My week with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester

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Image: “If everyone in the U.S. took one week out of the year to volunteer and serve others in some way, so many of the problems that burden America would be solved,” says Chris, a volunteer from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, seen helping a student with math at Hope Hall.

ThIs past spring,
I saw first-hand how hard sisters work and how important their ministries are to the life of their religious community and to the people they serve. I spent a week with the SSJ Volunteer Program, which was founded in 1996 by Sisters Donna Del Santo, S.S.J. and Marilyn Pray, S.S.J. as a way to provide opportunities for young people to be part of the ministries of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, New York and experience first-hand the joys and challenges involved in Christian service.

The SSJ Volunteers live in community and share their meals and work. This extensive time together allows them to reflect on how they serve the people at their ministry sites and how their own lives are affected by the experience. More than 400 young people have participated. Some college groups have returned for a second, third, and even tenth visit. Many volunteers have inquired about religious life, and three former volunteers have entered the congregation as a result of their live-in and volunteer involvement with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester.

With me were groups of young people from AmeriCorps and Carroll College in Helena, Montana. We are all better for the experience and definitely came away with a deep appreciation for the service of the sisters, for the gifts we’ve each been given, and the importance of sharing those gifts with others in need.

Monday: Nativity Prep
Nativity Prep is a Roman Catholic middle school designed for self-motivated, economically disadvantaged students whose potential for academic success has been compromised by negative social and economic factors. Located in the South Wedge of Rochester, it is next door to the sisters’ convent. The school has a mision of peace and emphasizes respect, tolerance, service, leadership, and scholarship.

Brittany (at left), a volunteer, and a first-grade student at Nazareth Hall.
Brittany, a volunteer, and a first-grade student at Nazareth Hall.
The day I was at Nativity we had to take a student home to change her pants (they were not part of the school uniform). As I was driving with Ms. Dianne, the principal, I had a chance to take in the neighborhood. It was like nothing I had ever seen. Our student was being raised by her grandmother, and she couldn’t go outside to play due to the violence in the community, a lot of it drug-related. Nativity is a safe haven for its students and gives them a loving and enriching learning environment where they can thrive and, at least for at time, escape the chaos and danger.

Around 7:30 p.m. the volunteers closed out the day with daily reflection. The best line of the night came from Sister Donna when she said that ministry is “being with the people” and working with them. It’s just that simple.

Tuesday morning: Nazareth School
Nazareth was originally a high school that closed as the result of low enrollment and financial issues. Sister Margaret, the current principal and a former superintendent of Catholic schools, opened a new elementary school on the grounds about one year ago and has since transformed it into a viable and highly respected institution. Nazareth School sits in an area with more than 1,000 refugee families. Sister Marilyn has been working on developing an American Refugee Committee program at Nazareth to help these refugees get acclimated to life in Rochester.

The convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The house has 14 bedrooms and can accommodate around 18 people.
The convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The house has 14 bedrooms and can accommodate around 18 people.
I stopped in to chat with Sister Margaret and Sister Melissa about the school. While I was talking with them, a young girl probably in fourth or fifth grade was skipping down the hall and waving. She was so excited and happy to be in the school. The kids, teachers, and administrators are all enthusiastic about being here. There are 15 active sisters at Nazareth. They are present to the children, and that gives students the ability to see that being a member of a religious order means you can do many things.

Sister Margaret is also active among the students. You will rarely find her at her desk. She is constantly roaming the halls, talking with students and teachers. While I was there, she was interviewing every sixth-grader to make sure they were going to continue to work hard when they entered middle school and high school.

Tuesday afternoon: Hope Hall
Hope Hall got its name from a student who said that being at the school was the first time he had felt hope and had not been afraid to be himself. Established in 1994, Hope Hall provides an opportunity for “educationally stranded” children to become successful lifelong learners. Serving students in grades three through 12 from 19 school districts in the greater Rochester area, Hope Hall’s nurturing, nonthreatening, and creative atmosphere encourages students to take risks in learning and helps them reverse the cycle of academic failure. Its collaborative approach to learning connects faculty, staff, and families as team members in a community of learning.

A Sister of St. Joseph works with a second-grade student at Nazareth Hall. Nazareth has around 14 active sisters at any one time in the school.
A Sister of St. Joseph works with a second-grade student at Nazareth Hall. Nazareth has around 14 active sisters at any one time in the school.
Sister Diana is the director of the school. Having entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester community about 40 years ago, she remains very active in this ministry. The most unique thing about the school is the number of volunteers who help out daily. At least two to three individuals sit in with students to assist them in taking notes or reading directions. The school is bursting with color. The walls are filled with student art work: paintings, sculpture, and drawings. I left with an image of a school alive and vibrant--and filled with hope.

