Judge John McShane, Honorary Member of the Visitation Order

by Dave Nimmer*, Guest Blogger

Judge John McShane, from http://www.mncourts.gov

When John McShane was in his Hennepin District courtroom, he was known as Your Honor. When he’s at the Visitation Monastery in North Minneapolis, it’s more like Our Honor, a man whose wise counsel and manual labor have been solicited and treasured by the Sisters for three decades.

In fact, they have so appreciated his presence that they gave him their Cross of Affiliation, making Judge John McShane an honorary member of their Visitation Order.

His work with the Sisters stems from an expansive and eclectic life experience as a college grad, Army Lieutenant, Vietnam veteran, husband, father of three daughters, trial lawyer, district court judge, and law clerk to the legendary U.S. Judge Miles Lord. McShane credits Lord with demonstrating how NOT to be intimidated by the courtroom or the judges and lawyers who inhabit it. “The judge wanted me to know that I can do this job,” says McShane. “Miles believed both sides ought to be represented, but he had a special feeling for the underdog.”

John McShane’s special relationship with the Visitation goes back long before the Sisters arrived in North Minneapolis. McShane knew the Order from his school days in St. Louis, MO. His father was a physician who treated the St. Louis nuns. His sisters went to Visitation High School, and one was in the Visitation Monastery for 10 years. He once dated Sister Karen Mohan and recalls taking her to a May Day dance.

“We did dance the night away,” he says with a smile. Long after the dance and after McShane graduated from Notre Dame and St. Louis University School of Law, Sister Karen got in touch with him – this time in Minneapolis. She called to wish him Happy Birthday and to tell him that she and Sisters Mary Virginia Schmidt, Mary Margaret McKenzie, and Mary Frances Reis were about to start a new monastery on the North Side.

Handyman John McShane

He’d been working and living in the Twin Cities, a partner in a prestigious law firm that specialized in product liability. As a trial lawyer, he was busy, but he found himself telling Sister Karen, “If there’s ever anything I can do….”

The judge made good on the offer for over 30 years, advising the Sisters on mortgages and contracts and helping their neighbors navigate the legal and government bureaucracies: finding the right person at the right time who had the right answer. He’s also swept floors, painted walls, and washed windows.

“That’s the wonderful thing about John,” says Sister Karen. “He didn’t just come over here as a lawyer and judge. He came over to roll up his sleeves and go to work. He’s been here to do what needed to be done at that moment.”

Working with the Sisters has not been a one-way street. District court judges quickly develop a realistic sense of the parameters of human behavior, especially if they’ve presided in civil, criminal, and juvenile cases, as McShane has. But, from the Sisters’ influence, he has developed an even deeper understanding of his community and of the breadth and scope of its human condition.

“I’ve been at Fremont and Girard when bishops have been there. I’ve also been there when those who are down-and-out come over,” McShane says. “The Sisters treat them all the same – with love, respect, and welcome. That’s a lesson for all of us.”

The judge is close to all the Sisters and says they’ve all helped him with “matters of faith. We can disagree, and sometimes we do. But I always come away feeling better.” That’s particularly true of his relationship with Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie.

“I have known John as a brother almost as long as I have known myself as a Visitation Sister,” says Mary Margaret, noting his family’s connections to the St. Louis monastery. “John and I enjoy doing things together, but in the doing things together what holds us is the being together. Music is a comfort and entertainment for both of us.”

Lifelong friends: McShane and Sr. Mary Margaret

So is a good laugh. McShane recalls the end of one of his weekly visits when, saying goodbye to Margaret, he took her hand gently – or so he thought. She hollered, “Ow. Ow!” McShane quickly dropped her hand. What have I done to this poor woman? he wondered. Then she laughed. Gotcha.

“John grew into having a sense of humor that was defined by his family’s ability to laugh at self,” she says. “John mastered the appreciation of a good joke which he took care to keep clean and kind.”

Through the decades, the two have mastered a friendship that allows Sister Mary Margaret to confidently characterize his life with brevity, clarity, and honesty: “John,” she says, “cradles good with courage, but without knowing he is good.” She knows it, though, for she’s seen the life he’s lived.
  

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.
LIVE + JESUS! 

