The Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Chestnut Hill College, which is headed by St. Joseph Sister Catherine Nerney, works “for the forgiveness of divisions within and among human persons and communities by providing forgiveness and reconciliation at every level of life.”
All things considered, that is something very much needed in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at this point in time. As a matter of fact, Sister Catherine recently conducted a forgiveness and reconciliation program at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Glenside, one of the parishes impacted by the clergy scandal.
Sister Catherine never set out to help found an institute of this nature, nor did she set out to enter religious life. It has all been part of the plan of God.
First and foremost, there was the example of truly devout parents: Catherine Theresa O’Shaughnessy Nerney and Owen Francis Nerney, who raised seven children in St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Drexel Hill and made daily family rosary a non-negotiable must. Later, in her junior year at Archbishop Prendergast High School, she encountered Sister William Augustine (now Sister Winifred Grelis) in religion class.
“I was convinced she believed every word she shared with us,” Sister Catherine said. That example along with the love the St. Joseph Sisters had for one another, made her decide to enter the community herself after graduation. In religion, as was then the practice she took the name Sister Owen Catherine to honor her parents, and her undergraduate degree was from Chestnut Hill.
As expected, she was placed in teaching, although again that was not her purpose; she was open to whatever God wanted. Initially she taught at Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Philadelphia, then at Holy Family Academy in Bayonne, N.J.; and for the past 17 years at Chestnut Hill. Along the way, she earned her master’s in theology from St. Michael’s College in Vermont and her doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
In the academic year 2005-06, on sabbatical, she studied for a semester in Sligo, Ireland, and Rwanda, two experiences that were life-changing.
Sligo, where her father came from, borders Northern Ireland, and there was a long history of sectarian violence from which it has been slowly recovering. Rwanda too was recovering from a genocidal civil war in the 1990s which may have cost up to 1 million lives.
“I listened to people telling how they could and gathered hundred of stories. I talked to perpetrators, to widows, to orphans,” she said. “The faith of the people of Rwanda was so inspiring, and faith is absolutely essential.”
When in 2009, the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Chestnut Hill College was in the formation stages by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Catherine was asked to take charge. Under her leadership it has flourished.
In keeping with its mission, the Institute has begun work with Mary Achilles in the archdiocesan initiative Honesty, Healing and Hope in Christ: Confronting Sexual Violence in our Archdiocese.
“I have an absolute conviction God has led me into this,” Sister Catherine said. “Dealing with our parish communities, everyone has been hurt by this at some level. We restore trust, allow people to express their pain; the physical harm, the emotional harm, the spiritual harm.
“Faith is absolutely essential. Love is more powerful than evil and God wants this for our Church.”
For more information on the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation see www.chc.edu