By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 12, 2021
FLOWERY BRANCH—Sister Susan Arcaro has spent nearly three decades in the Archdiocese of Atlanta helping others get to the core of faith by seeing how God stirs their souls.
Aiding others to listen to that innermost voice teaches her again and again how Christians are to mirror God’s love.
“As Francis of Assisi said, not with words, but by the way you live your life,” she shared.
Sister Susan, 78, has been a member of a religious congregation for 60 years, with nearly half of it spent ministering here.
A ministry renewing others’ spirits
In 1961, Sister Susan followed a calling to live as a religious sister. It took her to a teaching community for more than a dozen years, then in the mid-1970s, she received permission to leave one congregation of sisters to enter another.
Sister Susan’s diamond anniversary of religious life was celebrated at her parish, Flowery Branch’s Prince of Peace Church. An estimated 200 people filled the church pews on Saturday, Oct. 30, to mark the occasion with a choir 30-singers strong.
Father Eric Hill, the former parish pastor, said during Mass how Sister Susan’s work renewed an immeasurable number of people as she helped them tap into God’s desire for their lives.
“You’ve walked people through difficult times. Moments of great hardship and loss, moments of great joy and excitement as they begin new experiences and welcome new members in their family and you were that gentle—and continue to be that gentle—and loving presence to so many,” said Father Hill.
People leave her spiritual talks uplifted and encouraged and with that renewed spirit touch other lives and pass it forward.
“It’s like throwing the rock in the lake, and the ripples just keep going forever,” he said.
Immigrant family fostered faith
The daughter of Jerome and Natalie Arcaro, both factory workers in Waterbury, Connecticut, Sister Susan’s faith was nurtured in parishes and parochial schools of Italian families like her own. She said her father was a “traditional Italian man,” who’d give a friend the shirt off his back and drive the family to church but rarely enter it as she grew up. Her mother carried a “deep, simple faith,” she said.
Her mother would tell the story of how the nun came home from kindergarten one day and said, “Mom, you gave half of your heart to God and half to Dad, but I’m going to give my whole heart to God and be a nun.”
It is a goal she continues to work on, said Sister Susan during a Zoom call.
By high school, she felt a pull to religious life. A month after graduation, the 18-year-old entered the Felician Sisters and took vows. She worked as a grade school teacher, and the younger the students the better the teaching experience, she said with a smile.
She trained in Philadelphia to work in a Montessori school. But she felt a sense of peace was missing, so with permission in the mid-1970s she joined the Cenacle Sisters. It was founded in early 19th century France. The full name is Congregation of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle. Its purpose is rooted in “the first Cenacle in Jerusalem, the Upper Room” with a ministry of leading others in prayer, according to its website. In 1978, Sister Susan took her final vows with the Cenacle sisters.
In 1992, she and another Cenacle sister came to Atlanta with its then small Catholic community, which numbered less than 5% of the population. Today, Catholics account for about 15%. They moved into a home near the Carmel Retreat Center in Hoschton, outside Athens.
The duo introduced themselves to others over meals.
“We never had lunch alone,” she said. Gradually, word got around and parishes asked the two to serve as spiritual directors and lead parish missions. “And so our ministry began to take off. And we were as happy as clams,” she said.
Sister Barbara Young joined her a few years later. The two women for 25 years offered their spiritual ministry. A brain injury from a fall hospitalized Sister Barbara. Sister Susan kept vigil at her bed side for days. Sister Barbara died in October 2019.
Engaging with God
For Sister Susan, her goal is to accompany people as they engage with God in their lives.
With this mission, the religious sister serves as a mentor for the director of the Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House, Maria Cressler. Since 2006, they have shared their Italian heritage and participated in the Spring Hill College Spiritual Direction Formation program. They grieved losing their parents around the same time.
“You feel like you have met an old friend. She embodies wisdom, age and grace,” said Cressler in an email about her longtime friend. “She has seen life, she has a compassionate heart and knows personally the love of God.”
Rose Rivera, who has known Sister Susan for some 30 years, said her friend leads with kindness and shows it to everyone she meets. Rivera said her friend is well loved at the parish, as people showered her with affection at the reception and standing in line for photos.
“I’m really glad I have her as a friend,” said Rivera.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Sister Susan found herself living alone and cut off from friends. Instead of focusing on her loneliness, she reconsidered ways to expand her ministry, she said. Like others, she embraced video calls on Zoom to reach friends and organized family gatherings online. She sewed masks for nursing homes. She phoned a handful of people daily who she figured were by themselves. With precautions, she became a lector for a live-streamed daily Mass.
Always a consolation to others in their spiritual lives, Sister Susan said she would have the prophet Jeremiah’s hope-filled words about God’s care for people etched on her tombstone.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love,” she recited the Bible verse from memory. “And so I am constant in my affection for you.”