By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Sister Felice Marie Long of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary entered her congregation 51 years ago and spent the first 35 years of her ministry teaching in schools, mostly in the upper grades in Philadelphia and the suburbs. But she slowly came to realize that classroom teaching was not her true calling.
Part of this was through her experience working 10 summers or so with an outreach program to the poor in Lawrence, Mass. The final impetus for change was when one of her students, a young girl, overdosed on drugs and almost died.
Sister Felice Marie decided her real work should be in the community not the school, and with her congregation’s blessing she entered the field of parish pastoral ministry.
She earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from La Salle University and has been engaged in that work for 15 years now; the last seven at St. Gabriel Parish in South Philadelphia.
She’s the first to admit that when she arrived and saw the depth of the social problems of the neighborhood, she was intimidated, or to put it more bluntly, scared. There was the drug abuse, the alcohol abuse and many children born out of marriage being raised by single mothers with no support from the fathers. She got used to the problems and began to see the inherent goodness in the people and is no longer afraid.
The secret was by beginning to see Christ in all the people she works with, but that took conscious effort.
“Every morning I begin my day with a Holy Hour and ask the Lord to let me see Christ in the people I work with,” Sister Felice Marie said.
Her work has many facets. It includes making hospital calls, visiting the sick, taking charge of the altar servers, doing bereavement counseling and accompanying families to the cemetery. She is working on parish visitation, or to use the old term, “block collection.” She doesn’t hesitate to ask, “Do you go to church?” and if the answer is no, she asks, “Why not?”
Where is the face of Christ in all of this? At a nursing home, a woman who was not Catholic was upset by her habit and said, “I’m afraid of you.”
“We all have the same emotions, the same heart,” Sister Felice Marie assured her, and asked if there was anything she could do to help her. The woman was put at ease and on future visits wanted to help sister. That’s the face of Christ.
A week or so ago a young man came up to Sister Felice Marie on the street and said, “Pray for me, Sister. I just got out of rehab and I’m afraid.” That was the face of the suffering Christ.
Easily Sister Marie Felice’s largest outreach is the parish food cupboard. It is open three days a week and serves, at last count, 595 visitors. In this economy it is growing.
The food bank, which does not distinguish between race and religion, probably has more visitors than the total weekend Mass attendance at St. Gabriel. The parishioners contribute generously, but the sheer numbers require a wider group effort. Also contributing food are many other parishes in South Philadelphia as well as schools and parishes in the suburbs, especially parishes with a connection to the Norbertine Fathers, the order that runs St. Gabriel.
A very popular contribution comes from one suburban parish, which sends about 1,000 frozen cooked meals monthly. Through cash donations Sister Felice Marie spends another $1,000 to $2,000 monthly at the food bank, Philabundance.
Food isn’t the only entree. Many times something else is needed. People overwhelmed with their problems just want to talk and she comforts them.
“The poor are so grateful for everything you do,” she said.
Every day she prays for the strength to keep doing what she is doing. That’s the face of Christ, too.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.
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