 

The Pearson Partners

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Jeff & Maryann Pearson reading at the Fremont House (1995)

Since the Sisters first opened the door of the Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis, no one has had a more persistent and consistent presence in their lives than Maryann and Jeff Pearson. In three decades, they’ve given freely of their time, talent, and treasure.

They’ve been at one time or another volunteers, donors, mentors, and organizers. For years, Maryann was a guiding force behind the monthly Salesian Monday nights, where the Sisters shared their mission and ministry with friends, neighbors, and benefactors. Maryann did everything from preparing a salad to running a meeting. For instance, she led a discussion of leadership traits with a Vietnamese Buddhist, and the two of them managed to include love, prayer, caring, and courage – right out of the Visitation playbook.

For his part, Jeff was a mentor to a teenager whom the Sisters felt could use a man in his life. For several years, Pearson was that figure in Wazeer Brown’s life. The lessons he imparted were about responsibility, accountability, and even durability – the fine art of hanging in there. Pearson was well-acquainted with these lessons as a husband, a U.S. Army veteran, a law school graduate, a father, and a 25-year CEO of a manufacturer’s rep business for electronic components.

“Jeff and Maryann have been with us so long and served us so faithfully,” says Sister Mary Frances Reis, “that now when they come over for an event or a celebration, it feels as though they are part of the heart and soul of the community.”

The pair earned their place in the life of the monastery. Jeff and Maryann read to children weekly during Windsock Time at the Fremont house, as many as 15 or 20 at a time. Wazeer was one of the kids. “I was glad to do it,” says Maryann, “because those kids had no one reading to them at home. It was a real privilege.”

Jeff Pearson and his dad working on the Fremont house

Before the Sisters moved into the Fremont house, Jeff’s father had been over helping make the place ready for them and for the hundreds of neighbors who would enter their door over the years. The hospitality and humility of the Visitation and of Saint Francis de Sales, Jeff recalls, has always comforted him, especially the admonition to “be who you are and be that well.”

Maryann followed that advice, and, after she earned her Master’s degree in Theology and Lay Spirituality from United Theological Seminary, she and Sister Mary Frances developed the practices, principles, procedures, and program for the Visitation Companions. The Vis Companions are men and women who choose to deepen their commitment to the Visitation ministry and the monastery through prayer, studying Salesian spirituality, and regular service – on the Northside AND in their own walks of life. “One of Maryann’s real insights was the notion that you didn’t have to live in the neighborhood to be a companion,” Sister Mary Frances recalls. “She believed you can be anywhere in the metro area and LIVE JESUS.”

Jeff and Maryann Pearson qualify as Companions. They’ve been immersed in the life since their two daughters enrolled at Visitation High School in Mendota Heights, where they first met Sister Mary Frances and Sister Katherine Mullin.

“I remember saying when our oldest daughter graduated in 1993,” recalls Maryann, “‘I don’t know what those women have, but I do know I’d like to get it.’” Almost 30 years later, the Pearsons got it — one month, one year, one task at a time.

The Sisters are grateful. Sister Karen Mohan marvels at the number of different tasks the couple has undertaken. “While Maryann guided the Vis companions, Jeff, ever the entrepreneur, heard our community’s desire to rent another space in order to accommodate a growing number of people who wanted to make retreats, pray, or meet together to study Salesian spirituality,” Sister Karen says. “He and I were commissioned to do this. When Brian [Mogren] got wind of it, the Holy Spirit inspired him to offer his home for these gatherings, and the St. Jane House was born. Its 10th anniversary celebration in June found Maryann and Jeff rolling up their sleeves to help with this party.”

Since the Pearsons have been with the Vis Minneapolis monastery from the start, it’s not surprising that they plan on getting older with the Sisters, who they feel will age with grace and peace. “They are my faith community,” says Jeff, “and I’d like to stay in step with them.”

Maryann agrees and takes it a little further. “They taught me to live in the present moment,” she says, “and to be not afraid. And they have changed my relationship with God.”

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.
LIVE + JESUS! 

 

Meet Alfreda Riddley, the Friend with a Heart of Gold

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Alfreda Riddley with her new Honda Accord

The Visitation Sisters have put me in the middle of a rewarding, unlikely relationship between an old friend of theirs and an older friend of mine. It all revolved around a 20-year-old Honda automobile that used to belong to Jim Shoop, a reporter colleague of mine dating back to our days at The Minneapolis Star in 1963.

