Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America

Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America

Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America

Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America

Excerpt

Sister Mary Scullion, RSM, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, began working with Philadelphia’s homeless and mentally ill men and women in 1978 at the age of twenty-five, leading her, she once reflected, to “the most profound experience [she] ever had of God.” As her ministry to this population grew into a lifetime commitment, Sister Mary was arrested at least twice for distributing food to those homeless seeking shelter in Philadelphia’s 30 Street train station, and although never convicted, she spent several nights in jail. On another occasion, Sister Mary, along with some men and women who had been denied admittance to the city’s overcrowded shelters, occupied the basement of the Municipal Services Building, “the hub of city offices and services.” These public demonstrations, combined with other activities such as leading protestors into Philadelphia City Council meetings and badgering then Mayor Edward G. Rendell to increase city allocations for services for the homeless and mentally ill, drew cheers from some and angry comments from others. Rendell once remarked that “Sister Mary Scullion is Philadelphia’s Joan of Arc because so many people want to burn her at the stake.”

All women religious, often called nuns or sisters by the general public, take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but Sisters of Mercy also vow to care for the poor, sick, and ignorant. Project H.O.M.E., which Sister Mary cofounded with Joan Dawson McConnon, a lay activist and volunteer working with the homeless, in 1989, helped her to live this fourth vow by seeking solutions to the problem of homelessness. The approximately 56,000 women religious serving the Catholic Church in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, like Sister Mary Scullion, constitute the most recent in a long line of sisters and nuns whose commitment to their faith led them to choose a life of service to those in need.

The history of women religious is intricately connected to the story of the church in the United States. The small group of Catholics who sailed from England on two ships, the Ark and the Dove, in 1633 certainly did not imagine the large number of parishes, schools, hospitals, and social service . . .

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