Faith in Action
By Edward J. Lis

Congregations of consecrated religious men and women founded and staffed many of the institutions and programs that comprise Catholic Social Services. While their numbers have diminished significantly over the years, we are blessed to have more than 40 consecrated religious men and women serving in Catholic Social Services today. Sister Bernadine Schmalhofer, a Missionary Servant of the Blessed Trinity who celebrated her golden jubilee in 2008, is a wonderful example.

Sister Bernadine has worked in pastoral care at St. Francis-St Joseph Homes for Children (SFSJ) for the last 15 years. That is remarkable considering that she began this ministry at 70, after 22 years working in foster care and another 10 years as a social work supervisor in family services.

How does an 87-year-old nun interact so well with adolescent boys? Fran Swiacki, SFSJ administrator, says it is because “she accepts and genuinely cares about everyone, and tries to understand them. She knows people and social work practice. She loves her Catholic faith and is fully devoted to mission, and she just puts it all together to help others. [She] has the ability to get people in touch with God in a unique and natural way. She is an irreplaceable treasure and I feel enriched every day working with her.”

Sister Susanne Thibault, a fellow Trinitarian, says Sister Bernadine continues to do this work because it is life-giving for her: “She is a true missionary who knows how to be really present to others,” Sister Susanne said. “She allows their goodness to shine, and passes on the missionary spirit to them.”

Sister Bernadine believes it is important to help the boys find their own spirituality and for them to understand that there is a God who loves them no matter what. And she believes that they open up to her because she reminds them of their grandmother.

“I always enjoyed working with young people,” she said. “It’s all about accepting them where they are. You just don’t push it. I have some boys here who don’t talk to me for the first three months, and then one day suddenly they rush up to me in the hallway and give me a hug, or say, ‘Do you know how much I love you, Sister?’ But that takes time. You have to wait them out. Kids are smart, they know if you really care about them.”

The continuing presence of religious sisters and brothers among us is like leaven in the dough, assisting us in remaining faithful to our Catholic identity and helping us respond to God’s call to continue the charitable mission of the Church.

Edward J. Lis is the director of Catholic Mission Integration for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Secretariat for Catholic Human Services.