If I asked you to think of a Catholic nun, what do you picture? A black habit? A grim-faced woman with a ruler in her hand? If so, you should check out this month’s Open House celebrating the Year of Consecrated
Life to get a better idea of how these women are affecting positive change in our community.
“Yes we’re still in education and healthcare but not in traditional ways,” said Sister Janet Gildea, SC. “We work in colonias educating families about childcare for their children. We work with migrants on their arrival to the country, helping them with social services. We’re not what people traditionally think.”
You can thank Vatican II for the expanded services, said Sister Isabel Fierro, DC, a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and the diocese’s liaison for women religious.
“Before, we were working in children’s homes and hospitals and as teachers. But we realized there were needs outside of these areas,” she said. “Vatican II allowed us to reassess these needs and our charisms. We asked ourselves, ‘What are we called to do?’ We went back to our roots and back to our founders where we were free to serve in the spirit of our community.”
Even the terminology has changed over the decades. Rarely is a woman now referred to as a “nun.” That designation is typically used for women who live a cloistered or contemplative life.
“Their life is consecrated to God and a life of prayer,” said Sr. Isabel. “The contemplative and what we call the ‘active’ sisters have three things in common: prayer, service and community life. But the contemplative sisters are usually found in monasteries and wear the full habit.”
Since many are no longer found in traditional habits, the 103 sisters who work with the Diocese of El Paso may not be as noticeable as they once were. But their impact cannot be ignored.
“In my community, we have a sister who is working as a legal representatives to migrants,” said Sr. Isabel. “We have one who works at Reynolds Home which shelters homeless women and children. In the diocese, other sisters serve in parishes, Pastoral care in hospitals and senior centers. We have expanded our charisms to many works.”
Sr. Isabel said her exposure to sisters while working, as a nursing student at Hotel Dieu Hospital in the 1950s is what first introduced her to think about a life in a religious vocation.
“It was the summer of my junior year at Las Cruces High School and I was thinking, you know, ‘What am I going to do?’ I had been thinking, ‘Am I going to be a nun or a nurse? Well the conclusion was simple: I was going to be a nurse. But when I saw these sisters, it was a revelation. I can be both!”
Sr. Isabel, who became a nurse-midwife, said she had little exposure to sisters prior to working alongside them.
“I saw how they skilled they were, how they related to people and at the same time, how compassionate they were and how they prayed,” she said. “ And they used to live on the 6th floor and I would ask this one
sister, ‘What do you do up there?’”
Sr. Isabel hopes the open house will allow the public, particularly young adults, a chance to speak to the religious in an informal way and learn more about what they do in their community. Sr. Janet also hopes the exposure could spark someone’s interest in the religious life.
“We don’t want to sit around and look at old black and white photos and say, ‘Oh, look at what we did,” said Sr. Janet. “We want to show off what we’re doing today. So often people think our only role is to pray the Rosary. We do but we do a lot of work in our community too.”
The Open House, scheduled for Sept. 13 from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. will allow the public to see the contemporary lives of the women and men religious who serve the diocese. The locations for the open house include the following: Adoratrices del Santisimo Sacramento, 145 Cotton Street; Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, 9213 Moye Dr.; Sisters of Loretto, 4601 Trowbridge; School Sisters of St. Francis, 465 Gallagher; Hermanas Dominicas de la Doctrina Cristiana, 634 Hampton; Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Poor, 3119 Pera; Sisters of our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, 415 N. Glenwood; Brothers of Christina Schools, 1204 N. Mesa and the Society of Jesus, Sacred Heart Parish, 602 S. Oregon.
For more information, contact Sr. Isabel Fierro, DC at (915) 872-8407.