholic and hadn’t done a study on any Catholic issues previously. She says she was “just amazed by what type of role these women played in our country’s history. …It was everything from work to help disadvantaged and poor to talking about how they were the first nurses on Navy ships. How a Catholic sister helped invent the first incubator for babies.”

Robbins says the people she spoke with at focus groups were also surprised.

“In some of these groups, after all was said and done, people wanted me to keep sharing information about these women. There was a real appetite for more detailed information,” Robbins says. “It was like like I blew their minds.”

The survey found a third of all Americans want to learn more about Catholic Sisters. The researcher says more knowledge may help those considering life as sisters to encounter a little less friction at home. Forty-three percent of people who answered the survey said that if they had a daughter considering the sisterhood, they’d support her completely. But 13 percent would urge her to re-consider and six percent would strongly oppose the decision.

“While these people think Catholic sisters are wonderful and doing great work, to the extent they know about sisters, they think that entering religious life is synonymous with giving up your dreams,” Robbins says. “That’s also not the case. Catholic sisters are physicians, social workers, engineers. This misperception about who they are and what they do really is kind of clouding people’s judgments about Catholic sisters and the opportunities one might have in religious life.”

The foundation has kicked off a public awareness campaign developed in tandem with the research. It’s called Sister to All and it highlights the work of Catholic churchwomen. The first group of sisters the campaign is showing off includes a sister teaching Muslim immigrants from Yemen to learn English, a sister who works with prostitutes on the street, and one who works to find shelter for homeless people.

“What we want to do is present a more accurate image of sisters today,” Nassif says. To learn more about the research and campaign, listen to the audio interviews embedded in this post, and go to

This is part of Unabridged Press’ Standup Sisters project, sharing the work and stories of sisters in live events and podcasts. Standup Sisters received a minigrant earlier this year from the Hilton Foundation. To learn more, contact

Standing up for Peace

A little peace on earth! Pittsburghers celebrating the International Day of Peace walked flags from many nations from St. Mary of the Mount Catholic Church down along the city’s scenic Grandview Avenue on Wednesday, Sept. 21. The annual event in Pittsburgh has long been co-organized by Sister Barb Finch (pictured right, in purple), a Sister of St. Joseph. Sister Barb is a frequent visitor at all of Pittsburgh’s Peace and Justice activities!

“The International Day of Peace was established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly,” according to the organization’s website. “Two decades later, in 2001, the General Assembly unanimously voted to designate the Day as a period of non-violence and cease-fire. The United Nations invites all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities during the Day, and to otherwise commemorate the Day through education and public awareness on issues related to peace.”

Afterward, the names of 122 people murdered in Allegheny County in the last year were read. A candle was lit for each and those gathered stated, “We remember,” once each line of candles was lit.

Speakers from several different spiritual traditions spoke about peace and some shared pieces of rituals. A Hindu man chanted “Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” and explained that the first “Shanti” or “peace” is for peace in the world, the next is for peace between people, and the third is for interior peace. A Christian pastor offered peace by inviting a Muslim woman and Jewish rabbi to come to the altar, where he clasped their hands in his. In turn, the women carried that same embrace of peace to those in the pews of the Catholic church, a gesture that meant peace is carried from the altar to the outside world. The Rabbi shared a Midrash–interpretive story about reconcilation. Zen Buddhists led congregants in grounding themselves to the earth. Baha’i representatives discussed the tenets of their tradition in relation to peace. A Unitarian Universalist speaker read from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Organizers also shared other upcoming interfaith events–a birthday celebration will be held for Mahatma Gandhi Sunday, Oct. 2, 2-5pm, in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium. The event will include tea and conversations, cultural performances and a panel discussion with authors and educators. For more information, call 412-606-6868.

Standup Sisters: The Sister Sage

The Standup Sisters project recognizes women of faith by offering them a platform to share their stories. In this post, Unabridged Press’ founder shares a story of a sister who she looked up to. 

Monica Sheeran was my first nun friend. She called me her “young friend,” and she was my sage. What sealed the deal, from the first meeting, was her laugh. 


Sister Monica Sheeran and the author, in 2001.

