Working and Living for Others
Humility, compassion, simplicity, strength, and charity. Since the time of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, the Daughters of Charity energized and inspired others through their work with society’s poorest and most abandoned individuals.
BREATHING NEW LIFE
It was an age when the poor were reviled. At best, peasants were seen as a nuisance; at worst, they were the scapegoats for the country’s societal ills. But to St. Vincent de Paul, they were Christ.
Preaching to his congregation one Sunday morning in 1617, St. Vincent vividly described the plight of a destitute family who lived nearby. Every member of the family was ill and needed urgent help. Moved by his words, more than fifty women went home after Mass and brought their own food to the sick family. St. Vincent was touched by their generosity and knew that with a little organization, these women could be a powerful force for good. Three days later, he created the Confraternity of Charity to materially and spiritually assist the sick and the poor.
The Holy Spirit was breathing life into this project, and as more women joined the Confraternity, St. Vincent asked St. Louise de Marillac for assistance. Eventually, these two saints cofounded a congregation of Sisters, the Company of the Daughters of Charity, who would dedicate their lives to God by serving “the poorest of the poor.” This was a radical vocation in 17th-century France.
St. Vincent was a friend of St. Francis de Sales, and he remembered the difficulties St. Francis faced when trying to establish his community of Sisters. At first, the Sisters devoted themselves to prayer while also visiting the sick and the poor. It didn’t take long before he was asked to accept the norms of the day: Sisters who wore veils and made perpetual vows were nuns, and nuns lived in cloistered monasteries. St. Francis acquiesced, and the congregation he cofounded with St. Jane de Chantal became cloistered nuns.
To establish a new community of Sisters, who could serve the poor freely, St. Vincent did something entirely unique. Instead of making perpetual vows, these Sisters would dedicate themselves to Christ with simple vows that were renewed annually. Instead of wearing veils, they would wear white headdresses, which were worn by peasant women at that time. Instead of living in cloistered monasteries, they would live in communal houses among the poor they served.
Like the Vincentians, the Daughters of Charity were sent wherever they were needed, to distant regions as well as surrounding regions. With their distinctive vocation, they were able to make a tremendous impact—first in rural areas and then throughout France.
A CALL TO PHILADELPHIA
Almost 200 years after the Daughters of Charity were formed, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton founded her congregation, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Once again, the Holy Spirit was breathing life into a new venture. Inspired by the work of the Daughters of Charity in Europe, she adapted their rule of life for her community.
In 1814, the pastor of St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia asked Mother Seton to send three of her Sisters to run a local orphanage. As the community of Sisters grew, so did their ministries, and less than forty years after they first arrived, Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity in Philadelphia were among those who united with the French Daughters of Charity. Together, they formed the first American Daughters of Charity.
DEDICATED TO GOD AND SERVICE TO THE POOR
Fast forward another 200 years to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where six Daughters of Charity are currently on mission. For decades, these Sisters have served Christ in the poorest of the poor, and now they’re blessing us with their presence: Sr. Felicia Mazzola, DC (International General Assistance Fund), Sr. Jean Maher, DC (St. Athanasius Catholic School), Sr. Marge Clifford, DC (International Vincentian Family Office), Sr. Mary Gilbart, DC (DePaulUSA Transitional Housing), Sr. Mary Ann Woodward, DC (Face to Face), and Sr. Sharon Horace, DC (St. Vincent de Paul Young Adult Center).
Sr. Maher, who was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the city’s Daughters of Charity hospital, served her first two missions in the United States and was then sent to a tiny village in Haiti. The doctor in charge of the town’s rudimentary hospital was eagerly awaiting the Sisters; he had written to many congregations asking for help, but the Daughters of Charity were the only ones who answered.
Immediately jumping into the mission, Sr. Maher helped the doctor and his staff create systems to manage the hospital while also working with the Knights of Malta, who generously helped pay for medicine, medical supplies, and equipment every year. But it wasn’t the physical demands of the work that overwhelmed her, but the immense poverty. “When I was in the States, scripture challenged me,” she says softly. “When I was in Haiti, scripture comforted me.”
