Thursday, September 16, 2021

A “Wonderful, Beautiful Experience”: Daughters of Charity Reflect on Years of Service

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When Sister Catherine Clemons received notice that nearly all members of the Daughters of Charity were to leave the Gallup Diocese, she recalls her heart being “broken.”

Last year Sr. Clemons, Sr. Elizabeth Racko, and Sr. Jean Marie Williams were called to ministry elsewhere in the United States. As ministry needs and coverage are constantly shifting in the landscape of American Catholicism, reassignments are common. Still, the sisters often find it hard each time to say goodbye to the people they’ve come to love and serve.

All three women religious recalled their time in the Diocese of Gallup with great fondness. Sr. Clemons first arrived in 2012 when she was asked to teach at St. Michaels Indian School – even without knowing where the school was located.

“How do you even get there?” she remembers thinking. “Well, I got myself a map, and here we are. I still have that map!”

She had Fridays off from teaching at St. Michaels – a weekday she promptly used to drive to Zuni in order to work with 2nd graders and pre-K children at St. Anthony School.

“I thoroughly love those children…wonderful, wonderful, beautiful experience. I can’t say enough about both places, really – little gems in the Diocese.”

Sr. Clemons opted not to take a salary, and instead – like many sisters serving throughout the Diocese – lived on her religious community’s communal funds, raised through donations and goodwill. This life of voluntary poverty is derived from one of the vows taken by the Daughters of Charity, along with chastity, obedience and service to the poor.

The vow of service to the poor was in a particular way exemplified by Sister Elizabeth Racko, who in her many years serving in the Diocese of Gallup helped to found the St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVDP) in Tuba City, AZ, and to run a successful prison ministry program. The SVDP Society in Tuba City offers food, firewood, job trainings, and other programs to surrounding communities, while volunteers in the prison ministry program visit and provide spiritual ministry to inmates in Gallup, Grants, and other border towns.

Sr. Elizabeth Racko, DC (next to sign, left) and other members of the Tuba City St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Sr. Racko attributes her success to a willingness to adjust to the unique needs of each person she serves.

“We’ve learned a lot since the 1800s as the Catholic Church, and I think that’s what makes the Catholic presence on the Navajo Nation particularly very successful,” she said. “And the Franciscans and the Jesuits have trained me to listen to the people and to suffer with them.”

Sr. Jean Marie Williams, who was first assigned to the Diocese in 2018 as the parish coordinator in Houck, AZ, found joy in getting to know her parishioners.

“I remember Church on Sunday because we had such an eclectic group of people who would come to church – only about 30, 35 people,” she recalls. “There was an adult man in the parish who wanted to become Catholic. He came to Mass every day but he was not baptized. So I worked with him and we were eventually able to get him – even during the lockdown – in May [2020] the priest, his sponsor and myself were able to bring him into the Church.”

This sense of community, whether with other sisters or with the people she serves, is where Sr. Clemons says she constantly finds strength and joy.

“I have a firm belief from my own [time] living in community that people get to know us, and get to feel comfortable with us, because God is shining out of us, because we spend a great deal of time knowing and learning about God.”

Unlike certain religious orders, she and certain other sisters are not required to say the entire Liturgy of the Hours each day. Together, they instead say the morning and evening prayers, share meals, and read the Gospel.

“The older we get as sisters, the more we recognize the intense, intimate relationship between ourselves as the God who made us,” Sr. Clemons said. “It is just a great space to be in.”

Although her ministry in the Diocese of Gallup lasted only two years, Sr. Williams expressed gratitude for her time here, just as she is grateful for wherever she is called in the course of living her vocation.

“We’re always focused on finding Jesus Christ in the people that are around us, especially those most in need,” she said. “So just going to the [Houck] and getting to meet the people, some of whom lived in really tight circumstances – I think that’s helped me remember my vocation, the call to serve Jesus wherever you find Him.”

Sr. Clemons, too, says she will always remember the children and the people she met in the diocese.

“I have always been very, very grateful for being allowed to be there. Eight years was a long stretch and I loved every single minute of it. I will never forget the people in Gallup, the people on the reservations – the Navajo and the Zuni – and I just have a most grateful heart and beautiful memories of how enriched they have helped me to become.”

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