We met one night after a joy-filled Catholic Worker Mass and meal in Albany, New York. The petite white-haired sister introduced herself and flashed her welcoming smile to me and another friend of mine. After my friend teased Monica for something, the sister responded in kind with a playful light whack with a rolled newspaper at my friend’s shoulder. Sister Monica gave us a wicked laugh that had all of us giggling. And I felt that great happy spark of a new friendship.

A letter Sister Monica wrote me years later offers a taste of her humor, and her delight with technology: “I have got quite skilled in scanning photos…One good thing about photos scanned, they hide the blemishes!!”

I learned quickly from Sister Monica that life as a Catholic sister left room for a little irreverence, and for a lot of joy. She was the woman who taught me that, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” She used this passage when she occasionally drove through yellow lights. In her gentle British accent, she’d say, “Hello, Amber,” and give a Queen’s wave to the changing light as she passed.

Sister Monica and I weren’t always laughing. We both frequently considered how we could help withMonica the difficult problems in the world–though she did more to that end than me. For decades, Sister Monica was a missionary in Kenya and the Philippines, teaching orphan children how to read, write, and put on plays. She was in the religious order based in England known as the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of St. Joseph. A shared interest in speaking out against injustices is how we found ourselves at the Catholic Worker that night, praying for prisoners, the homeless, the drug-addicted, the lost.

Though Sister Monica was a bit more than 40 years older than me, using the word “sister” to address her felt true as any biological kinship. We shared an easy, deep give-and-take in discussing the news of the day, movies, art, dancing, writing, and love. Despite her years of experience, she never pulled rank.

For a while, Sister Monica and I saw each other at least weekly at Sunday Mass. We’d sit together and sing together. At the end, we’d exchange a big manila envelope with notes we’d written each other during the week, usually attached to clippings of inspiring articles we’d read.  Monica also put her poetry in these envelopes. At the time we met, I was writing and editing for The Associated Press. Sister Monica challenged me to more creative writing projects. She would instruct me to go through my writing line-by-line with a pencil crossing out the unnecessary words. Given my high opinion of my work at the time, I found it a little insulting. But if you knew Monica, you listened. Her kindness commanded it.

Without saying so, Monica also taught me how to sit and shut up. That is, she introduced me to the form of quiet contemplative prayer known as centering. It was something I greatly needed then, and now. Sometimes she sat with me in a parked car with the windows down near a little pond and closed our eyes and sat quietly, before walking around the water. Or she’d visit me in my apartment and we’d sit on my couch and do our centering prayer. Often had some wonderful spiritual insights she’d share with me after the quiet time. I typically had NO big thoughts, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that her prayer life was much deeper than my own. We were friends and you accept your friends where they are. You learn from each other. She taught me to pray, and I taught her how to set up an e-mail account.

The friend who first met Sister Monica with me often said, “I need a Monica,” or “I want a sister-friend.” I dismissed my friend and told her to go out and look for one, but the truth is, sisters aren’t that easy to find. And you have to find a retired one to have time for such an intimate friendship. But I hope that sisters do reach out to lay people like me. Because her laugh, our friendship opened a door to a great spiritual flowering in me. Later, I was able to return the favor and ignite spiritual development in her. After I’d returned from a weeklong silent retreat, Monica wrote:

“Your reflections on Christ, comparing your retreat to a honeymoon, very very deeply moving. They inspire me. I will take them with me as I go for my retreat-cum-holiday…I will try to make it a very belated honeymoon with Christ!!”

Eventually, both Sister Monica and I moved from Albany. As sisters do when age makes work more difficult, she returned to her home. Once I was able to visit her in England. I got to stay at the convent with Sister Monica and her sister. One night we visited an Islamic mosque for an interfaith peace gathering. And during my visit, we went to Mass at the convent and quietly did our centering prayer.

Later, friendship became more challenging. Monica had various illnesses that made it hard for her to look at a computer screen, much less write. So I called. I felt uncomfortable speaking of my full and active life when she was practically bedridden, but she wanted to hear all about it. She was a very good listener. She wanted me to experience true joy–what she defined as the hallmark of finding one’s calling.

I knew that one day I would phone her and she would no longer be able to talk. I had made a point of calling her the day after Christmas for several years. But in 2014, I had a feeling that she may not be around anymore. I Googled her name, and found an obituary online. Actually it was something she’d written, a reflection of her life. Monica did like to write–and it was clear she wanted to have the last words.

