By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 19, 2010
Sister Loretta Costa carries on a quiet ministry among the seniors living at her retirement community. She prays for them. She prays with them.
Tucked underneath her TV is a basket filled with handwritten prayers. As part of her day, Sister Loretta says her prayers and asks God’s blessings for those who have scribbled heartfelt thoughts and placed them in the small wicker basket.
“People know they can talk to us. I have a real ministry here. There are a lot of lonely people in this building,” she said. “I think our presence here is good.”
Residents at Clairmont Oaks retirement community, where she and Sister Angela Abood both live, stop her in the halls. On the elevator.
“Do you have five minutes?”
“You’d be surprised how many people say, ‘Sister, can I just come talk to you?’” said Sister Loretta.
Baptists, other Protestants, Catholics, and people of no particular faith have sat on the couch in her modest one-bedroom apartment and prayed.
“Our presence is a blessing,” she said. “I feel very, very fortunate to live here.”
Sister Loretta was born in Athens, the oldest daughter, named Mary Elizabeth, and one of four children. Her father, Lawrence, ran the family ice cream business that went under during the Great Depression. Her mother, Loretta, raised the family and then went to work keeping the books for local businesses.
At 15, Sister Loretta drove with her parents and pastor to the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Georgia in Augusta. Sister of Mercy teachers at her boarding school, Mount de Sales Academy in Macon, inspired her vocation as a sister.
“They were incredible women and we were bad,” Sister Loretta said, tearing up. They said, “You go where your heart leads you.”
“I was really ready to jump in. I didn’t know what I was jumping into,” she said, smiling.
Sister Loretta, who is 86, marks 70 years as a sister this year. She is the last of the nine sisters who were in the novitiate with her. She retired in 2004. She has on khaki pants, a blue golf shirt and wire-framed glasses. Photos of now-grown students fill up bookcases.
“I feel very, very blessed. Not always easy, but good,” Sister Loretta said about her life-long ministry. “Hands down, wonderful.”
As a member of the congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Sister Loretta became a teacher. The community isn’t a teaching order; in fact, its purpose is to promote charity and reconciliation, she said. Founded in the 17th century in France, the original six members of the order lived among the people, not behind convent walls, Sister Loretta said. St. Joseph sisters arrived in the United States in 1836 in response to a request from the St. Louis bishop to teach the deaf. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Georgia formed as a separate province in the 1920s, but merged with the St. Louis province in about 1960.
Her first teaching assignment in 1942 was at the now-closed St. Joseph Orphanage in Washington, Ga., and she taught in seven schools, from Savannah and Atlanta to Champaign, Ill. She eventually moved into school administration, but always insisted she get a classroom assignment at the same time.
“I just enjoy imparting knowledge,” she said.
She holds a soft spot in her heart for six-graders. These students were old enough to grasp the subjects and how they fit together, but not too old, she said.
“I taught some incredible kids. It was a very happy experience,” she said.
During her time teaching at a 50-student school in Milledgeville, Sister Loretta befriended a young Catholic author. She became Flannery O’Connor’s piano teacher for two years. She also read for O’Connor, getting the first peek at the short stories of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
Sister Loretta said she is sorry all of the correspondence between them has been lost.
“She became a real, real close friend,” she said. “I’ve kind of become a Flannery O’Connor advocate.”
Outside the classroom, she took on more leadership roles and served on boards for her religious order for more than 20 years. She also oversaw the opening of two assisted living communities in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, St. Thomas Manor and St. Teresa Manor, which have since closed.
As a leader, she was part of the discussions about how to embrace the vision of the Second Vatican Council. Sisters in the 1960s followed its directive to re-examine their ministry and return to the roots of their founder’s vision. That meant eventually dropping the veil and the habit, which was imposed on the order to make the women dress like 19th-century French widows, Sister Loretta said.
The order also did away with the formality that required a sister to check in with a superior for nearly everything.
“We were all sisters. We were all in this together,” she said.
She is one of seven Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet still living in the Atlanta Archdiocese, although several are retired.
St. Joseph sisters now are working in every field, from an oncology nurse to a pastoral associate and serving people in Uganda.
“I think we are doing what we were founded to do,” she said.
Asked about her legacy to former students, Sister Loretta said, “I would hope they look on me as a loving woman who had their interest at heart.”