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.

Helping Each Other Walk in the Dark

There were heartbreaking stories of the end of innocence, and the harrowing lives of the poor around the world. There were funny tales about convent pranks. And there was sweet piano music asking, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” 

Standup Sisters: Border Crossings, a storytelling event held at La Roche College on March 14, featured Catholic sisters whose lives began in towns in Pennsylvania and Peru. They went on to serve the poor in the Amazon and every corner of the world over decades, and still today.

“One of the most pressing issues of our time is how we support our neighbors in need here and abroad to become the best they can be,” said Standup Sisters producer Jennifer Szweda Jordan. “The women who spoke at Standup Sisters have lived with the most vulnerable people within and outside of our borders. Their stories provide a more holistic view of the challenges and the joys of being one human family.”

Audio recordings of this event will be made available in the coming weeks. Now available is a video from the youngest member of the “Standup Sister” crew. Rhonda Miska is not yet a sister. She’s going through the steps in that process with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, based in Wisconsin. She is what’s known as a “candidate” for religious life, and she writes for U.S. Catholic, America magazine, and is part of the network Catholic Women Preach.

In Miska’s story, she answers the question: What’s it like to walk in an unknown land, on a mountain, in the dark, wearing flip flops? The Nicaraguans who invited her on an age-old religious procession taught Miska a lot about what it means to fall, and what it means to catch one another–a metaphor for being a global community.

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. 

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. 

MonicaAndMe2

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

‘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.