During the past two decades, Shoop and I have used that car to go fishing dozens and dozens of times. It’s carried our rods, reels, tackle bags, and rain jackets. Reluctantly, he had to part with the car this year when he and his wife moved into a retirement village in Apple Valley. Their apartment was big enough for most of their “stuff,” but the garage had room for only one car. The Honda Accord had to go.

The Sisters knew of someone who needed a car: Alfreda Riddley. The former family liaison aide at Bethune Community School had been hoping for wheels for months. Shoop, who’s known the Sisters for years, was a willing donor.

“I got my car totaled out,” Riddley said, “and I was wondering what I’d do. Then I got a call from Sister Mary Frances (Reis). This Honda I have now is a sweet-running car.”

Riddley needed all the help she could get at the time. She’d just lost her job because of budget cuts in the Minneapolis School District. Since 2011, she had worked at Bethune and loved her job. She had started a resource room at the school that had a food pantry and access to computers.

Her duties included helping parents write resumes, get training, find jobs, seek housing, arrange daycare, and generally cope with the demanding task of raising a family and keeping kids interested in learning. One of the parents she’d “bugged” to stay involved with the school showed up at Bethune a few years later, telling Riddley he was grateful for the push he got from her.

Riddley, who has four children of her own, lives with a son in south Minneapolis. She’d like to get back to working with children, especially kids who are at risk. “To do this kind of work,” she said, “you have to have love, compassion – and passion. The reason I can help people is that I’ve been there, I know first-hand what they’re dealing with.”

Riddley came to Minnesota with her parents from west central Texas. They came looking for a better life. It was not without a few bumps in the road for Riddley, who experienced some racist taunts in school. But she graduated from Edison High School and got trained as a nurse’s assistant at MCTC (Minneapolis Community & Technical College).

She was working at Turning Point (a rehab center for men) in 1993 when she met Sister Mary Frances, who was on the board of directors. Riddley said she “loved” Sister from the very first. And she feels the same about the others, whom she describes as “never phony.”

“These ladies,” she said, “are kind and compassionate. They do care and that is for real.” Riddley also admits she likes the fact that the Sisters are feisty, a trait she shares with them. She gives off a no-nonsense demeanor, one that does not suffer fools or phonies.

“The truth is she’d do anything to help the children,” said Sister Mary Frances. “She has a heart of gold. When we are in need of help in this community, she answers the call. And she does it without fail.”

The best compliment of all comes from Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie, who suffered a stroke in 2016. She has let the other Sisters know that when Alfreda Riddley is sitting with her, she’s at ease and at peace.

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.
LIVE + JESUS! 

 

A New Role for Sister Mary Frances

Sister Mary Frances Reis, VHM

The Sisters have a special announcement about their community: Archbishop Hebda has appointed Sr. Mary Frances Reis to serve as a temporary Administrative Superior to the Visitation Sisters of Mendota Heights. She will now be serving one day per week in Mendota Heights.

Sr. Mary Frances will be returning to an old home. She both graduated from Visitation School and joined the religious community there. As a Sister in the school, she taught in grades Montessori through 12, founded the campus ministry program, and chaired the religion department. Then, in 1989, she joined three Sisters from St. Louis to found the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis, which we are so familiar with today.

To aid her in her new responsibility, Sr. Mary Frances will draw on the gifts and experiences of the Sisters currently living in Mendota Heights: Srs. Mary Denise Villaume, Mary Paula McCarthy, and Brigid Marie Keefe.

We ask for your prayers of strength and wisdom to guide Sr. Mary Frances in her new role.

Thank You for Sending our Kids to Camp!

by Sr. Mary Frances, VHM

110 Campers

Thanks to the amazing generosity of many benefactors who provided funds to sponsor 110 campers, we were able to send all these “happy campers” off to Catholic Youth Camp for a week of FUN, FAITH, AND FRIENDSHIP from June 24 to June 29. The Ascension Staff — in particular, CJ McGowan and Anne Attea — did a lot of work on this project. Visitation School in Mendota Heights did a tremendous job to see that every child has all the hygiene items needed, plus a flashlight and a beach towel.

Last but not least, Mary Pat Gallivan, who has done the administrative work on camp preparation with me for years, needs a big shout-out!!! We are passing the baton on to CJ at Ascension now and trusting that this wonderful tradition will live on for our kids and their families!

