Folk Artist: Do Catholic Sisters Make a Difference?

When I chose religious life I wanted my life to make a difference in the world! I brought my gifts to this adventure: intelligence, creativity, a Catholic heritage, the ability to get along with people and a love for the missions. As a young adult and high school graduate, I wanted to be part of the Big Picture. Today I ask myself, “Does being a Sister make a difference?”

The initial years devoted to learning community life as a Candidate, then a Novice, developed further gifts of education through college classes and spiritual formation. Sometimes I felt I was living an enclosed existence rather than the big picture as we did homework, had choir practice, did the requisite house cleaning in the Motherhouse and worked through the peer dynamics in community living. We often heard stories about other Sisters who had ministries and even some “heroic souls” who went to the missions! Those stories fueled the flames for my future as a professed Sister.

With vows I went to work as a second grade teacher in a rural parish in northern Wisconsin. The years were full: daily classroom teaching, religious education on weekends and a few seasonal visits back to Milwaukee.

In the 1960’s greater changes came to society and Church and we Sisters became aware of issues for justice. This changed awareness brought us to the preferential option to serve the poor, collaborative efforts among other Congregations that influenced legislation in government and new ministry in our community-sponsored hospitals and schools. Some Sisters became pastoral ministers, adult educators, directors of religious education parish programs, and reading specialists. Our chosen work began to make a difference.

I was re-educated on a public university campus in Madison, Wisconsin, to earn a Masters-in-Art degree. My life as a Sister came under scrutiny by the young adults taking the same classes I was taking. We had hours of conversation in the photo dark room, labs for figure drawing and print-making, art history and seminar courses. It was a period for students’ voices to be heard on issues of civil rights, feminist equality, conscientious objection to waging wars and much unrest on campuses. Along with my art degree I acquired genuine social awareness when I returned to teach in our community-sponsored all girls’ high school in Milwaukee.

The social changes affected new ministries for us in the Church. For the people we served these changes were “minor revelations” and much larger revolutions brought by the Sisters. Not only had Sisters noticed the injustices in service to the poor, we went to the edges of society to bring in those who had been overlooked in the past and “gave them a seat” at the communal table. As an artist and teacher I began to understand that my desire “to serve in the missions” did not require a new geography, but a new awareness put intentionally into my classes for teen age girls. I also began to view the Sisters in my community with a new wholeness. Together we made “the Bigger Picture”; each of us giving color and brush strokes, content and individuality to the “canvas” that was our work. It was our unity-in-diversity of works that contributed to the differences we were making in others’ lives.

I thought of St. Paul in the New Testament who labored to establish new communities of Christians, yet always aware of maintaining the great unity for Christ. Each Christian community had its pluses and minuses; the differences were notable in the Bigger Picture, and it was creating a difference in the Mediterranean geography! I felt a new maturity in how I lived community with my Sisters, all of us contributing to the Church and the world with our differences, our good-and-worse moments, and our loving efforts to make the Table of Christ larger in our time. Yes! I can say that Sisters DO make a difference!

Sister Karlyn Cauley, SDS

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