National Catholic Sisters Week Highlights Women’s Leadership

For Women’s History Month this March, DWN invited a variety guest authors to share their insights. Read on to see why #DePaulWomenRock!

Patricia Bombard, BVM
Patricia Bombard, BVM

By Patricia Bombard, BVM

March is my favorite month of the year. There are so many life-giving things to celebrate during March, including Women’s History Month. This year there is an added event: National Catholic Sisters Week, which will debut March 8-14. Last August, St. Catherine University in Minnesota received a $3.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation “to launch an initiative to heighten public awareness of the lives and contributions of Catholic sisters.”

According to organizers at St. Catherine’s, the new initiative will center on the contributions of Catholic sisters in five areas:

  1. Education
  2. Health care
  3. Social change
  4. The Church and spiritual life
  5. Women’s leadership

Here at DePaul, it is the leadership story of Louise de Marillac, co-founder with St. Vincent de Paul of the Daughters of Charity, which especially inspires us. Though she was born out of wedlock, and never knew her mother, Louise had a loving relationship with her father, Louis de Marillac, who saw to her education and care. Later, as a young widow and single parent, Louise met Vincent, who became her spiritual advisor.

Strongly motivated by her faith, and encouraged by Vincent, Louise eventually gathered a small community of women dedicated to serving the poor by visiting them in their own homes. Perhaps inspired by her own vulnerable background, Louise later led the women in expanding their charitable works to the care of abandoned children. They began by removing 12 children from a government-run facility into their own home. Within five years, the women were caring for as many as 1,200 infants.

Still not finished, the women eventually conducted soup kitchens at three sites in Paris, serving as many as 7,000 meals a day. They also worked to improve the living conditions for prisoners and opened schools to teach occupational skills to poor girls. They also established homes for the elderly, who earned a little money for personal goods through the sale of craft items.

Louise directed all of these activities through a collaborative leadership style that integrated contemplation and action and made extensive use of what we might call today “social networking.”

Louise once wrote to her sisters in community regarding the importance of integrating one’s inner sense of virtue with one’s outer life of serving others: “Oh, my dear Sisters, it is not enough to be Daughters of Charity in name, and it is not enough to be in the service of the poor sick, you must possess the true and solid virtues which you know are essential if you are to accomplish well the work in which you are so happy to be employed. Otherwise, Sisters, your work would be practically useless.”

Sr. Margaret John Kelly, D.C., in writing about Louise’s leadership, describes Louise as a proponent of “gentle power,” which she understood as power tempered by gentleness. Yet at the same time, Kelly says, Louise was a “total realist about her sisters and matched their training to their talents.”

Richard McCullen, C.M., writes that Louise “had a facility of collaborating easily with others.” Vincent himself described her as always expressing “humility, charity, meekness and patience” while at the same time exhibiting “a firmness in all her government” and “sound judgment.”

With Vincent’s help, Louise organized the women as the Daughters of Charity, a community of sisters that eventually spread worldwide. During her lifetime, Louise often wrote to the women stationed away from Paris. Sr. Lucy Archer writes of Louise’s concern for the women expressed in her letters: “Nearly every letter contains news of relatives, enquiries about this one, messages to another…these letters show what thoroughly homely relations existed between Louise and her spiritual daughters.”

Today, there are 18,000 members of the Daughters of Charity serving in 94 countries.

St. Catherine University offers a list of ideas for how other colleges and universities can participate in National Catholic Sisters Week.

If you have yet to see it, I highly recommend viewing “Band of Sisters,” a film by Mary Fishman that premiered in Chicago in 2012. It tells the story of Catholic sisters and their movement into new works of social justice after Vatican II and features many sisters from the Chicago area. In addition, you can pick up a copy of “Sewing Hope,” the extraordinary story of Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe, who received an honorary degree from DePaul’s School for New Learning last December in recognition of her work with young girls brutalized by Ugandan rebels.

It’s March—spring is coming. Get inspired by these women, then go out and spread some seeds of new life!

Patricia Bombard, BVM, is the director of DePaul University’s Vincent on Leadership: The Hay Project, which focuses on research, education and training inspired by the leadership legacy of St. Vincent de Paul. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Service.

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