Feeding the poor enriches the lives of sisters

By Kate Oatis

For two Bernardine Franciscan sisters, vocation has led to a long, rich life of service and prayer.

Sister Sandra Lyons, O.S.F. and Sister Carolyn Muus, O.S.F. in front of the Bernardine Center.

Image: Sister Sandra Lyons, O.S.F. (far left) and Sister Carolyn Muus, O.S.F. (far right) in front of the Bernardine Center with Nicole and Marten, two people who shared in a brunch at the center.

Most people arrive to the Bernardine Center in Chester, Pennsylvania looking for help. Bernardine Franciscan Sisters Sandra Lyons and Carolyn Muus arrive there each day to give it.

Chester, part of the second-hungriest congressional district in the country, is home to the center, which offers supplemental meals and programs to low-income individuals and families. The sisters also provide classes on anger management, nutrition, and parenting. Their bigger work, though, is in food distribution. Lyons and Muus are the center’s director and hospitality coordinator, respectively.

Lyons distributes certificates
Lyons distributes certificates to people who have completed the Bernardine Center’s anger management classes.

The sisters provide nine days of meals per month—27 meals—to each family member they serve. On average, that’s 650 individuals a month and a total of more than 17,000 meals.

The meals are meant to be a supplement, not a family’s only food source, Lyons says. “People with low incomes can’t afford food for a whole month so we’re helping them.”

Dedication to poor

Helping people is something Lyons discovered she wanted to do back in high school in Philadelphia. She didn’t know it at the time, but her ninth-grade teacher, Bernardine Franciscan Sister Rose MacDermott, had a big effect on her. Lyons’ call to religious life was first awakened and nurtured by her teacher’s life of service, particularly her social justice and peace ministry.

Muus picks fresh produce from the center’s garden.
Muus picks fresh produce

The “spark” of a religious calling grew, Lyons says. “When Sister asked me if I’d ever thought of becoming a sister, I listened. It became a possibility.”

It wasn’t until she was a high-school senior in Hawaii, however, that Lyons told her parents during a discussion about college that she planned to join the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters, then based in Radnor, Pennsylvania.

“They were so surprised, they about dropped their teeth. They sent my siblings away from the dinner table to talk to me,” Lyons says. “They had thought, as I had for a long time, that I wanted to become a mother and have lots of children. That was a reasonable expectation because Dad was in the Navy and Mom was at home and I was the oldest of five children.”

Lyons recently celebrated her 50-year Jubilee as a sister, and it’s still evident to her that becoming a sister was the right decision. Helping Lyons discern her vocation wasn’t MacDermott’s only gift. She also founded the Bernardine Center in 1986, and Lyons became director in 2007, several years after the older sister retired.

“Rose was dedicated to the poor,” Lyons says. “When she started the Bernardine Center as a food pantry, it was an expression of her dedication to social justice. Most of our other ministries are in education and health care. This was a justice tangent, which resonated with me.”

Muus and volunteers prepare hoagies
Muus and volunteers prepare hoagies for a meal.

The Bernardine Franciscans provide some financial support to the center. Other support comes from donations from churches and individuals and in-kind donations of food.

“The center is advocating for people who’ve had a lot of barriers put up for them—they find it hard to get jobs, they are angry, they don’t know how to parent. Advocacy for them is food and educational programs that will help lift them out of poverty,” she says.

Lyons is also the chairperson for the Delaware County Interfaith Food Assistance Network, of which the center is a member. “We send letters to food stores to get donations and we request that they donate food to a local pantry in the area rather than to the big centers in Philadelphia,” she says.

Nurturing her own spirituality with prayer is as important to her as helping the poor. “After my shower and coffee each morning, I sit down for a 30-minute reflection and then my breviary prayers,” she says. “It gives me a grounding for the day. As the day progresses, I hope I can be receptive to whatever comes to me and to be available to people.”

Prayerful ministry

Service and relying on prayer to sustain her are also essential to Sister Carolyn Muus, the Bernardine Center’s hospitality coordinator.

“My whole day is a prayer,” Muus says. “When I am serving people, they are God in disguise. When we open the door for brunch, which we offer three times a week, we are letting the Lord in. Without prayer, it is nothing. The people are Christ. We let them in with that intention.”

Muus and a volunteer prepare a meal at the Bernardine Center.
Muus and a volunteer prepare a meal at the Bernardine Center.

Muus was raised Methodist in Liberia and has been a sister for 52 years. As a student at the Bernardine Franciscans’ boarding school in Liberia, she became very impressed by the mother general, whom she remembers as being very kind.

“I told her I wanted to be like her,” Muus says. “I was just so impressed with how the sisters interacted with each other and with the kindness they showed me when I had a problem.”

Muus’ mother was Liberian and her father Danish. “My mother did not want me to become a Catholic,” she says, but “I wouldn’t give it up. As I grew older, I would explore why I became a sister and why I stayed in the community and understood that God wanted me for something.”

Today, that “something” is serving the young, old, men, women, and children who walk through the door at the center. “You need to respect them and not preach to them. We offer them hospitality. We don’t make them pray before they eat. We show them respect,” she says.

Living in community provides Muus with opportunities for communal prayer. “We make time in the morning for prayers together and for private prayers. Some of the sisters I live with now taught me in Liberia. It is amazing what God has in store for each of us,” she says.

At a Women’s Empowerment Dinner, two attendees receive Peace Doves.
At a Women’s Empowerment Dinner, two attendees receive Peace Doves for their windows at home. The Bernardine Center’s Women’s Peace Empowerment Initiative promotes personal and community peace-making in one’s daily activities through peer support, prayer, and discussion.

Muus is glad she lives relatively close—just 90 minutes away—from her community’s motherhouse in Reading, Pennsylvania. “We all get together for fundraisers, community days, elections, and other events and celebrations.”

Lyons (at left) with a graduate of the Super Cupboard Program, offered by the Bernardine Center. Super Cupboard educates and provides peer support to parents of young children who frequently use food pantries. They learn nutrition, food preparation, food budgeting, and other life skills.
Lyons (at left) with a graduate of the Super Cupboard Program.

When she was a young woman, yearning to become Catholic and to serve God as a Bernardine Franciscan, Muus says she did not know, of course, what the future held for her or what God had in mind for her. About people today discerning their calls to religious life, she says, “They have to just keep listening to the call and God will do the rest. They should just do their best and leave the success to God.”

Blessing of service

Today, nearly 30 years after its founding, the Bernardine Center is blessing the people it serves through meals, classes, and programs. And it’s blessing the women who serve there.

Lyons is committed to making her ministry a prayerful priority. “I’m on a hospital board that wanted to meet on Tuesday mornings once a month,” Lyons says. “I couldn’t do it because of my prayer time, so I said no. I try to be physically and psychologically present to what I’m doing. And each evening, I review the day to see if there was anything I could have done better.”

As for Muus, she is grateful and pleased to have taken her own advice about doing one’s best and leaving the success to God because today she says, “I am very happy. God has blessed me.” 

Kate Oatis
Kate Oatis is owner of Oatis Communications and has written for National Catholic Reporter. She is the former features editor for the Catholic Chronicle in Toledo, Ohio. She can be contacted at kaoatis@yahoo.com.




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