She wrote in the third person: “Monica learned to laugh at herself; to be very serious about what really mattered, yet not solemn, by God’s grace.”

And then there was my favorite part of her final words…

“At my death, I bequeath any part of my spirit to anyone who wants it!”

It was perfectly Sister Monica. And I wanted my share of her inheritance. I imagined myself reaching into the air and snatching up a piece of her now limitless spirit. I took a walk just as we did during my winter visit to England, together imagining the daffodils and other flowers of spring that would come soon–all “higgeldy-piggeldy,” as she said. And I laughed and loved the thought that now, she’d always be laughing with me, closer than we’d ever been.

Standup Sisters JPG

Standup Sisters: All Together Now

Standup Sisters JPG
All too often in pop culture, nuns are portrayed as silly or strict–think of the windup toy sister with the ruler and angry face. But many Catholic sisters today are women of exemplary courage, faith, and charity.

Standup Sisters is Unabridged Press’ effort to highlight the contributions of these extraordinary women by giving them a stage to tell their stories. Catholic women have been instrumental in forming founder Jennifer Szweda Jordan’s interest in documenting stories about the environment, social justice, and spirituality.   

“In every area where social progress is desperately needed–human trafficking, immigration, homelessness–sisters are working creatively to help those in need,” says Jordan. “While some girls or young women may hear the sisters’ stories and be inspired to lives of service as sisters, perhaps other listeners will be inspired to start a garden, or to reach out to a refugee family.”  Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 5.42.58 PM

Following the success of public storytelling events like The Moth, Standup Sisters’ launched with a live event. The kickoff took place in March, at St. Sylvester’s Church in Pittsburgh. Most of the audience of 125 people were children from the church–many said they had never met a sister. With the support of a grant from National Catholic Sisters Week funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, we commissioned the design of a logo, and gave out temporary tattoos so the event audience could walk away with a conversation piece and keep the Standup Sisters story going.

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill were featured in this event, which was recorded and distributed online. All four episodes are found on this page.

“We rarely toot our own horns,” Sister Barbara Einloth told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Peter Smith, who covered the project. “That might be a good thing and humble, but it doesn’t help people know who we are and what we do. This is an opportunity for people to get to know who we are.”

Unabridged Press is seeking funding and partnerships to continue Standup Sisters. To find out more about how to help continue this important work, contact or 412-200-2017.

The storyteller sisters are:

Sister Rosemary Donley, PhD. She holds Duquesne University’s Jacques Laval Chair for Social Justice  for Vulnerable Populations in the School of Nursing. She was named a living legend by the Academy of Nursing in 2009.

Sister Barbara Einloth. She’s one of five women leading the U.S. Province of the Sisters of Charity, giving particular attention to issues of social justice.

Sister Mary Clark. Clark is a longtime English teacher, Hospice and parish minister.

Sister Barbara Boss. She heads the Seton Center, providing innovative child and adult care, and performing arts programming. Boss has doubled as a beautician for her sisters every Saturday for the last 30 years.

‘That’s Not Islam, That’s Like Psychopaths’: Spirited Conversations

In recognition of Islam’s holy days of Ramadan, Unabridged Press offers a recorded conversation with Muslim convert Christine Mohamed. It’s part of an occasional series about everyday faith called Spirited Conversations. Please click the SoundCloud player to listen to this unusual story of an American woman who grew up Catholic and who now worships at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

Christine Mohamed converted to Islam

Christine Mohamed, at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Photo: J.S. Jordan.

When Pittsburgher Christine Mohamed converted to Islam several years ago, her Catholic mom was embarrassed to be seen with her daughter, who now dressed in headscarves and long skirts. Mohamed’s dad, a Desert Storm vet, was quick to accept his daughter’s choice. But, all told, Mohamed walked a tough road. She lost friends.

“When I first converted, it was not a pretty sight,” Mohamed says.

