The long legacy of service

A few weeks ago, I helped facilitate a weeklong community service program for new students at Chestnut Hill College where I work. The LENS (Leadership, Engagement and Service) program welcomes a small group of first-year students to the campus for a week of community service, leadership development, and reflection prior to the new student orientation. Each day during the LENS program, the students travel around Philadelphia serving those living on the margins of society. After serving, we gather as a community for discussions on social justice, structural inequality and privilege.

While many colleges offer this type of program, we take great pride in going further by exposing students to the mission, spirituality and charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph (SSJ) who sponsor our college. We believe it is important that the students understand that service and reflection inspired by SSJ spirituality is not just distinct, but necessary in our world today. So while our LENS program certainly functions as a recruitment and retention strategy, and thus allows the College to maintain status with peer institutions, more importantly, it continues the legacy of service and emphasis on relationships that we have inherited from the Sisters of St. Joseph.

At a time when higher education is being attacked for the high cost of tuition and perceived lack of value, private Catholic colleges and universities have an even more difficult task of proving their worth to prospective students and parents. According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, there are more than 260 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. Of these, several dozen are founded, sponsored or operated by religious communities. In the Philadelphia area where I live, we are fortunate that congregations of women religious have a strong presence: the Sisters of St. Francis (Neumann University), Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Cabrini University), Sisters of St. Joseph (Chestnut Hill College), Society of the Holy Child Jesus (Rosemont College), Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Immaculata University), Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth (Holy Family University), and the Sisters of Mercy (Gwynedd-Mercy University).

As an employee of Chestnut Hill College and Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph, I think it matters that our students understand their connection to our founding sisters, and to those students and sisters who have gone before them. As a sociologist, I also think it is important for students to understand the profound impact that women religious have had on our world. In a society where the gender default is masculine, religious sisters have been largely excluded from or are treated as a curious footnote in narrative history. Yet, as many historians and others have pointed out, women religious were crucial in the building of America in particular. For instance, at the Conference on the History of Women Religious held back in June at Santa Clara University, scholars explained how sisters have founded and directed hospitals, schools and social service organizations for more than 200 years in the United States. Religious sisters were breaking the glass ceiling long before the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and as historian Margaret Susan Thompson argues, women religious can be considered the "first sizeable cohort of female executives."

The challenge for me is to make this come to life for my students. Sure, they can listen to the anecdotes lining the walls of our buildings and read the available histories of women religious, but helping students to understand how they are continuing this legacy can be difficult. At the risk of overstatement, I feel a tremendous responsibility to imbue the mission of the congregation in my teaching and in our programming. I try to create spaces where students can interact with sisters in order to connect them with the charism and spirituality unique to a sponsored institution.

During our LENS week, our students served with the St. Joseph Villa, a healthcare facility that provides multiple levels of skilled nursing care to retired sisters and lay persons. The community service was minor: helping resident sisters pack belongings in preparation for a long-anticipated move to a renovated wing of the building. The real value of this experience was, of course, the relationships that students formed with the retired sisters. On one floor, the students were serving with a member of the pastoral care team who works closely with those residents who suffer from dementia. We focused a lot of our time on one room with a sister who has lost all capacity for communication and who has been receiving palliative care for quite some time. As we finished packing a few boxes in her room, the pastoral care associate told us about this sister's life, and how she spent many years caring for orphan boys at St. John's Orphanage in West Philadelphia.

In recent years at the Villa, the sister would receive greeting cards for every holiday — not just Christmas and Easter — from a man who lived in upstate New York. One day, knowing he was not part of her family, the pastoral care associate decided to contact the man's family to find out how they were connected to this particular sister. The man's wife responded that her husband was one of the boys who lived in that orphanage, and that this sister was the only mother he ever knew and that even when he was causing trouble or falling behind in his school work, she never gave up on him. The students were certainly touched by this story, but I remember standing there with tears in my eyes. I told my wife the story that night, and repeated it for much of that week to pretty much anyone willing to listen. Perhaps it is because I am a father to a young son, but something about this special de facto mother-son relationship moved me in a way that still gives me chills as I reflect on it today.

I entered this LENS week with my students focusing on the logistics associated with my job leading service-learning experiences: van pick-up times, boxed lunches, T-shirts and reflections journals. Subconsciously and through this busy-ness, I wasn't fully immersing myself in this experience.

In a world where we are constantly connected through technology and smartphones, the boundaries between our personal and professional lives are fluid and often become blurred. I find this a great metaphor for Associate life, because this commitment is not intended to be something I turn off and on in certain situations, but rather, try to fully incorporate into all parts of my life. In facilitating this experience for my students, it took this heartening moment of humanity to remind me that my commitment to my role as an Associate and educator in an SSJ-sponsored work is a way of life, a vocation. My hope is that my students recognize that the mission and charism are not clever add-ons, but something we live authentically as carriers of the Sisters of St. Joseph legacy in a sponsored institution.

[Ryan P. Murphy is an Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph and works as Director of Service-Learning at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Ryan is also a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Temple University where he is researching the experiences of American Women Religious in the years of renewal after Vatican II.]

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