Carolyn Woo

Mother Mary Joseph, a woman with whom I shared one year of life together on this earth and to whom I attribute a significant role in my faith formation, will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in October.

Born Mary Josephine Rogers in 1882 to a large family of Irish Catholics in Boston, she attended public school and earned her degree in zoology from Smith College in 1905. In 1912, she founded the Congregation of Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, the first American Catholic missionary order of religious women. Loved by all, she was often referred to as “Mother” or “Mollie.”

In these past hundred years, thousands of women would be drawn to form the community of Maryknoll sisters working across the world. They have run schools, hospitals, senior centers, peace institutes and always stood in solidarity with the poorest and those who have no voice.

Today they serve in two dozen countries, raising orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS, reaching out to victims of trafficking, caring for the elderly, accompanying those in prison, advocating for the stewardship of the environment, and helping people gain a place at the table where their rights and welfare can receive due consideration.

Their qualities, as instructed by “Mother” should be “distinguished by Christ-like charity, a limpid simplicity of soul, heroic generosity, selflessness, unfailing loyalty, prudent zeal, gracious courtesy, and adaptable disposition, solid piety and the saving grace of a kindly humor.”

I have drawn on 50 years of association with the sisters to hold on to a few basics. First, service must be grounded in contemplation, as action without quiet moments with God can cause us to veer off-track into the dead ends of our insecurities and ambitions. Prayer, I learn, is a relationship, not only with God, but also with each other. These relationships cannot be just good thoughts in our heads, they must be acted out.

Second, we must love the people we serve and open our minds and hearts to the beauty of their cultures and even their religions. Such openness and appreciation do not diminish our faith in Christ but deepen the mystery of how God manifests himself, makes his love present and brings us together as one family. Our faith should not close us in but open our arms to welcome and to connect.

“Come, follow me.” How many times did Mother Mary Joseph hear this call? Was this a summons or a reassurance? As God would have it, it is always both. Often with a roadmap not much more than, “Let us see what God has installed for us” and provisions that amounted to “God will provide,” the sisters have found their next step.

Mother Mary Joseph did not always have the answers. Paths had to be made. Some forces would exceed any one organization’s control. She was deeply anguished by the dangers her sisters faced.

But amid all challenges, uncertainties, distractions, temptations and suffering, Mollie urged only one thing: that we fix our eyes on God, knowing that we will find our way. This simple declaration of faith has enabled the sisters to serve millions, to inspire, to build institutions that build lives. It has conveyed to many a sense of their worth, dignity and beauty as children of God.


Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.