Friday, March 14, 2014

it's National Catholic Sisters Week! so in honor of my dear Sr. Tess...

I am often struck by the reality that, unlike most friends my age, I did not experience the trauma and upheaval of the 1960s culture and the changing Catholic Church that they describe in the United States. 

Instead, my experience of the Church as a child was Latin American, where the energy of the Second Vatican Council reforms and movements like Cursillo brought increased vitality and renewal to the parishes in Puerto Rico--and certainly to our multi-generational, refugee home. 

I grew up surrounded by generous and devoted women and men, both lay and vowed religious. And If having nuns and priests regularly in our house and as part of our activities was weird, let's just say that I never knew it!   How could I have known that other families didn’t function this way?

At any rate, I have a plethora of stories about nuns to write about from my growing up in that amazing tropical island in the edge of the Caribbean. And many more from my youth and adult life about the priests and nuns that have graced Michael and I over the years.

But in honor of National Catholic Sisters Week I will focus on only one, my beautiful and inspiring heart friend Sr. Tess Browne, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky.

Sr. Tess and I, 1992, at the
7th National Black Catholic Congress, New Orleans

Sr. Tess visiting our home, when our kids were in high school and middle school

A couple of years ago I wrote about Tess in an essay titled “Mi Hermana Tess,” published in a book that you may be interested in: "Thank you Sisters: Stories About Women Religious And How They Enrich Our Lives."  

The book is a collection of 12 essays by a number of famous peopleCokie Roberts; Maureen Orth, award-winning journalist and special correspondent for Vanity Fair; Sr. Helen Prejean; James Martin, S.J.; best-selling author Adriana Trigiani... and more.

Clearly, I am one of the "filler writers" in the "and more"--and to this day, I remain honored and grateful to have been included. 

I wrote a blog when the book came out featuring a snippet of my published essay, remembering when I first met Tess at the University of Texas Catholic Student Center 34 years ago. I was 19. You can read that blog here

But today I'd like to post a different part of the essay, from a conversation I had with Sr Tess when a group of students, including the guy I was dating and I, from the Catholic Student Center went to see their work with the United Farm Workers in South Texas. 

It seems like a perfect fit to write about my own mission experience, as I work fiercely to finish a complete first draft of my current book project on Oklahoma missionary and martyr Fr. Stanley Rother!  Don't you think?  From the book of essays, "Thank you Sisters":

¡Si se puede!
University of Texas Catholic Student Center students visiting farm workers in South Texas, 
with Sr Tess Browne of the United Farm Workers, 1980, 
can you make out Michael and myself in the front row?

Listening to Tess’ stories, I was a bit star-struck. Like a female Tom Hanks in the movie “Forrest Gump,” Tess’ life casually crossed paths with significant moments in history.  Picketing alongside Cesar Chavez. Civil rights marches. A sit-in with Dorothy Day...  
Tess frequently shocked me, provoked me, and in a very real way, inspired me. As a Hispanic privileged enough to be attending college, I felt a special responsibility to learn more, to do more for these people, my people. 
So when she invited students interested in visiting the Rio Grande Valley to come learn more about the work of the United Farm Workers and the life of farm workers in south Texas, I jumped at the opportunity. 
Our group’s visit to the border towns of San Juan and McAllen is a blur in my memory. I remember going to UFW rallies, and being the one to introduce our students in Spanish to the farm workers gathered that night. I remember celebrating daily Mass and prayers with our hosts, Tess’s co-ed religious community.  But what stands out the most in my memory is the intense feelings I had throughout that weekend. 
It was my first time to encounter a situation so tragic, so horrible, so challenging, that I felt completely powerless and ultimately, deeply angry. I was livid about living conditions of children and their families in the colonias—dirt streets, no running water, houses that were truthfully shacks. It was like being in a third world country. I was broken hearted and infuriated conversing in Spanish with young women my age who had already lived profoundly painful lives. And in all honesty, I was irritated with my own ignorance, for not knowing this existed just five hours from my home. 
Sitting by myself in the community’s chapel one night, I cried weakly in my seething anger.  Sr. Tess walked in and just sat next to me, waiting until I could speak. When she sensed that I was ready, she grabbed my hand and looked at me.  
“How do you do it?” The words stumbled clumsily. “How can you do this work and see all this, every day, and not be consumed by the anger?” 
Without hesitation, Tess began, “*I* don’t do it. I offer up my day every morning to the One who can make a difference, and I leave the details up to God,” she paused but continued to look intensely at me. “I come to the Eucharist daily and let it heal me. And every night, I leave my anger, frustration, hopelessness, despair, right here, at the foot of the altar. I am not the maker, María, I am the instrument.”

With Sr. Tess, a mini-reunion of our University Catholic Center UFW group 
(Jean Perdicaris to her right, Sandra Derby to her left--and Michael and I in front)
at my daughter Michelle's wedding, July 2012