When I checked in last night, the fantastic camp director, Natalie King, told me that all the kids are settled in with their luggage in just the cabin they hoped for. Before bedtime, they kicked off their wonderful week with a pep fest!

Our part now is to pray for good weather, safety, and good spirits, along with living out the camp’s motto: FUN, FAITH, AND FRIENDSHIP. Please hold the Staff in special prayer.

Gratefully,

Sister Mary Frances and All the Visitation Sisters

Campers Saying Good-Bye

The Visitation Bridge between Multi-Cultural Communities

by Anna Dourgarian

 

Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, MN, has a special relationship with the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis. They are two Salesian communities within 15 miles of each other. The students respect the Minneapolis Sisters, and the Sisters appreciate the School’s holiday gifts for their neighbors. But their relationship goes deeper: together, the communities inspire love for God by inspiring love between diverse people. With their inner-city monastery, the Minneapolis Sisters change the way the students engage with the world.

Last February, I had the privilege of interviewing four Visitation high school seniors: Sarah Koury, Mary Kenny, Bridget Hayes, and Jules Staelgraeve. It was the middle of the semester, a relentlessly stressful time, and yet there they were, taking time to talk with me about the Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis. It was profoundly apparent that interacting with the Sisters and their North Minneapolis neighbors had changed the students: they had become more comfortable with people who are different from them, and they had learned to appreciate the importance of relationships.

Working with people who are different from us is challenging: it takes patience, inner strength, and empathy. It is so easy to avoid a situation that would require it! But the Sisters give the students an opportunity, and the students have embraced it.

Visitation Students help at winter coat drive

Visitation Students help at winter coat drive

  • Mary committed a week to the annual Visitation mission trip, and she appreciated it so much that Sister Suzanne invited her to North Minneapolis afterwards. Initially, Mary was intimidated by the neighborhood’s reputation, but the guidance of the Sisters transformed her perception, and she returned eagerly to help with the Thanksgiving food delivery, the winter coat drive, and the Christmas stocking drop-off.
  • Jules was also at the Thanksgiving food delivery, as well as the Halloween and Christmas parties. The influence of the Sisters became apparent after she left: she realized she was suddenly more accepting. She works with people of diverse ethnicities, where no one looks like her, and she noticed that it was easier to talk them because of what she had learned from the Sisters.
  • For Sarah, talking with North Minneapolis neighbors about their lives made her recognize her own comfortable lifestyle for what it is. Now, when she hears her classmates stress out about homework, she appreciates how fortunate they are not to be stressing out about survival.
  • Bridget witnessed the importance of recognizing and responding to others’ needs. She saw how the Sisters engaged with children on Halloween, inviting them out of the cold to sing songs when they had only asked for candy. She emulated their actions as a volunteer at Jeremiah House, a support program for single mothers, recognizing the needs of the moms beyond her explicit duties and delivering wholeheartedly, just like she saw the Sisters do.

These stories are a small peek at the transformation that Visitation School and the Visitation Sisters are instigating together. It started with a week-long high school mission trip. A Christmas party. A food delivery. It has turned into a bridge across cultural boundaries.

The transformation continues. Understanding and serving diverse people is a stepping stone to the core feature of the Sisters’ presence in North Minneapolis: forming a loving bond with their neighbors. The Visitation students have learned this precious art of building a relationship.

Sarah serves coffee at a Salesian Monday Night

Sarah serves coffee at a Salesian Monday Night and befriends Khalilah, one of the Sisters’ neighbors

  • At Sarah’s first service project, a Salesian Monday Night meeting, she walked into Girard House and instantly felt at home. The house was humming with conversation and laughter, and she was shocked about how instantly the community accepted her, a stranger. She felt like she was participating in the event, not volunteering for it. She filled some water glasses but otherwise spent the evening chatting away. She realized that this was the deeper meaning of “service”: participating in community.
  • Jules treasures a memory of the Sisters’ Christmas party for children, where she didn’t think much was going on, but the children were having the time of their lives. All she did was read them stories, introduce them to Santa, and pray with them. Apparently, these small displays of warmth were enough to inspire the joy of Christmas.
  • Bridget learned not only how to make people feel comfortable but also how to appreciate when someone else comforted her. She admired how the Sisters invited friends inside, sat them on the couch, and fed them, and she recognized the same openhearted generosity in a friend’s mom who, just like the Sisters, welcomed Bridget into her home. Bridget experienced a new sense of gratitude.
  • Mary was pleasantly surprised to encounter generosity from grocery stores who were more than willing to donate discounted turkeys to the Visitation turkey drive. Her eyes were opened to the potential for engagement with the wider community.

