Courage and Compassion

By Jennifer Szweda Jordan

Five dynamic women share personal stories of their lives spent teaching, feeding, and learning from people from around the world.

Each Catholic sister spoke at the Standup Sisters: Border Crossings event, held at La Roche College. The audio is now available for each story by clicking on the images below.

“We are lucky,” said Sister Nelida Naveros Cordova. “And we all at the same time have the responsibility to help those in need. I invite you to find ways how we can reach those in need.”

Please listen, and prepare to be inspired!

Special thanks to National Catholic Sisters Week, La Roche College Mission and Ministry, Sisters of Divine Providence, Communications Professor Janine Bayer, and St. Thomas More Young Adult Ministry.

(All photos by Ryan Haggerty)

Sister Betty Sundry, a Sister of Divine Providence, is a social justice legend in Pittsburgh. Here, she talks about the event that sparked her interest in righting wrongs.

Rhonda Miska (who becomes a sister this month with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters) shares her story of a holy walk with Nicaraguan villagers.

Sister Nelida Naveros Cordova, a Sister of Divine Providence, remembers seeing poverty for the first time, and describes her work mobilizing students to help people in need.

Sr. Janice Vanderneck, a Sister of St. Joseph, speaks of her early crush on Latino culture and her work today helping migrants from Mexico living in Pittsburgh.

Sister Mary Lou Palas, of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, was a small-town Pennsylvania girl who traveled around the U.S. to teach. When she was 70-something, she packed her bags and moved to Korea for another adventure.

Standup Sisters: Border Crossings

Get ready for an inspiring evening of courageous women’s stories, emceed by KDKA’s Lynne Hayes-Freeland.Standup Sisters JPG

Unabridged Press, La Roche College and the Sisters of Divine Providence present Standup Sisters: Border Crossings. The event brings four Catholic sisters, and one “sister-in-training” to the stage at La Roche College from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 14. The Standup Sisters will share their stories of the places and people they serve around the world, including people they serve who’ve crossed borders to live in the U.S.

Sr. Mary Lou and Korean sisters

Sr. Mary Lou Palas, in the center, with fellow Sisters of Charity in Korea

“While America is now wrestling with its immigration policy, sisters have been the ‘boots on the ground’ of foreign and domestic aid for centuries,” says Jennifer Szweda Jordan, producer of Standup Sisters. “These women will share true personal encounters of the risks and rewards of serving God and global neighbors.”

This event is part of National Catholic Sisters Week, a series of events celebrating sisters’ accomplishments. La Roche College is generously hosting this FREE event, which includes a reception, in the elegant College Square of its Zappala College Center. The address is 9000 Babcock Boulevard, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15237.

The Standup Sisters represent the following congregations: Sisters of Divine Providence, whose motherhouse is adjacent to the La Roche campus; Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill; Sisters of St. Joseph-Baden; Sinsinawa (Wisc.) Dominicans.

Please register here to ensure there is enough delicious food for all at the reception. 

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 SisterToAll.org.

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 Jennifer@unabridgedpress.com.

‘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

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 jennifer@unabridgedpress.com 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.

 

 

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!

 

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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.

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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.

 

This Sister’s Still Cool, and Popular, Too

And now for our second podcast episode of #StandupSisters…

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Pittsburgher Barb Boss was a cool teen-ager hyper-focused on her social life before God gave her a shove into the sisterhood. She’s still cool, and she still attracts a big social circle–for decades, she’s headed an intergenerational education center and daycare with a waiting list. It’s called Elizabeth Seton Center after the foundress of Sister Barb’s order, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. (Saint Elizabeth Seton was also a socialite with a soft spot for children in need!) But don’t just sit there reading, click below to listen!

Photo by Ryan Haggerty. Audio recording by Epicast Media.