By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA — Sister Francis Joseph rocks. Well, not literally. Her porch chair has straight legs, not rockers, but she rocks. A Religious of the Assumption, she will be turning 90 this spring, but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped promoting religious vocations, or for that matter trying to bring people closer to God.
Whether it’s sitting on that convent porch across from St. Francis de Sales Church in West Philadelphia or hobbling back from church on a helpful stranger’s arm, she’s always on the lookout. It traces back to her own vocation.
She grew up Rachel Scarpello in Germantown’s former Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish. She went on to Chestnut Hill College and then took a position as a teacher at Ravenhill Academy in East Falls, which was then a school where mostly wealthy Catholics sent their daughters. It was run by the Religious of the Assumption, “the Purple Nuns,” so colloquially named for the distinctive habit they wore in that era. She did very well and in time rose to the office of principal.
“I think I was the only lay principal in any Catholic school in Philadelphia,” Sister Francis Joseph remembers. “At least I would go to meetings and I would be the only one not wearing a habit.”
She was at Ravenhill for about 12 years when one day she and the convent superior were returning from a conference by plane. During the flight the nun asked, “Have you ever considered entering the convent?”
“I suppose every Catholic girl has,” Scarpello replied. “Yes, but not seriously.”
“Oh, I thought you did when I first met you 12 years ago,” the sister disappointedly said.
Scarpello was startled. “Why didn’t you ever say so?”
“You didn’t ask me,” the sister countered.
This simple question got Scarpello thinking, and in 1953 she entered the Assumption Sisters and never looked back. In her heart she knew that if the invitation had been presented a dozen years earlier, she may have entered sooner.
She’s had a distinguished career in teaching and administration which took her to the Philippines, France and the Vatican. During that time and to this day, she has never waited to be asked. If she has the slightest suspicion a young person might have a religious vocation, she brings up the topic. “I’ve never refused a school that asked me to speak on this, and I’ve done that all my life. We can’t keep this life of ours a secret,” she said.
In good weather she might sit on the convent porch and chat with whoever stops by. Because it’s near University City, very often that is a young person. Simply coming home from church, leaning on her cane, perfect strangers help her across Springfield Avenue.
“I make friends through that cane,” she said. “‘I’m not interested in the convent myself,’ they might say, ‘But I’d like to hear your story.”‘
Is the seed planted? Yes, but will it grow? Only time will tell. “I’ve met so many students, in different circumstances, we can’t count how many enter,” she said. Some come to pray with the sisters, including young men from West Catholic who are considering the priesthood. Others come to follow the exercises of St. Ignatius or for study groups.
It’s all very much in the spirit of Mother Marie-Eugenie Milleret who, at age 22, founded the congregation in 1839; she was canonized two years ago. The congregation still has a blend of spirituality and a sense of social justice that its foundress instilled in her followers. The Religious of the Assumption are still receiving candidates, Sister Francis Joseph said, in some countries more than others.
“They are more mature women, not babies, coming in after college, after business experience,” she said. “I believe we are living in a historic moment. I think it is a great spiritual moment because people are hungry for change and it is a spiritual change. We have been shaken up. It’s a time to do things differently, share the spirituality we have with others. I believe in inspanidual ministry. Everybody counts. Everybody can give Jesus to people.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.