Study and prayer drew Mohamed, an advertising professional, to Islam. It was an emotional time. Her decision probably couldn’t have come at a more challenging time to be Muslim in America. After all, the faith has been a source of confusion and fear for many in the U.S. in these days after 9/11, Boko Haram, ISIS, and now the mass shooting in Orlando. Mohamed says those who have been so violent aren’t even really following Islam. So part of Mohamed’s life’s work now is helping converts like her through the transition, and helping the public understand her brand of faith.

“You just have to…make sure that the education is out there and available to people, so next time they see something like this, they say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s definitely not Islam. That’s like, psychopaths,’ and be able to tell the difference,” Mohamed says.

Mohamed sometimes responds to bad press involving Muslims in simple ways–by helping out at a soup kitchen, for example.

“I just try to change the perception by going out to make sure I do something good in my faith,” she says. Going out of my way to be kind and courteous, so people can say, ‘Hey, yeah, I met a Muslim once and she was really nice.'”

At the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, where Mohamed worships, the outreach group she’s part of offers interfaith potlucks, campus lectures, school presentations, church and synagogue discussion meetings.

The outreach is working, at least in Mohamed’s own life. These days Mohamed’s mom has accepted her daughter’s practices and even attends the Islamic Center’s picnics. Mohamed married a Muslim man and they’re raising their children in the faith.

Even after the deadly shooting took place at the hands of Muslim Omar Mateen at a gay dance club in Orlando, Mohamed–characteristically–saw an opening for public conversation.

“The Orlando massacre is absolutely horrible,” Mohamed says, and yet, “It has opened the doorway to many questions concerning homosexuality and Islam. Heck, it has opened the doors in all faiths that typically are not approving of that lifestyle. We are all human beings, it’s sad that some feel certain lives don’t matter.”

Please listen to the recorded audio to hear Mohamed speak about more challenges and blessings of her conversion–the difficulties she had with a more segregated relationship with men, the surprisingly tight sisterhood of women in her faith, and more.



Our Values, Our Stories: 2016 Benefit Report

With less than a shoestring budget–something more like a thread–Unabridged Press produced an event and podcasts that brought media attention to women who’ve dedicated their lives to health care, education, and social equity–Catholic sisters. It was a great year-one accomplishment for Unabridged Press, a media outlet dedicated to creating a more just and sustainable world through sharing people’s stories.

Post-Gazette Standup Sisters

Click image to see Post-Gazette coverage of Unabridged Press’ Standup Sisters.

Once a year, Unabridged Press reports on what it has accomplished in meeting its goals of serving people, the planet, and profit. This is that report.

Unabridged Press was established as a limited liability company in 2015, after Jennifer Szweda Jordan stepped away from a long tenure reporting and editing environmental news at The Allegheny Front. Fueled by the ethos and skills honed from work at The Allegheny Front, Associated Press, and family-owned newspapers, Jordan sought to create a storytelling-focused media company to celebrate the stories and histories of people who don’t often make the cover of magazines–the elderly, the disabled, churchwomen, and so on. Another coverage goal is to explore topics that are typically not covered–like religion. Unabridged Press can be seen as a social justice press with high professional journalistic standards, and a frequently playful approach.

With the support of financial gifts from family and friends, Jordan contracted with Pittsburgh attorney Eric Davis in early 2015. He’s the local legal leader in the formation of social enterprises. These types of enterprises are committed to measuring success in ways other than financial profit.  Davis included language and structure to help Unabridged Press to stay true to its purpose.  In the future, Unabridged Press hopes to become officially B-Corp Certified once its size and income grows.  

WorkHardPGH features art by former Steeler Baron Batch.

WorkHardPGH features art by former Steeler Baron Batch.

WorkHardPGH, the site Unabridged Press has resided in since mid-2015 has a mission that is largely consistent with Unabridged Press. WorkHardPGH is made up mainly of media professionals (film, audio, etc). And it has a greater mission of helping rebuild Main Street economies in a way that is inclusive–of minorities, of small business owners, of an ex-con janitor seeking a second chance. Because WorkHardPGH membership includes equipment rental, Unabridged Press is able to share equipment instead of purchasing it–naturally providing an environmental benefit. Unabridged Press has contracted with other new small business owners at WorkHardPGH for professional media services. In this way and through desk space rental, Unabridged Press has contributed financially to the communal economy at WorkHardPGH, and to Allentown (a neighborhood of Pittsburgh).