After Haiti, Sr. Maher was sent on mission to a university in Szechuan, China, where she taught English to the students. She loved the experience, but it was an encounter she had with an old woman in a bus station that touched her the most. “It looked like she was right out of National Geographic,” Sr. Maher recalls. As the elderly woman with weathered skin and shabby clothes shuffled over to her, Sr. Maher was perplexed. Why was this woman approaching her? Sr. Maher gently said that she only spoke English, to which the old woman smiled and replied, “Welcome to our country.”
After graduating from college, Sr. Horace spent a year in Bolivia, where she met the Daughters of Charity. She was especially moved by a program (founded by Sr. Stephanie Marie, DC, from Emmitsburg) that took kids off the streets and placed them in homes. “She would drive out at night looking for kids to help. The mission of the Daughters serving the poorest of the poor was pretty clear,” explains Sr. Horace. This experience proved to be the seed for her vocation.
Years later, after becoming a Daughter of Charity, she was sent on mission to Kenya to assist the Sisters, who were running a nursery school and a program for the elderly. One of the Sisters from the Irish Province, Sr. Mary Shea, DC, worked with children who had disabilities. She got Kenyan health insurance for them, brought them to the clinic, and ensured they received reparative surgery. As word spread, more and more people brought their children to the Sisters to see if they could get assistance.
“I did a lot of different things when I was there,” Sr. Horace says, but a highlight was working with a small group of women with disabilities. “We met every Tuesday for art projects together. Each woman had her own physical limits, so we found our niches of what we could do and worked as a community.” The gathering started as a way for the women to generate an income by selling the cards they created; it was a simple, Vincentian collaboration. “Service is not sitting on the other side of the table, saying, ‘I’m here to serve you.’ It’s giving and serving in a way where you see the face of Christ in one another,” notes Sr. Horace.
As an athlete and musician in high school, Sr. Mazzola got to know the Sisters by staying after school to help them, oftentimes accompanying them to bring food and provisions to the poor. After graduation, she worked six months before entering the Daughters of Charity. Her first twelve years of mission were spent in elementary schools, teaching and serving as a principal. Then, asking her superiors for “something different,” she was invited to become the treasurer for the Province.
In this new mission, which lasted twelve years, she visited other Daughters of Charity to see how the Province could help them. Later, her role was expanded to supporting Sisters around the world, including Paris—the very place where our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Catherine Labouré. She was then asked to establish an office in the United States to raise funds for international projects of the Daughters of Charity, especially in areas like Africa, Asia, and South America. She contacted the Vincentians, wrote grants, and made phone calls, and within four months, the International Project Services Office opened. From housing and clothing the needy to building churches and schools, the projects are as diverse as the Sisters who create them. In more than sixty-four countries, destitute people are benefitting from the Sisters and their projects. Of course, Sr. Mazzola prays that the financial assistance will keep growing.
“The Holy Spirit is around,” she says, “breathing life into new projects. We just need to get the funds for them.”
Sr. Clifford “grew up Vincentian,” not in an official sense, but because her mother had a “Vincentian” way of serving. “My Mother always had food for the destitute or people who were grieving—everything we had was shared,” she recalls. As a nursing student, she got to know the Daughters of Charity by helping them bring groceries to the needy.
Her heart was moved and her vocation ignited. “I was touched by the sensitivity and warmth they showed the poor,” she recalls.
After becoming a Daughter of Charity, she was sent on mission to Alabama; it was the first time she had ever been south of the Mason Dixon Line. At St. Vincent’s Hospital, she served in a family-centered maternity care unit before other hospitals ever envisioned this form of care. That unit became a model for the entire state.
