“Give this to the Sisters to buy fruits and vegetables for their children in the orphanage.” My 6-year-old pressed the contents of her piggy bank, all 67 cents, into my hands. Our youngest son’s godmother had been on a two month sabbatical: teaching and leading retreats for her fellow Sisters in Africa. Each week the kids would soak up her pictures of the children, the scenery, and of course the elephants, and listen to her email updates about the people she met. That week we “visited” an orphanage in Tanzania alongside our dear friend. Clare became captivated by little Maria, a resident of the orphanage who is about her age and with the same fiery spirit. Upon hearing of the sisters’ struggle to find produce and their desire to build a greenhouse, Clare offered her $0.67 to make that happen.
My family has long been shaped by the influence of Catholic Sisters. Today the Church celebrates Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American born saint and a Daughter of Charity who was devoted to educating poor, immigrant children in the 19th century. She established the first American religious order of sisters as well as the parish school system. The floods of vocations to the priesthood and religious life that the growing Catholic Church in America experienced have now receded. The baptized are no longer practicing, families are disconnected from their local parish, the lingering distrust of the institutional church remains. So what does Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton have to offer the American Church in this moment?
Religious women, like my dear friend, are a living witness to a life of service. Far from being confined to convents and parish schools, they are out in the world making a difference. I work with Sisters in Africa regularly via zoom, WhatsApp and email. As my dear friend, who is a Sister, journeyed through East Africa, a part of me longed to be there. I dream of meeting these people, who I already love, and allowing their life and spirit to impact my own. Despite how many times the Sisters in Africa invite me, my place today is with my husband and children. It’s driving my own kids to school, making dinner, going to work. Yet, my own heart and my daughter’s grew as we accompanied (from afar) our family friend on that pilgrim journey to Africa.
Sisters, and those who give of themselves completely to service, call forth greater generosity in those around them. My daughter was moved to give what she had, a fortune for a first grader, because she saw someone who could put it to good use. After she entrusted her coins to me, she asked every day whether I had “given it to the sisters in Africa”. I explained to her that it had to be deposited and wired to their account and that these things took time. She was undeterred. A few weeks later she had a chance to FaceTime with one of the Sisters in Africa and learn even more about their life and needs. Through friendship and community, generosity is multiplied.
It is easier to assume that what we have to offer will never be enough to make a difference. We can safely guard the contents of our piggy banks, telling ourselves that someone with more resources will be the one to change the world. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, and all religious women, challenge each of us to a more selfless way of living and being in the world, no matter our circumstances.