For Sisters of Charity the phrase “up-the-line” has always meant the journey from Albuquerque to Denver. Our local community recently made that road trip, now lengthened by some 250 miles from our home near La Union, NM, so that Affiliate Annie Klapheke could catch the spirit of Charity, past and present in the West. We met with Sisters and Associates in homes and restaurants and even in a convent that is now a museum.
We were off and on the Santa Fe Trail many times, searching out the places where Sisters of Charity have served since 1865. At each stop: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Trinidad, Colorado Springs, Denver we prayed with the words and stories of those pioneering women religious. One couldn’t help but feel their presence as we remembered their lives of faithful service. We were inspired.
The journey up-the-line also made the diminishment of our congregation a striking reality. I have lived in the West since making first vows in 1986. I remember well my first congregational gathering in September that year. I had been feeling homesick and was overjoyed to spend a weekend in Colorado Springs at our retreat house with about a hundred Sisters of Charity and several dozen Associate members. It was a wonderful sense of reconnection and there was excitement hearing about the lives and ministries of Sisters who came from everywhere west of the Mississippi. Now, many of those Sisters have retired, at the Motherhouse or in place, and our numbers are significantly fewer. The institutions we once sponsored are now in other hands and some have closed. As Annie commented, “We looked in the windows of many empty buildings”. It was true.
Yet the road trip was anything but disheartening! I actually returned rejuvenated and more hopeful than ever. The few Sisters who remain “up-the-line” are serving (full-time, part-time and volunteers) in ministries of which I am very proud: with immigrants, homeless persons, children and the elderly. They network like crazy to meet the needs of the marginalized and forgotten.
What really infused me with hope and deep joy however, was the memory of those pioneering Sisters of Charity who came to the territories of New Mexico and Colorado in ones and twos and fours, with no money, no property, and with little training for the tasks required of the life and ministries ahead of them. They begged and they sacrificed and they prayed confidently for the needs of each day. As Sister Blandina Segale wrote, “I will do what presents itself, and never omit anything because of hardship or repugnance”. And she did. From building schools to burying the dead, in Trinidad and Santa Fe and Albuquerque, she wasted no time “waiting for reinforcements”.
One of my favorite places on earth is Rosario Cemetery in Santa Fe. Buried there are Sisters Catherine Mallon and Mary de Sales Leheny. Sister Catherine went West with the first band of Charities from Cincinnati in 1865. She was the youngest of the four, having made vows the day before their departure. Catherine was the fundraiser for the hospitals that are now St. Vincent’s in Santa Fe and Mount St. Raphael in Trinidad. By train, by wagon and on foot, she traveled to the mining camps of western Colorado soliciting funds. I read her letters recounting those early days when I first entered the congregation. I visited her grave for the first time when I was discerning my first mission and it was there in Rosario Cemetery that I knew Santa Fe was where I would begin my active ministry as a Sister of Charity.
Sister Mary de Sales also weighed-in on that call to Santa Fe. She entered the congregation with an eighth grade education in 1880 and received on-the-job training as a nurse when she was sent to Santa Fe in 1881. She must have taken the same approach as Sister Blandina, doing whatever needed to be done, which soon became surgery when no doctor was available. In 1901, she became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in the territory of New Mexico. I was the “third” Sister-physician in our congregation, and at her grave in 1986 I heard the call clearly, “Come.”
It is this other “line” that provides the lifeblood of hope for the future that courses through us women religious these days, despite diminishing numbers, relinquishment of cherished institutions, and loss of dear mentors and friends. Those of us who are called to a particular charism and congregation are part of a lineage that goes on because it is connected to the coming of the Kingdom of God. Numbers could never have predicted what the Sisters of Charity did in the West- or anywhere else.
Driving down-the-line after our whirlwind adventure, passing quickly by Trinidad and Santa Fe and Albuquerque, I felt the blessing of those wonderful women of our history. “Every generation has its part to play. Now is your time. Do what presents itself!”