These stories speak to the Visitation School motto: Non Scholae, Sed Vitae (Not for School, but for Life). It reminds students that life is about more than books and exams. The Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis have made this motto a reality by teaching the students to embrace the lifelong virtues of community and love.

Listening to these stories, I realized that the Minneapolis Sisters had transformed how the students relate to other people by transforming who they were as individuals. Sarah is a beautiful example. Her experiences with the Sisters changed her faith and who she wants to be. She prays more. She is more modest about how she dresses and what she posts on Facebook. Her faith is spilling over into her community, inspiring her family, her classmates, and even the little girl she nannies. She says that the Sisters and their neighbors helped her rebuild herself into someone she wants to be. She now lives a life more devoted to God and to service.

The Minneapolis Sisters inspire goodness in the students, who then embrace a vision of love for their diverse community.

Spring in North Minneapolis

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Spring has been a long time coming this year, and I particularly welcome the season at the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis. Spring suits the homes on Fremont and Girard with their gardens, trees, and neighbors. Sometimes when I come over for evening prayer, I spend 15 or 20 minutes on the back step of the Fremont house, looking over the garden. It’s a peaceful and mindful place: neat rows, green shoots, colorful flowers. I love the contrast from Fremont to Girard, where mulch and flowers replace a lawn; in the shade of the afternoon, it looks like a forest floor.

The garden has always attracted my attention for its eclectic nature, from tulips to tomatoes. The cool thing is they’re all mixed together, in the same patch of ground. The garden becomes a metaphor for the neighborhood in its diversity of colors and cultures. The neighbors seem to respect the garden. It doesn’t get trashed or trampled. They volunteer to weed, mulch, and hoe under the guidance of Sister Katherine Mullin.

Around the side of Fremont house are Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie’s rose bushes. She has minded, nurtured, and observed the roses for more than a decade. This year the task falls to Sister Brenda Lisenby, probably with a little advice now and then from Sister Mary Margaret.

This spring, the vitality of the garden reflects the liveliness of the neighborhood.

Last weekend, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Home Tour featured the Fremont house (probably the only house with a chapel!). Hundreds of visitors enjoyed the old architecture and recent renovations: the engraved banister, the oak floors, the chapel that used to be a library with four motorcycles. Newcomers were introduced to the gentle presence of the Sisters, and old friends took the opportunity to drop by and say hi.

A few blocks away, Cookie Cart celebrates its 30th anniversary on West Broadway Avenue. Three decades ago, Sister Jean Thuerauf’s brainchild became a permanent bakery to provide teenagers with lasting and meaningful work. This year the non-profit Cookie Cart will employ 200 teens working 30,000 hours, and 65 of the young men and women will complete a leadership training course. Sister Mary Frances Reis spoke at an anniversary ceremony early last month, praising Sister Jean for her savvy and spirit. “We arrived a year after she got started,” Reis said, “and we were equally glad to see each other on the North Side.”

Down the street from the Cookie Cart is the Breaking Bread Café, a child of the Appetite for Change nonprofit. I can sit at a table on their patio and order a late breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon. I like to sit outside on Broadway, combining spring and the street. Like the Cookie Cart, Breaking Bread is about more than food: it creates a gathering place for neighbors, offers new jobs, and trains local residents.

I go back 30 years with the Fremont house, when Sister Mary Frances and I were asking a Minneapolis City Council committee for a conditional-use permit so four nuns could live in a single-family house. We were lobbying rookies, but we prevailed. Three decades later, so have the Sisters, so has their garden, and so has the neighborhood.

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.
LIVE + JESUS! 

 

Earth Day Meditation

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde

My waking morning meditation hour began this Earth Day on Facebook. With a tap to my smart phone screen, I watched, in silence, the video of an invitation to replace plastic straws with stainless steel ones. Re-posted by a parent friend at my daughter’s Catholic school, I was moved to be in solidarity with this kind of environmental consciousness, this kind of invitation to act and engage with opportunities to choose different ways we may be stewards of this earth, that we may respect what God has created.