In keeping with its social and environmental objectives, Unabridged Press has operated out of two coworking startup incubators (StartUptown and WorkHardPGH), both located in

Work Hard Women

PA First Lady Frances Wolf chatted with business owners Alayna Frankenberry (c) and Jennifer Szweda Jordan (R) when she and Gov. Wolf visited WorkHardPGH. Photo: Ryan Haggerty Media.

distressed urban locations. These sites were selected expressly because their missions align in social and environmental benefits. At both sites, all amenities are easily accessible by foot, bicycle or public transit–and Unabridged Press’ founder, and contractors use these methods to maintain a connection with the community, save money and live lightly on the land. In keeping with the commitment to the local economy, Unabridged Press contracts with local startup Fort Pitt Web Shop, based at StartUptown, for web services. Unabridged Press has worked with the mission-aligned peer mentoring group Mashup U., which assists local business owners–and students–navigating the innovation economy.

City Paper Last Word feature

Unabridged Press’ efforts to collect stories was turned into this article in the City Paper.

The media topics Unabridged Press focused on in its first year included seniors in Pittsburgh’s South Side. As the South Side Market House building celebrated its centennial last year, Unabridged Press was the first media outlet to take note, and the only outlet to report in-depth on the seniors, bringing together three media professionals–Jordan, Heather McClain, and Reid Carter–for a day to capture the stories of those who grew up using the community center. Each senior interviewed received a CD of their professional interview to share with their loved ones–a gift like that given to participants of the national StoryCorps oral history project. Articles about this event, written by Jordan from material she gathered with colleagues, were published in the City Paper, and the South Pittsburgh Reporter.

Another project completed by Unabridged Press was Standup Sisters–a free community event and podcasts that highlighted the work of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill–who have been at the forefront of healthcare, education, and caring for the poor in our region since 1870. As in most male-dominated churches, women do not typically take center stage–the inaugural Standup Sisters event and podcast series moved the dial just a bit. This content was partly funded by, and distributed in partnership with, the organization National Catholic Sisters Week. The effort won excellent coverage in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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While building Unabridged Press, Jordan continued to publish in other press outlets to support herself as well as to carry out the mission of covering regional people who are not in the media spotlight. This included profiles of three female leaders of the late-20th century–now seniors, they were South Pittsburgh’s old guard–shepherding the communities through significant changes and devoting countless hours to the community. One took ownership of the South Pittsburgh Reporter in her 40s–an inspiration to Unabridged Press as a woman-owned business.

Roberta Smith

Longtime South Pittsburgh Reporter publisher and editor Roberta Smith. Click image to read about her.

Benefit reports also highlight the challenges in meeting goals. For Jordan’s work founding and producing content for Unabridged Press, she has received no financial compensation, which is not sustainable, although often seen in the first three years of startups. Jordan is grateful to work weekends offering support to developmentally disabled adults with Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, social work that fuels the development of Unabridged Press–and keeps Jordan focused on the lives and stories of unsung people. In 2016, Unabridged Press will launch a fundraising campaign to continue the Standup Sisters project and to also finance similar projects. Unabridged Press also is working to highlight stories of small-scale farmers.

Unabridged Press is grateful to the family and friends who covered many expenses so that a company can be created. And volunteers who helped at every step. We’re pleased with 2015’s achievements and we look forward to telling more underreported stories in the coming year, always with an eye to benefitting the environment and people.

This report was overseen by Dominic Necciai, benefit director for Unabridged Press. He’s an investments advisor and heads WYEP’s Community Advisory Board. And he’s studying media marketing in Point Park University’s masters program.

Parklet over Pittsburgh

Getting back to nature within the city–visiting this parklet just down the street from WorkHardPGH suggests a big picture view of the stories in our future.


What God Told Her About Suffering

Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s one of those fundamental questions in religion. Sister Barbara Einloth found herself faced with her version of this question. In this episode of Standup Sisters, she shares the answer that came to her in her pleading with God.

Sister Barbara is one of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.
She serves the United States Province of the Sisters of Charity as part of a five-woman leadership team, giving particular attention to direction on issues of mission integration, ministry, and social justice.

