By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published September 16, 2010
Admiring their skill, honoring their dedication, missing their presence, hundreds of friends of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart took advantage of a last opportunity to surround them with affection and prayer in Atlanta.
They came to the Cathedral of Christ the King Sept. 1 where the sisters closed their ministry in the archdiocese at a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and attended by over 20 Grey Nuns. A dozen or more priests concelebrated the Mass and sisters from other communities serving in North Georgia supported the Grey Nuns with their presence.
From 1937 when the Grey Nuns were invited to open Christ the King School until 2010 when retirement ended the ministries in Georgia of Sister Sally White and Sister Eileen Murray, some 179 sisters of the congregation served in the archdiocese.
They started or taught at seven or more Catholic schools in metro Atlanta, initiated and sustained ministries with immigrants, in hospitals, with the elderly, and in parish pastoral care. Throughout they reflected a love for the Gospel and concern for those in need that was contagious and inspiring.
Burdened with expressing the gratitude of the archdiocese, Msgr. Richard Lopez, in his homily, said, “Your work is eternal.”
While men think strength means toughness, he said, “Has there ever been a stronger group to walk the earth than American sisters?”
He credited the work of sisters in the United States over generations with defusing the anti-Catholic attitude in the country.
“How in the world can anyone be anti-Catholic when they see the work of our sisters?” he asked.
He spoke of the sisters buried in the Catholic cemetery in Washington, Ga., who gave their lives caring for the poor and sick. He talked about the Hawthorne Dominican sisters who, when they opened the free cancer home in Atlanta, had 50 patients and no money to feed them, but went to the chapel to pray and a benefactor came to the door. He recalled the example of his great aunt, a sister, who ran two hospitals.
“Sisters, the truth is each and every one of you could be the CEO of Merrill Lynch. You chose instead to serve us in simplicity and joy,” Msgr. Lopez said.
“Your works are eternal because you taught us how to pray … you have made us conscious of the poor. You have made holiness appealing and goodness charming.”
‘Martyrdom Of The Classroom’
The longtime religion teacher at St. Pius X High School held up the memorial card of Sister Rita Raffaele, GNSH, his fellow teacher over many years who died in 2004 after impacting generations of students, parents and faculty.
“I never get into a pulpit without her beside me,” he said of the spiritual effect of the Grey Nun on his priesthood. “With her on one side and St. Theresa on the other side, I am invincible.”
Like Sister Rita, “many of you have embraced the prolonged martyrdom of the classroom,” he joked, drawing on memories of sisters, as people listening nodded their heads in agreement.
He told of a student who recalled Sister Eileen Murray’s devotion to him as a boy.
“In fifth grade, she saw I was having trouble with my reading. She took time out of her day every Saturday to teach me. Then she took me to the convent for lunch and threw the football with me and played catch with me until my mother came home from work,” he told Msgr. Lopez.
He spoke of Sister Mary Timothy of Christ the King School, who was known as “Big Tim.” He said when she died at Saint Joseph’s, there was an honor guard of men who formed in the hospital, who had been boys once in the school and remembered her with honor.
“We are crying because, for one thing, part of our childhood goes with you and we fear that wonderful part of our childhood won’t be there for our children,” he said, listing the admonitions familiar to generations of students: “Fix that tie. Sit up straight. Do your studies.”
“Every moment of your life, every ounce of your being was to love Christ and to love us. How can we ever thank you for what you have done for us?” he concluded.
“Perhaps the best way we can honor you is to live what you taught us. To know, love and serve God in this life so we can be with God and with you in the next.”
‘They Were Wonderful Years’
In a reception that followed the Mass, the sisters were swallowed up in crowds of people eager to see them again. Some of the Grey Nuns who returned to the archdiocese for the Mass had not been here in decades.
Sister Mary Charlotte Barton, GNSH, was principal of D’Youville Academy from 1965 to 1968, a girls high school opened by the Grey Nuns in Chamblee. She said she had not been in Atlanta since the 1980s.
Her years in Atlanta were among the most meaningful in her religious life, she said, because they took place when the Second Vatican Council unfolded and while Atlanta Archbishop Paul Hallinan was a leading prelate bringing back and implementing the directives of the Council in the archdiocese.
He formed the first Sisters’ Assembly in the United States, she said, a group made up of representatives from each of the communities of women religious serving in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
“He was such an inclusive person,” she said. “He respected the sisters. He made us a part of the leadership of the diocese.”
While “we were all challenged by the teachings (of the Second Vatican Council),” she said, “I have been happy to be part of those years of change.”
“They were wonderful years,” she said. “Those were wonderful years because (Archbishop Hallinan) had such a vision for the future and he made us all a part of it. … It was a very vibrant time for the church here in Atlanta.”
Sister Mary Charlotte was serving in the archdiocese when Archbishop Hallinan died. But her memories of that time are also faith-filled.
“His funeral Mass was one of the most joyous occasions we experienced because at that Mass we seemed to implement all the new practices—singing alleluias, wearing white vestments,” she said, recalling that this was a dramatic change. “It was in the spring. We came out of that place singing alleluia with all our hearts and the dogwoods were in bloom. It was a wonderful occasion.”
“He invited us to really claim our belief in the resurrection. I feel very fortunate to have been part of that period of history.”
Mary Ellen Howley said that she was there at the beginning, as a child in the second first-grade class at Christ the King School in 1938. She later went to Christ the King High School, also staffed by Grey Nuns. Two of her classmates, Sister Sally White and Sister Mary Sue Thomas, went on to become Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.
The Grey Nuns “are just part of me,” Howley said. “I feel like my formation in the church came from my parents and the Grey Nuns. They were always so ladylike. They were very giving and caring.”
She is now a lay associate of the Grey Nuns, a spiritual group supporting the community and continuing the good works of St. Marguerite d’Youville, their foundress.
“I am grateful to be healthy and to be able to do that,” Howley said.
Sister Carol Bartol, GNSH, remembered her good times administering Marian Manor, a personal care home for the elderly that was opened by Catholic Social Services in the former Grey Nuns’ convent at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. She and Sister Barbara Harrington, GNSH, recently became the last Grey Nuns serving in ministry in Kodiak, Alaska, where Sister Barbara was a parish administrator and Sister Carol managed a thrift store and taught English as a second language.
Sister Dawn Gear, GNSH, who spent 26 years in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, teaching and administering Catholic schools, said while “it was hard to leave” she cherishes her friendships here and remembers the commitment of parents to educate their children in Catholic schools.
“Parents at Pius, parents at St. John Neumann, they always wanted what was best for the children. That was the biggest blessing here in Atlanta. The parents gave their very best,” Sister Dawn said.
“We were taken into their families,” she added. “You felt needed and wanted and appreciated.”
It is consoling, she said, “when you see the successes—and the successes are that (the students you taught) are going to be better people, better Christians.”
Sister Mary Charlotte said, “We are happy to have been a part of the church of Atlanta and part of its growth.”