Wednesday: St. Peter’s Soup Kitchen
Serving the West Side community of Rochester since 1982, St. Peter’s Soup Kitchen started out as a once-a-week Saturday Soup and Sandwich Program. Today they serve on average more than 140 people a day who come from all walks of life. Many have problems with addictions, mental and physical illnesses, lost homes, and low wages.

As soon as we arrived, we got right to work unloading a food truck. Some of the supplies go directly to the food pantry while the rest gets handed out to those in need—around 100 people. Many of those who volunteer at St. Peter’s are also struggling with homelessness and hunger, but they show up to help.

After we unloaded most of the truck, we got lunch ready. While I was working the line, a little girl told me how she loved the food in the box we gave her. I was struck by how many hungry people there are: Some people who came through the lines looked no different than me.

Thursday: Bethany House
On this morning the whole group worked at Bethany House, which is a Catholic Worker house for women and children. It serves lunch daily and is considered a safe house for women in need. When we arrived we were greeted with a car full of donated food from FoodLink, the Feeding America regional food bank. After we unloaded the food, we organized it in the pantry and got our individual work assignments. Mine was helping paint the laundry room.

Bethany House is located in one of the highest-crime areas of Rochester, but I never felt unsafe working around the house. The women are grateful for a place that gives them not only a home but also love and support to move forward from addiction and abuse. Many women who sought out the House’s services in the past come back to volunteer and talk to other women who might be going through the same things. According to founder Donna Ecker, Bethany house “gives women hope.” There’s that word again: hope.

Friday: DayStar and St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center
Daystar is a place for vulnerable infants and children up to age 3. It provides foster care and childcare, respite care, advocacy, and family support in a safe and stimulating home environment. A complete medical childcare service, Daystar enhances each child’s growth and development while offering their families needed support. The staff includes a neonatal nurse, the sisters, trained childcare providers, and many dedicated trained volunteers located in a home in a residential neighborhood that has been transformed into the center.

Soup kitchen volunteers help unload a food truck.
Soup kitchen volunteers help unload a food truck.
One of the children I met was Joseph, a 2-year-old boy who was blind and had some heart problems. He was full of life and loved to listen to music. I played catch with him and read him books. These “medically fragile” children struggle to walk, see, hear, and even eat, and much time and patience goes into making sure they are provided with the proper medications, therapy, and tender care. I loved seeing how full of life they were despite their challenges.

After they ate lunch I headed over to the St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, which is a medical facility located near the convent. The center is committed to providing care and comprehensive services to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and the community. Along with executive director Sister Christine Wagner, S.S.J., 22 full and part-time employees, more than 80 volunteer health-care professionals, 25 counselors and social workers, and more than 250 volunteers who log an average of 850 hours per month, the center serves medically uninsured or underinsured individuals and families throughout Rochester and Monroe County and eight surrounding counties. More than 70 percent of people who come into the center for care are employed but do not earn enough to pay for health insurance.

Give the gift of yourself
By going to Rochester and witnessing the services the Sisters of St. Joseph provide, I gained a new appreication of how much I’ve been given—not just in terms of material goods, but health, educational opportunities, and the love and support of a strong family. I also saw up close just how much need there is in the world. I resolved to make a priority of incorporating the virtues of justice and peace into my daily life. It starts with the individual—me—and then flows from me to others by my actions.

The opportunity to be part of a community of women who work for the common good of all people out of sheer love was an experience I will never forget. To live with the sisters, interact with them, and see that they are a family were essential to my understanding of religious life, and to be a part of an experience like this is something anyone considering religious life should try.

“Living out your true vocation is being the best version of yourself,” Sisters Donna and Marilyn explained. The week with the sisters gave me a sense of what it means to be the best version of myself, which may not be the same for someone else, but for all of us it involves something greater than ourselves.

For the Sisters of St. Joseph it involves living lives of service, uniting neighbor to neighbor and neighbor to God, assisting all people without distinction, and reflecting daily on where God is in their lives.

Above all, my time with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester allowed me to understand that the women and men who have been called to religious life strive daily to build the kingdom of God and live out the mission of Jesus, who is hope to all. 

Caroline HopkinsonCaroline Hopkinson is multimedia editor for the VISION Vocation Network.




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