Sr. Catherine Pinkerton, Network lobbyist and justice-seeker, remembered

First Lady Hillary Clinton, left, greets Sr. Catherine Pinkerton. (White House)

Every year, St. Joseph Sr. Catherine Pinkerton made sure the entire student body at St. Joseph Academy in Cleveland learned how to sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"She taught each grade a different part so we could sing it in four-part harmony. We thought we were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," said Mary Ann Fisher, who was a student, then a neophyte teacher, during Catherine's 1967-73 tenure as principal of the only Catholic girls' school within the city limits of Cleveland.

Pinkerton's hymn would prove prophetic. Just as Jesus was "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored," so would she spend 26 years trampling up and down the halls of Congress lobbying for health care for people who could not afford it.

She died peacefully the afternoon of Dec. 28, 2017, with her lifelong friend, Sr. Felicia Petruziello, and several other St. Joseph sisters at her side. She was 96.

The third of four children, Catherine Pinkerton was born Sept. 22, 1921, in Cleveland to Charles and Anne Berry Pinkerton. Her heart for the marginalized was instilled at age 7, when her parents were considering purchasing a new home right before the Great Depression. It's a story she frequently told:

But Dad sat us down and said, "Mother and I have decided not to buy that house."

I asked, "Why, Daddy?"

He said, "Because something terrible is going to happen in this country, and there will be people who won't have food or housing or jobs and we have to help them."

And that was my first lesson in justice."

In high school, she was involved with Cleveland's Catholic Worker movement and was friends with Mother Margaret Mary Neary, a visionary leader who anticipated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which influenced Catherine's decision to join the Cleveland Congregation of St. Joseph in 1940. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in education in 1950 and her master's degree in curriculum, English and education in 1957 from St. John's College in Cleveland.

After Vatican II, Catherine worked closely with Cleveland groups to focus on advocating for people who live in poverty and advancing women's roles in church and society. She was president of the Cleveland Sisters' Senate and a founding member of the Cleveland Women's Ordination Conference. Among her local awards are two naming her as one of the most influential women in Cleveland as well as a Centennial Award for excellence in education from John Carroll University.

Sr. Catherine Pinkerton, left, greets President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, Jan. 6, 1997. (White House photo)

In 1976, she was elected to the leadership team of her own Congregation of St. Joseph. In 1982, she was elected to the presidency of Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represented 130,000 U.S. sisters at the time.

During her tenure at LCWR, U.S. women religious were the focus of intense scrutiny by the church and the U.S. government largely for their adoption of secular dress and for their political involvements in civil rights, peace initiatives, and the sanctuary movement.

In 2006, the late St. Joseph Sr. Miriam Therese Larkin wrote of Catherine's leadership: "Catherine's wisdom, insight and straightforwardness during these times enabled her to make her point so clearly and cogently that further protests lost their meaning and simply died. We really cannot measure the value of her service to women religious in the United States and in the world."

In 1984, Catherine went to work as a lobbyist for Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby in Washington, D.C., affectionately known by some as the "nuns' lobby." At her Jan. 1 wake, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said Catherine became the founding face of Network in Congress: "Network in its early years would not have been possible without her inspired leadership."

During President Bill Clinton's administration, Catherine worked with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and Sen. Edward Kennedy to craft comprehensive health care legislation. She brought Catholic social teaching principles to the debate and was a strong advocate for ensuring that those without coverage would have access to health care. When that effort faltered, she became a passionate advocate for the Children's Health Insurance Program, whose renewed funding is currently threatened by conservative Republicans.

In 2006, LCWR gave Catherine its highest honor — the Outstanding Leadership Award — and many accolades were showered upon the energetic octogenarian.

"Catherine has become at home in centers of power," said former Network director and Mercy Sr. Kathy Thornton during the presentation of the award. "She has won the respect of many heavy-hitters in the political world and can ably tease Bill Clinton, confer with Hillary Clinton and chide Ted Kennedy, who, when he does not see Catherine for a while, admits to really missing her."

St. Joseph Sr. Janet Mock, a former executive director of LCWR, added, "She is equally at home with the people who live on the margins. ... Catherine puts the same effort into building relationships with the world's power brokers as she puts into building relationships with the marginalized people whom she knows from the streets of D.C. ... As she uses her intellect to analyze social ills, she uses her heart to understand the people affected by them."

At the January wake, the current executive director of Network, Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, said Catherine's perseverance had prepared the way for the Affordable Care Act.

Sr. Catherine Pinkerton was the cover feature of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Sunday Magazine March 19, 2000. (Sisters of St. Joseph Archives)

"She retired from Network the month after it passed," Campbell said. "It was sort of like that nunc dimittis moment. Having dedicated so much of her life to fighting for health care, she was victorious in the end — and now we just have to preserve it."

While Catherine Pinkerton may seem to be larger than life, she had her struggles.

Unbeknownst to any but her closest confidantes, there were insecurities that sometimes plagued her. Petruziello, whom Catherine has described as her soulmate, told me:

We were soulmates in our earthiness — our human weaknesses. Both of us were always doubting ourselves. It wasn't the big and famous things she did that connected us, but our insecurities. When she gave a speech, she needed to have five people read it first to see if it was OK. She often felt very insecure inside, but that didn't stop her. She is a model for how we can do big things when we move beyond our insecurities.

In 2006, Catherine summed up her own view of contemporary religious life in an interview with the Georgia Bulletin.

"Our foundresses dealt with chaos," she said, "and we have to deal with chaos now because only out of chaos is going to come the creativity of the future."

"Women Religious are the prophetic dimension of the church. Religious life is a prophetic gift given to the church" and humanity, she said. "We stand on the line of what is and what is yet to be, and that is our role."

For over 26 years, Catherine Pinkerton's indefatigable marches up and down the halls of Congress modeled how to stand on the line of "what is and what is yet to be" in justice and in care for the poor.

I like to think that her truth is still marching on.

[St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

Explore our Resources Page to learn more about Catholic sisters around the world.