Who in their lives has not attended a school play? You know the scene. Metal chairs scraping the floor in the school gym. Students in the audience trying their best to behave, but unable to resist poking a neighbor or two. Proud parents anxiously awaiting their child's theatrical debut, hoping he or she will remember the lines and not be too nervous. Then, of course, there are the student actors, waiting behind the curtain with butterflies in their stomachs in anticipation of the big moment.
In my own life, the only part in this scene that I have not played is that of the proud parent. Yet, I recently had an experience which, while certainly not the same as watching my own child on stage, gave me an inkling of what that proud moment of connection must feel like.
The students and teachers of Classes 5 and 17 at St. Joseph's School for the Blind in Jersey City, New Jersey, decided to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of their school by putting on a show. This was not to be just any old canned school play, but rather a weaving together of three stories: the advancement of educational resources for individuals with visual impairments, the history and development of the school itself, and the story of the religious community who founded it, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
A large group of sisters was present in the audience as honored guests, including some who had ministered there in the past. Our community continues to sponsor the school today.
The play was narrated by teachers Elizabeth Savage and Mary Giambona, who also wrote the creative script. In the introduction, we learned that 1858 was an important year. First, it was the year that the Braille system was introduced to America. Second, it was the year that Margaret Anna Cusack converted to Catholicism. She would later found the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in Nottingham, England, and in 1884 she came to the United States with her sisters to promote peace in family life, in the church, and in society.
Scene I — As the stage curtain opens for the first scene, a slow, deep ship's horn sounds three times. Four male students, dressed in habits and veils, stand behind a cardboard ship with the Statue of Liberty behind them. The sisters are coming to America.
Aaron: We have been traveling for days!
Zyshon: It has been a long journey indeed!
Asaya: Sisters, look! The Statue of Liberty!
Kevin: Oh Glory be to God! We have arrived safely.
Each student projected their line in passable British accents, with the beat of Neil Diamond's song "Coming to America" pulsing underneath. It was simply amazing. As a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, I was so proud to experience this depiction of our founding story by today's students who continue to be touched by the impact of our legacy.
The narrators told us that just two years after coming to America, Margaret Anna (now known as Mother Francis Clare) wrote to Bishop Wigger of the Diocese of Newark, volunteering her sisters to work with the blind. At the time, nothing came of the request, but the seeds had been planted.
Mother Evangelista Gaffney, the new superior of the community, responded to a later request from Bishop Wigger in 1891. She expressed her willingness to undertake a "labor of love" in service of the blind. She rented a house in Jersey City and opened St. Joseph's Home and School for the Blind, one of the first Catholic institutions for the blind in the United States.
Today, the ministry of the Home for the Blind continues as the Margaret Anna Cusack Care Center, a 139-bed skilled nursing facility for the frail and infirm elderly. As my morning spent in the school gymnasium attests, St. Joseph's School for the Bind also continues to be a vital ministry, now providing a full array of programs for individuals with visual impairments and/or multiple disabilities from birth through adulthood.
As I sat there watching the play unfold, I could not help but think of how many of our sisters have shared in this labor of love over the years, not to mention the incredible number of lives that have been touched through this important ministry of peace. It is difficult, if not impossible, to measure the impact.
The students on the stage were filled with purpose. Each played a vital role in telling the story, using all of their abilities and helping one another. In one of the final scenes, the students told the story of the 2007 move to the new school building. A group of students were on stage, some in wheelchairs and others standing, passing moving boxes down the line while the theme song from "The Jeffersons" television show played in the background: "Movin' on up." This scene itself was so incredibly moving, because everyone had a role to play, no matter what their ability level. Those that were not able to lift the boxes by themselves were assisted by the other students and teachers.
These days, the role that our religious community plays in the ministry of the school is that of founder and sponsor. We no longer have the numbers to staff the school, but rather entrust this labor of love to men and women who are highly trained and especially qualified to minister to the needs of the students.
We are in a new moment, and it is just as holy as the moment that gave birth to the many ministries and institutions started by women religious in this country. It was clear to me, sitting in that school gym, that our charism is alive and our mission will continue. In the words of LCWR President-Elect Mary Pellegrino: "We honor those who discerned the presence of the charism in the women who made up our early communities by acknowledging that the charisms of our institutes are fully present in the people of God. We are stewards of the charism, not owners. We know now that our charisms are not confined to vowed, religious life. They are found and flourish among single and married persons and clergy, as well."
One of the tasks of the present generations living religious life is to use our energy and resources to help ensure that the mission continues well into the future. With our partners and lay collaborators, the labor of love will continue. Of that, I have no doubt.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]
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