A month ago, in my waking, another voice of environmental consciousness came to me in my waking. It was that of Fr. Thomas Berry, shared in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation, which arrives in my inbox each day.

Fr. Berry was quoted:

“The task of renewing Earth belongs to Earth, as the renewal of any organism [even the church] takes place from within. Yet we humans have our own special role, a leading role in the renewal, just as we had the dominant role in the devastation. We can fulfill this role, however, only if we move our basic life orientation from a dominant anthropocentrism to a dominant ecocentrism. In effecting this change, we need to listen to the voices of Earth and its multitude of living and non-living modes of expression.”*

The act of listening to our earth, to creation, moves me deeply. Shifting sideways from being at the center of this renewal, to place our precious Earth and her voice at the center, is a holy act, a humble act. We can ask: What is the earth saying to us? How is God speaking to us through her?

Sea Turtle, from earthjustice.org

I think of how God spoke to me in this morning’s video. As I watched in silence the removal of a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose, I contemplated the horror of that experience. Then, I imagined God’s delight in making turtles. Making the waters. Making turtles dive and snap, gliding elegantly around the earth through the ocean’s blue depths. The experience of sadness and awe, pain and love, all come together in my body in this kind of contemplation of the earth at the center of the renewal. This, for me, is God speaking through creation. I am listening.

While Berry touches in on grief for extinct life in his writing, he also points toward profound hope in our renewal process. Fr. Berry’s identification of the renewal process —as starting within —touches something deep within me. It affirms a power and also a relationship. A right relationship we are called to with creation, one another, with ourselves, with God.

Perhaps this re-orientation, this right relationship, this invitation to listen to God through our Earth speaks to you, too, this day?

In peace, prayers, listening solidarity,

Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion

*Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Orbis Books: 2014), 77-78.

Sr. Mary Margaret’s 12 Step Program for White Privilege

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Sister Mary Margaret, VHM

When I first heard about Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie’s idea to start a 12-Step Group to deal with the corrosive effects of white privilege on her life and on others, I was skeptical. I’ve been going to 12-Step meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for more than 15 years, and I couldn’t quite see how this would work.

I thought AA’s goal was simple: to help people abstain from drugs and alcohol. In contrast, such a group for white privilege could turn into a debating society – edgy, angry, and defensive. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that those 12 steps are a blueprint to living a spiritual life of honesty, humility, integrity, and charity. And that’s what Sr. Mary Margaret’s life and the lives of her Visitation Sisters have been about for almost 30 years in north Minneapolis.

Besides, this was Sr. Mary Margaret asking, and she’s been an elder, a mentor, an adviser, and a spiritual mother to me since we first met in 1989. When I’m down on one knee sucking for air, I run to Sr. Mary Margaret for comfort and counsel.

I also think that Sr. Mary Margaret, still dealing with the effects of a stroke she suffered in 2016, has a desire to put her spiritual house in good order, dealing with circumstances that shaped her life: growing up white in Decatur, IL; going to nursing school in Springfield, IL; and earning a degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

I haven’t thought much about white privilege, but I grew up in Fond du Lac, 60 miles north of Milwaukee. As I reflect on it, I had all the advantages: a stable home, a steady income, a good school, a welcoming community, and a grandmother with some money to take us traveling to California. So maybe I did belong to what Sr. Mary Margaret sought.

She chose the first participants in this group of 10 that meets once a month on a Sunday afternoon. We are black and white, men and women, younger and older. We are bound by a desire to heal old wounds, make amends, and improve our awareness of the plights and problems of our brothers and sisters.

Like our AA predecessors, we listen as much as we talk. What is said in the meeting stays in the meeting. Our desire is not to “fix” our colleagues but to heal ourselves – by talking honestly, listening carefully, and thinking soulfully.

The steps we follow are lifted out of the AA Big Book, something we do with respect and reverence. We have tailored them carefully to suit our mission. The first step is to “admit we are powerless over the pervasive and persistent presence of white privilege and the resulting racism and bigotry, and [admit] that our lives have become less than they could be.” Then, the second step is to “come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to the loving, caring human beings we are intended to be.”

