US Catholic Faith in Real Life

150 ways to applaud the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago

By Catherine O'Connell-Cahill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Here’s my answer to Sister Mary Jean Ryan of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, quoted in the New York Times and then in a U.S. Catholic blog post here earlier this week as saying, “Perhaps this is a moment for people to acknowledge the contribution that has been made by women religious throughout our history in the United States.”

This past Tuesday I took my 16-year-old daughter down to Chicago’s Near North Side to a ceremony honoring the 150th anniversary of the Benedictine Sisters arriving in Chicago. Setting off from the Benedictine community in Erie, Pennsylvania in August of 1861, these three young women came to Chicago to educate the children of German immigrants.They founded St Joseph’s School and convent at Wabash and Chicago (where their plaque is now to be found, on the side of a Starbucks, a block from Chicago's Magnificent Mile). They lost everything in the great Chicago fire of 1871, but were back in force in 1872, eventually sending members of their community to other points in Illinois and even to Colorado. They have outlasted 32 of our city’s mayors.

Since their arrival, the Benedictine Sisters have educated thousands of children and young people in the Chicago area and in Colorado—at parish schools and at their own marvelous high school for young women, St. Scholastica Academy, an International Baccalaureate School in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.  Not only did my sisters and I attend this forward-thinking, excellent school (where the one-of-a-kind Sister Eleanore Hillenbrand taught us how to read Shakespeare and how to write well), but my 16-year-old daughter is currently a junior there. Visitors to the school consistently speak about how self-possessed and poised the girls are, how the positive atmosphere of learning and cooperation is contagious.

You might get an inkling about St. Scholastica by hearing about their summer service retreat: Eighteen girls camped out on the school campus for four days for “Scholasticans Go MAD: Make a Difference.” This year they explored immigration in the U.S., making a trip to Immigration Court, visiting a parish and a day workers’ center, and listening to staff and a recent alumna speak of their own immigration experiences, all in the context of prayer and reflection. St. Scholastica is that kind of place, thanks to the leadership and support of the Benedictine Sisters since its founding.

At the commemoration of the 150th anniversary, two aldermen, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, the archdiocese’s vicar for religious and vicar general lined up to praise the sisters. They lauded their work in educating children (surely the Catholic Church’s greatest anti-poverty program ever), their work with immigrants, with prisoners, with the homeless.  I’m sure I am forgetting some of their many ministries.

Vicar General Msgr. John Canary spoke of the Benedictine emphasis on stability, saying that one vital form of stability is “the presence of believing people” in a city through the decades. He spoke of a young woman he knows who attends St. Scholastica, saying it is one of the best parts of her young life, and he credited the Sisters for their “prayerful presence to influence young people.”

Alderman Joe Moore went out of his way to tease the Sisters for being pushy when they find him on the wrong side of an issue. And Deputy Chief of Staff Rev. Vance Henry, a minister, thanked them for being part of the soul of Chicago.

It poured so much on the day of the commemoration that the celebration had to be moved inside. Rain is to be expected if you know anything about St. Gregory’s story of St. Benedict and his twin sister, St Scholastica. Benedict visited his sister at her abbey one day, shortly before her death. As dusk fell, she asked him to spend the evening with her in conversation, but Benedict sternly refused, saying it was against the rule of his own monastery. Scholastica wept, praying that God would intercede for her. Thunder and lightning intervened, and the fierce storm prevented Benedict and his companion from leaving.

"May Almighty God forgive you, sister," said Benedict, "for what you have done."

"I asked a favor of you," Scholastica replied simply, "and you refused it. I asked it of God, and He has granted it!"

Yet another pushy woman religious. Thanks be to God.