Sister Barbara told this story at the inaugural Standup Sisters event in St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania. Standup Sisters was funded by a National Catholic Sisters Week mini-grant and inspired by their 2014 event SisterStories, which was developed with The Moth Radio Hour.

The music by Bach in this episode was performed by cellist Jeanne Tupper. Standup Sisters JPG

A Moment of Truth and a Mystery

Sisters formally commit to be part of their religious orders in a sequence of ceremonies. But they informally commit to remain sisters day after day. Even when leaving seems like a better idea. How do they do it? Sister Mary Clark, of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill has this story about a moment of truth. Her talk was part of the Standup Sisters event, produced by @JeniferPossible and Unabridged Press.

Standup Sisters is a media project highlighting the contributions of Catholic churchwomen by giving them a microphone to tell their stories.

The music by Bach in this episode was performed by Cellist Jeanne Tupper. This Standup Sisters event took place in St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania. Photo of Sr. Mary Clark by Ryan Haggerty, Haggerty Media.


‘The Most Fortunate of Women’ at 91

10382057_810879235669959_3027182156348654087_oNinety-one-year-old Helen Baney’s officially retired from working with Allentown’s commercial leaders, but she’s still often dressed for business.

On a recent afternoon, Mrs. Baney donned sling-back pumps and a silky ladybug print scarf with a classic skirt and blouse as she welcomed a reporter into her home. Yet despite Mrs. Baney’s classy propriety, the conversation quickly gets intimate–she’s open and witty whether discussing the difficult or charmed parts of her life.

“A woman who tells her age will tell anything,” she says.

During our visit, Mrs. Baney serves pistachio pudding in parfait cups. We sit side-by-side facing a large window overlooking the slope toward downtown Pittsburgh. Allentown is a community some deride as challenged these days, but she talks about it with fearlessness.

“The advice I would have is get out there,” she says. “It’s a world of people and things to meet and to do and to find out how interesting life can be. And I don’t need the soap operas and I don’t need television to tell me that. It’s all around me if I really want to take advantage of it.”

Mrs. Baney’s mother served as a great example of making the most of life even when it got tough.

“When I was 14, my mother and father and I came up to Excelsior Street to take care of my grandfather who owned the house next door,” she says. “My father and my grandfather both died within six months of each other and left my mother a widow with me, an only child.

“It was still during the Depression. And my mother was a very clever, smart, intelligent woman who knew she was going to have to make her way in the world one way or the other and decided to buy this house with some of her money and some my grandfather had left me–a trust fund. So we purchased this house in May of 1941. And rented out the second and third floor to pay for the mortgage. And we lived on the first floor. I never moved. I got married and had my children here.”

Mrs. Baney’s mother encouraged a certain courage by thrusting her into a center-stage personality early on.

“My mother pushed me as a youngster,” she says. “I had to sing for the (school) classes when I was in the second grade. And my mother used to teach me German songs so I could sing German songs in a German school. That was kissing up to the nuns is what it’s called. If I was ever shy or backward it was completely covered up by my mother deciding that you had to perform or present yourself. After you get into that, then it’s like anything else-‘Hey, here I am.'”

She maintained the same outgoing traits into high school where she met her husband.

“It was only, I guess, when we were in 11th and 12th grade (he was a year older),” she says. “That was a very small school. It was a very close-knit community. You danced together, we had socials, and before you know it, somebody’d ask you out on a date and I never said no.”

11130153_810879255669957_2708513517081263423_oHer late husband worked his way up to be a vice president at Mosebach Electric Supply. Long before the phrase, “It takes a village” was in fashion, the Baneys lived it. Helen Baney’s role was at the center of the home.

“When I was young and married there was usually at least six people if not eight people that lived in this house,” she says. “I did all the cooking, the washing, the ironing, the cleaning. My mother worked, she had to. Then when I graduated, I got a job. Then I got married and had a daughter about two years later. And then another one came along in 16 months. And then I decided I was going to be the parent. There wasn’t going to be somebody on the outside raising my children.”

One of her house rules was no interruptions allowed during dinner–no television, no phones.

“We all sat at the table and we spoke,” she says. “And I said there’s nothing like putting a meal in a kid’s stomach and having the tongue get loose. I found out more things that went on that they never would have told me one-on-one. Or when you get them together (and one tells another) ‘Ha ha, I did that.’ And you listen.”