But it wasn’t just the work of the Sisters that was being noticed; it was the way they worked. Later, when Sr. Clifford was asked to serve in the OB/GYN unit, she commented that she knew nothing about OB/GYN nursing. The department chief quickly responded, “We’ll teach you the OB part; what we need is a good Daughter of Charity.”
Years later, while on mission serving the elderly, Sr. Clifford noticed that several homebound elders needed meals delivered. With the help of volunteers, she created a program, and, using her Vincentian creativity, convinced twenty restaurants to donate ten meals weekly. The result: 200 meals served weekly to the elderly homebound. “If that’s what the poor need, that’s what you do,” she comments matterof-factly.
Sr. Gilbart was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, to a devout Catholic family. Her first introduction to the Daughters of Charity occurred when her father was ill and bedridden. At Christmas, the Sisters brought gifts to the house, ensuring the children had presents to open. Sr. Gilbart never forgot that beautiful act of kindness.
After becoming a Daughter of Charity, she was asked by her superiors to get her bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics in order to become a therapeutic dietician. “I didn’t even know what a therapeutic dietician was,” she says with a grin. Looking back, Sr. Gilbart explains how accepting things we’re asked to do helps us grow. “You learn to say, ‘This is what God wants for me.’ Usually, it’s something God wants us to do to prepare for the next step.”
Initially, Sr. Gilbart taught health to high school students, subjects like nutrition and the dangers of smoking. But her ministry to the students went beyond the academic; she also wanted to “empower them to be their best selves and improve their situations” and to “help them feel valued.”
Later, at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, Sr. Gilbart taught the staff how to fulfill their mission while serving in their various jobs (i.e., housekeepers or dietary staff). This helped spread the Vincentian virtues and way of life. “We help people see and share the mission of Jesus Christ in what they are doing, so that what they are doing is elevated,” she explains.
From her earliest memories, Sr. Woodward wanted to be a nurse. While transitioning from her junior to senior year in high school, someone recommended she work at St. Mary’s Hospital to get experience. Employed as an aid and then as a Licensed Practical Nurse, she got to know the Sisters. “They were energetic. I liked how they worked together. They had joy.”
After becoming a Daughter of Charity, she received her registered nursing degree and continued caring for the sick. While working in a number of hospital surgical units, she saw that many patients needed specific education for their self-care when they returned home—things like dealing with their ostomies or cleaning and dressing their wounds. “All the messy things,” she laughs. She eagerly provided these services in hospitals and clinics and trained others to do the same, while still making her rounds to see patients.
Up to this point, Sr. Woodward never worked with the homeless. But during a three-month internship in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, “I was thrown into it.” This led her to work in day shelters, where she would give free shoulder and neck massages to the poor, who carried everything they owned in their backpacks. “That’s our charism,” she says, “working with people in great need.”
COMMITMENT TO COMMUNITY LIFE
The Daughters of Charity are just as committed to their community life as they are to their missions; for them, the two are inseparable. “It’s not like you can opt out of community,” Sr. Horace says, “You can do service anywhere. What makes us different is our community life.” And that life requires effort; it’s not something that just miraculously happens.
“Community is created by the Sisters who form it,” Sr. Maher explains. Another crucial element is prayer. “Our prayer life is a key factor to our community life,” says Sr. Woodward. Together, they pray Morning Prayers and Evening Prayers, with time alone for private prayer. Every night the Sisters have supper and recreation together, and on Tuesdays, they have a night of shared prayer and reflection.
It is a beautiful life, one that requires living intentionally. “It’s more difficult today, more countercultural, to become a Sister,” Sr. Maher posits. “Back in the 1950s, young people were making life decisions much earlier. Many of them were deciding on marriage or religious life right after high school. Things are different today. Not only do young people make these decisions later in life, they’re also making them against a current that tells them to be free from responsibility.” But the Holy Spirit continues to breathe life into the Daughters of Charity, their communities, and their mission.
“God is good to us,” Sr. Mazzola says, smiling. “It was He who gave us the gift of being Daughters of Charity.”