By Maureen Smith
DURANT – A trio of sisters began their ministries in the Diocese of Jackson a week before Thanksgiving. Daughters of Charity Mary Walz and Madeline Kavanaugh and Sister of Charity of Halifax Sheila Conley spent their first few weeks getting settled and meeting new members of their community before they welcomed Bishop Joseph Kopacz to their house for a Mass and lunch.
It is hard to avoid the obvious connection to another set of Sisters living in the rural community. Sister Paula Merrill, SCN, and Sister Margaret Held, SSSF, were murdered in Durant a little more than a year ago. The new sisters emphasize that they are not in Mississippi to replace Sisters Paula and Margaret, but to answer a call to serve in new ways.
Sister Kavanagh has worked all over the world. She served in Bolivia for 17 years, the Cook Islands, Brooklyn and, most recently, Georgetown, South Carolina, where she worked in pastoral ministry at a parish.
She is coordinating with local corrections officials to do prison ministry. “I have basically been a missionary for the last 30 years, so this is to me a wonderful opportunity to continue a call I feel to work in missionary settings. Also, working with the people in South Carolina has been a big help for me to have a better understanding of the Southern culture,” she said.
Sister Conley, also a northerner, easily identified by her accent, will be working with a federal program called “Need a Job, Get a Job.” She said this ministry is an opportunity to get back to her roots. She was an educator for decades before her religious order asked her to help with the reconstruction of a retirement home for fellow sisters. The self-proclaimed ‘most organized person in the world’ enjoyed the work and her sisters, but missed interacting with students.
“I was in Boston and when I heard they needed an educator, my heart just soared,” she said.
The program is for young people, aged 16-22, who have no job or job prospects. Most never graduated from high school. “It’s a year-long program where job ethics, job professionalism, job searching, are all an integral part of the program. They get paid for coming, but they have to come from nine to five three days a week and they get penalized if they don’t come. After the first phase of the program, the culminating activity is helping them prepare for an interview – we really role play for that,” she explained.
The program even encourages companies to hire the students by paying for a couple weeks’ worth of salary and following up with the student to make sure he or she is continuing to do well for a year. Sister Conley said one of the objectives is to help the young people dream – to think in terms of career goals and not just a job. “The possibilities are wonderful.”
As a side project, Sister Conley is starting a “Dress for Success” fund to pay for interview outfits.
Sister Mary Walz is a social worker. She will be working at the same clinic where Sisters Paula and Margaret worked as nurse practitioners, but in a different role.
“When we met with Dr. (Elias) Abboud (the clinic owner), he was saying ‘I can hire another nurse practitioner who is licensed in Mississippi, but what I need is a social worker,’” said Sister Walz. “One of the chief issues is medication. There are patient assistance programs where pharmaceutical companies provide their prescription medications free to qualified patients if they don’t have coverage or if their coverage doesn’t cover the medicine – there are a lot of ways to go through all that paperwork. This also gives me an entrée to meet people and explore if there are other issues they are struggling with that also affect their health. So it’s all one piece,” she explained.
This is not her first time to work at a clinic. “I have been on our leadership team for the last 13 years for our province. Before that I was in Southwest Arkansas working in a clinic,” she explained “When this came up Sister Mary Beth (Kubera, the provincial for the Daughters of Charity) and I came down to take a look. I love small towns. I love the rural experience. When I was in Arkansas, I was in the Delta. So really I was just across the river. This seemed like a really nice fit,” she said.
Sister Walz said she honors the memory of Sisters Paula and Margaret, but is not trying to fill their roles.
“No one could replace what they were. They were so beloved and uniquely engaged in this community.”
As it turns out, this is far from the first time the Daughters of Charity have served here. They were some of the very first women religious to serve in what was the Diocese of Natchez. Sisters Martha and Philomena, DOC, arrived in 1847 to open an orphanage in Natchez. Since then, Daughters have come and gone, filling roles as educators, catechists, social workers and more. They opened Natchez St. Joseph and Cathedral schools; provided outreach ministries in Charleston, Hernando, Jackson, Port Gibson and Walls; opened a day care at Pearl St. Jude and provided Sisters who worked in what is now the Diocese of Biloxi.
“The Daughters have a commitment to serve the poor. Mississipppi is the poorest state in the nation and Holmes county is the poorest in the state. It seems like if ever there was an indicator that we need to look at that, this is it,” said Sister Walz.
“To be a presence to the people – that’s the greatest gift, I think. If we can be instruments to reflect back the love of God for them. If we can act as reflectors or channels of God’s love – that’s the whole goal for me,” said Sister Kavanaugh.
By Maureen Smith