In October, a woman you haven’t heard of who died in 1955 will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., along with Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi, Kate Millett and Julie Krone, the great jockey. She is Mary Josephine Rogers, also known as Mollie, also known as Mother Mary Joseph, founder of the Congregation of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic.
If you think of Roman Catholic nuns only as walled-in ascetics or parochial-school knuckle-rappers — the cloistered or the cruel — then you have not had the privilege of meeting any Maryknoll sisters. To know them, it helps to be very poor and to live far away. The order, founded in 1912, was America’s first congregation of Catholic nuns dedicated to overseas missions. Mother Mary Joseph, a cheery, heavy Boston Irish-American, was curious about the world and strikingly open to it. From the start, a Maryknoll sister was a different sort of missionary.
“We were trained to be independent, to take initiative, to respect local cultures, local religions,” the order’s president, Sister Janice McLaughlin, said the other day at the order’s headquarters in the Hudson River town of Ossining, N.Y. “We try to live simply with the people. As Mother Mary Joseph said to us, ‘If anybody’s going to change, it’s going to be us.’ ”
Today the sisters work in two dozen countries, Albania to Zimbabwe, and in the United States as teachers, nurses, social workers and school administrators. They comfort the dying and occasionally infuriate governments. They fight human trafficking, environmental destruction and H.I.V./AIDS.
Sister Rose Patrick St. Aubin spent 60 years on the Marshall Islands, from 1950 to 2010. She and other sisters set up and ran the schools that have educated pretty much every person now living there. Sister Joanna Chan writes and directs plays. She staged “Oedipus Rex” in nearby Sing Sing prison; the inmates called her Grandma. Sister Susan Nchubiri worked with African immigrants in prisons in Hong Kong and is heading to Haiti soon. Sister Teresa Alexander, who died on New Year’s Day, served in El Salvador with Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, who — along with a lay missioner, Jean Donovan, and an Ursuline sister, Dorothy Kazel — were murdered in 1980 by a military death squad.
A handful of younger women have made their vows in recent years, but the Maryknoll sisters seem far on the down slope of a historical curve. Their numbers peaked at 1,669 in 1963. Now they are 471. The third and fourth floors of the main building serve as a nursing home. Beyond it is their graveyard, on a long sloping hillside leading down to a woods. It is filling up.
Twelve sisters have died so far this year. Last month I went to the funeral of Sister Catherine Carden, known to all as Sister Kitty. She was 93 and had been in the order for 73 years.
By Maryknoll standards, this was nothing out of the ordinary. The four sisters who died in June — Margaret, Antonetta, Gertrude and Rita — had served 72, 78, 67 and 65 years. In the chapel before Mass, Sister Kitty’s colleagues and nephews and nieces approached her coffin to say goodbye. She looked frail and tiny, in a houndstooth blazer. In the quiet moments between prayers, a pianist played “Always.” (I’ll pause here for the liturgical sticklers to object: You can’t play Irving Berlin at Mass. Well, no, but it was just a few hushed notes, folded into the service like the rosary between Sister Kitty’s fingers.)
Sister Kitty had asked for that song, and when the Mass was over and her friends rolled the coffin to the chapel vestibule, it was time to sing. “I’ll be loving you always. With a love that’s true always. When the things you’ve planned need a helping hand, I will understand always.” The silver-haired sisters knew it by heart. It was written for a marriage, but it works just as well for other lifelong commitments.