The last step, 12, comes directly from AA’s Big Book, with no change at all: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, try to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Our first meeting was in January 2018, and we’ve shared stories that are personal, poignant, painful, and powerful. Sr. Mary Margaret set the tone in that initial meeting when she read from a poem by Maya Angelo, “Touched by an Angel”:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

To one degree or another, our souls are laid bare in these meetings, sometimes with resentments from the discrimination of police officers, Christian clergy, or public officials, and sometimes with the residual guilt from our own good fortune.

I recall an incident when I was a high school senior, riding around on a Friday night with a couple of guys I didn’t know very well. We pulled into a gas station, bought a couple of bucks’ worth, and before we left one of the guys lifted a tin of car wax and slipped it into his back pocket. I didn’t know about it until we were a mile away, but then I did not insist that we go back and return it.

The next day a police officer appeared at my door. The station owner had matched one of the guys from a photo in a high school yearbook, and he fingered me as a ride-along. I quickly “fessed up,” and the cop gave me a five-minute lecture on the doorstep about honor and honesty. He also told my father. What he did NOT do was arrest me.

I’ve heard enough stories from the black men at our meeting to know they were not afforded the same privilege I got from a cop who knew my father. I have no doubt that a black kid in my situation would have been taken downtown, written up, and saddled with a record. I got away clean, and that’s the way I entered the U.S. Army and the University of Wisconsin. That seems to me to describe white privilege.

When we started our little group, I wondered how steps promulgated to deal with an addiction would deal with an attitude. Months later, I’m satisfied with an answer: they work. We belong in this milieu. Consider the last paragraph of the first half of AA’s Big Book:

Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to God and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the fellowship of the spirit and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.

Thanks to Sr. Mary Margaret, we have begun the journey.

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.
LIVE + JESUS! 

 

Celebrating National Catholic Sisters Week

by Sr. Karen Mohan, VHM

Sister Karen as a novice in St. Louis with her sisters

When my youngest sister, Colleen, e-mailed me this photo a few days ago, she didn’t know that she was sending it during a week designated as “National Catholic Sisters Week,” March 8-14. This picture shows me as a novice with my three sisters visiting at the St. Louis Visitation Monastery. I spent the first 24 years of my religious life in that beautiful community before moving to north Minneapolis to begin our urban monastery.

One glance at this picture makes it clear that times have changed! The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) with its theme of the “universal call to holiness” has encouraged all Catholics to realize that it is each Christian’s baptismal commitment that shapes her/his response to living the Gospel. For Religious Women and Men, that response comes by making public vows that express our desire to “live our baptismal commitment out loud” for Jesus Christ, in community, and with a particular “spirit” or “charism” guiding us.

In the Visitation Order, that charism comes through the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, the founders of our Order in 1610. As we strive to live our motto, “Live Jesus,” we hope to become more like Jesus and to embody the words of St. Francis de Sales, “I am as human as can be.”  By embracing our humanity, I hear echoes of these words of the early Church father St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” I have been drawn to this quote for many years because it encourages me to become more like Jesus by “being who you are and being that well” (St. Francis de Sales). It takes a lifetime to attain such wholeness/holiness. I’m “in it” for the long haul!

Living the way of love expressed in the vows of poverty (simple living), celibacy (a prophetic, countercultural way of loving), and obedience (listening to the Spirit in community) has a goal: to become ever freer interiorly and so give witness to the freedom that will be ours when we see God face to face.

Sister Brenda as a novice in Minneapolis with her sisters

I’m including a second photo in this blog. This one is of our current novice, Sister Brenda Lisenby, at her Grandmother’s 90th birthday party last July! Sr. Brenda looks a little different than my novice “look” of 1965, and she is bringing a very different background and life experience to the Visitation than most of us who are “born and bred” Catholics.  Brenda’s 20 years as a Baptist missionary in China led her into the Catholic Church and eventually to the Minneapolis Visitation. How grateful we are for her attentiveness to God’s Spirit leading her! Sr. Brenda will make her first profession of vows on May 12, 2018.  She – and all of us Religious Women– give God the promise of our present and the trust of our future as we live our lives as Sisters.

I love my life of prayer, community, and service through the lens of the Visitation. May other women listening to the call of the Gospel in their lives respond generously, becoming more fully alive in the process! Our community welcomes you to consider joining us either in our monastic community or through one of our engagements: as a Vis Companion, as a VIP, or in our Monastic Immersion Program.