By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 27, 2012
Sister Patricia Chappell is helping to build a road map for the future of Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace movement. Its executive director for the last nine months, Sister Chappell is going around the country to gauge the opinions of and pick up insights from members of the organization.
She spent some time in Atlanta where a regional meeting was held at St. Jude Church, Sandy Springs, Sept. 15.
Sister Chappell has been a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur for 35 years. One of seven children, she grew up in New Haven, Conn., with a civil servant father and a nurse mother.
She sat down to talk about her organization and vocation. Her responses are excerpted below.
How is it you are Catholic?
I was born and raised in New Haven, Conn. I come from a family that has been traditionally Catholic. As soon as I was born, I was baptized Catholic, although at one point, our parents were open to us exploring other possibilities, and I did. At one point, I didn’t think the Catholic Church was the religion I wanted to choose, so I explored the Muslim community, the Baptist churches, but in the end I found my spirit really resonated with the Catholic Church. And as a result of that, I have continued to remain Catholic.
What is an early faith memory that you have?
I can remember early on, even before I started elementary school, my mom would take us to Mass: my mother, my grandmother, my aunts. That was always an early memory of going to Mass, participating in the Mass, but in that time, sisters, the nuns, were also there in full habits. I can always remember about being fascinated and curious about the sisters.
Back in those days, when you went to Sunday Mass, you sat with the sisters who taught your class. So even as a young child, I can remember my cousins sitting with their teachers, who were the sisters, on Sundays, and I was like, “I can’t wait to go to elementary school so I can also sit with my classmates and sit with the sisters.” It was always a fond memory.
What was the name of your home parish?
My home parish is St. Martin de Porres in New Haven. It started as a mission church, and it is a predominantly African-American Catholic church.
What did your folks do for work when you were growing up?
My mom is a retired nurse, working in labor and delivery. And my dad basically worked as a postal employee. He did civil service kind of work. I have seven siblings. I am the oldest. At this particular time, I am the only one that entered religious life.
How would you describe Pax Christi to Catholics who aren’t familiar with it?
Pax Christi was started in 1945. It basically was started in Europe as a response to World War II, when folks were trying to say there are alternative ways of dealing with war. Pax Christi is really the Catholic peace movement.
How many members do you have?
We probably have 18,000 members. The way it is set up there are regions. There is the national office and then there are what we call regions and we also have college campus regions and high school regions.
What challenges do you see for Pax Christi?
There are four initiatives of Pax Christi: spirituality of nonviolence and peacemaking; disarmament, demilitarization and reconciliation with justice; economic and interracial justice in the United States; and human rights and global restoration.
The challenge, I feel, is how do we motivate folks on these core issues.
The other challenge is how do we invite young adults to become part of Pax Christi and alongside of that is how do we invite Catholic communities of color to be an integral part of Pax Christi USA. Traditionally, those communities have not been part of Pax Christi USA. We cannot authentically be church if those voices are not part of Pax Christi USA.
In addition to those, another challenge is if we don’t have good relations with the institutional church where the regions are located, how do we begin to build that dialogue with the bishops, with the pastors, in the areas where Pax Christi exists?
What would you ask Catholics to think about on election issues, especially on issues of war and peace?
I would ask Catholics to go back to our social justice teachings of the church. I think the social justice teachings are rooted in the Gospel and they are rooted in what and how we should be brother and sister to each other. I direct people to always go back to the social justice teachings of our church.
When you look at our understanding of Jesus, certainly Jesus was always with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. Jesus also challenges all of us to look at our resources and to be sure there are enough (resources) for everyone.
Jesus basically shows us how to live in a nonviolent manner, in a nonviolent capacity.
And how should we be engaged with one another as brother and sister, regardless of our ethnicity, denomination, gender.
It’s prayer, it’s study, and it’s action.
What is your vocation story?
I’ve been a Sister of Notre Dame for 35 years. Most of my ministry has been with poor, marginalized and oppressed people. I have been Roman Catholic all my life. I went to Catholic schools most all of my life. Catholicism has always been an integral part of who I am, in my life.
I wanted to be of service, beyond being a family. If I had married, I certainly could have served. But primarily, my responsibility would be to my family.
Religious life offered me the opportunity to be of service in a broader capacity. Over 35 years, I’ve worked with youth and young adults, I have worked with the National Black Sisters Conference. I am a social worker by profession. And now I find myself with Pax Christi USA working on a national level.
I’ve always had that yearning of wanting to be of service, wanting to empower those who have been marginalized, on the periphery; oftentimes, wanting to be the voice of the voiceless.
At the same time, challenging those institutions, such as my own religious community, in terms of looking at the whole area of racism and how institutional racism continues to impact our church, our religious institutes, trying to bring that awareness to the dialogue.
What is your religious institution and what is its charism?
Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur: We are an international congregation, founded in Namur, Belgium. Our primary mission basically was to work with poor women and children. We were founded in 1804, and again, it was the French Revolution, and at that time, the women and children were the ones who were not being educated. St. Julie Billiart, who is our founder, and Françoise Blin de Bourdon, decided that was the mission: to reach out and educate poor women and children and to provide skills that could be used for life. That is very much a part of who I am. The charism fits very well. It’s part of my DNA, if you will.
What would you say to a woman who is weighing a vocation to religious life?
I would say to her, first of all, that she not be afraid to embrace the call. It is important (that) the charism of the institute also has to resonate with her desire; what’s that burning desire within her heart. It has to be that fit.
You really are of service to others. For me, it is being of service to the marginalized, the oppressed. And be willing to give wholeheartedly to that. You will find the peace and joy that only God can give you. I have found that over the 35 years in religious life. Are there challenges? Yes. Is there racism? Yes. But somehow God has provided for me.
My yes is every day. It is an ongoing commitment. It is every day I am saying, “Yes, Lord, I come to do your will, and what is it you are asking of me?”
One needs to experience life, too. I got my master’s degree when I entered. I don’t see a need for people to enter out of high school. I say, explore the world; get an education. And if that calling is there, you will be drawn to it.
If it is there and it is authentic, you will be drawn to it. Explore life. Get an education. Get involved in many different things.