When the children grew up, and Mrs. Baney’s marriage got difficult, she engaged more in the world outside her home.

“I’ve been involved with Allentown and organizations since 1973,” she says. “I started with the Hilltop Civic Improvement Association. Which was organized by the businessmen … and I was their secretary. I went to Allentown Civic Improvement.”

The community was changing as suburban life and malls became attractive and businesses and other gathering places closed.

“When you take churches and schools out of communities…you lose young people, and that’s what you need to keep a neighborhood or a community vibrant,” she says. “You need young people. And you need young children. That’s another thing that I find with senior citizens. They’re so unhappy with children who run and scream. That’s what you’re a child for–to get it out of your system. You’ll grow up to be cranky and crotchety anyway.”

Mrs. Baney’s civic work included hosting meetings to encourage civic participation. She found people weren’t particularly excited about joining her.

“When I grew up during the Depression, and nobody had anything and we were poor, people seemed to be so happy because whatever they did get made their life just a little bit better,” she says. “And you had more community spirit. Now everybody stays in, and I know television has a lot to do with that. When we would have meetings, to get the people to come out and listen… We provided meals, we provided food, snacks…you cannot get people to come to a meeting.”

But she stuck with it.10987367_810879249003291_4048684572029842842_o

“I like being around people,” Mrs. Baney says. “I love knowing what’s going on.”

Allentown hasn’t rebounded yet, but there are certainly signs of life.

“I’ve been waiting 40-some years for Allentown to come back,” she says. “Will I live to see it? I don’t know. I don’t want Allentown to be what it was when I grew up. And that’s usually the cry if you go to a meeting, ‘Oh, remember when we had this.’ We don’t have those things. People don’t want those things…The next generation has totally different ideas of their wants and needs. I would love to see a really nice grocery store. I would love to see a bakery….A brewery–great! You know, things that would draw young people with imagination and a desire to say, ‘Hey this is not a bad place. Why don’t we investigate and look into making it into our home?'”

But no matter which direction Allentown takes, Mrs. Baney has been fulfilled by her part in it, in keeping up her home in the community, and often continuing to attend meetings, though no longer in leadership. She eschewed a recent trip to Disney with her children and grandchildren. She’s content surrounded by the quilts she’s made and her collection of wedding dresses gathered from thrift stores and displayed through the bedrooms.

Someone commented on her latter half of life as a widow recently and she says she told them, “I am the most fortunate of women. I have had 22 years of so much happiness and good fun and friends that I don’t want to see it come to an end and it will eventually. But I am very, very lucky.”

This article and photos, both by Jennifer Szweda Jordan,  first appeared in the South Pittsburgh Reporter. To see more of Ms. Jordan’s writing in that publication, click here

Beautiful Music: Sister Guided Girls

Oh, that all young people dreaming of arts careers would find a mentor like Sister Helen Muha.

Sister Helen Muha

Image: Music teacher Sister Helen Muha. Credit: Courtesy Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

The late Sister Helen, a music teacher and singer, helped many people find their voices. In one case, she helped an entire family to make the world sound a little more beautiful.

Cellist Jeanne Tupper

Image: Cellist Jeanne Tupper. Credit: Ryan Haggerty.

Jane Strittmatter was a young mother of four daughters when she met Sister Helen, of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. At the time, Strittmatter envisioned her daughters in more reliably lucrative careers–like orthodontics. But Sister Helen saw each of the daughters’ talent and helped them find instruments and training. All four of Strittmatter’s daughters are now successful musicians. Strittmatter gets to repay the favor in her work for the community as their public relations director. Sister Helen has since died.

Strittmatter shared this story as part of Standup Sisters, held at St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Penna.

Standup Sisters features stories by and about Catholic churchwomen, and was part of National Catholic Sisters Week. At the event, one of Strittmatter’s daughter’s, Jeanne Tupper, played the cello. Jeanne Tupper is a founder of Hot Metal Strings and a teacher at South Fayette School District. 

Click the Soundcloud player to hear Strittmatter tell it–and hear Tupper on cello, too!


Standup Sisters JPG