About once a month – sometimes more often – I receive a call from the front desk here at the Mother House telling me there is someone asking to speak with me. Usually, it is a friend, co-worker, or relative of a Daughter of Charity in the United States who has been sent here to see the Chapel during their trip to Paris. If I am really, REALLY lucky, it is someone I know personally such as a former student or co-worker who has come to Paris with a tour group (see photos) and has taken the time to come here. From time to time, when these visitors arrive, I am asked, “So, what kind of training did you have to be a secretary here?” My usual answer is something like, “I am a Daughter of Charity; I am available to be sent wherever I am needed.”
After I had been asked this question several times, I began to ask myself the same thing – what helped prepare me for my ministry here? I am a “dyed-in-the-wool” educator You can take me out of school, but you cannot take school out of me! Eventually, I realized the last two schools in which I served as Principal before coming to Paris had a great deal to do with my formation for this position. It goes without saying that there are no smiling kindergarteners in the hallways of the Mother House who want to show me the pictures they have drawn. There are no 8th grade boys to call on when furniture needs to be moved. It has been a transition in many, many ways!
The first of the two schools was Resurrection of Our Lord in Saint Louis, Missouri. It was small with only 106 students. However, the students represented 10 nationalities! In addition to the American students, the children were from Viet Nam, Bosnia, Croatia, Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, Poland, Ethiopia, and Congo. We also had one teacher who was Native American. They were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, and un-churched. At times, students arrived at the school within days of arriving in the United States; therefore they spoke NO English when they walked through our doors. It was a tremendous adventure as we all worked together to learn about and respect the variety of cultures and backgrounds. Communication became an art form since both documents and conversations with parents needed translation into several languages. The teachers worked tirelessly to help the students learn basic skills as well as the English language. American parents welcomed and worked side by side with the immigrant parents helping everyone to feel that they were part of the Resurrection School Family. But, alas, after I had been there for 5 years, the school was closed as part of a restructuring process in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. It was difficult to leave this wonderful little “United Nations” and it was only the warm, joyous welcome from Saint Augustine of Canterbury School in Belleville, Illinois – just across the Mississippi River from Saint Louis – that helped to soften the pain involved with closure of a school.
Saint Augustine, too, was like a huge family working together to bring about the best for everyone. From the moment I walked through the door, I knew this would be like no place I had ever been before. I was well aware that I was the first member of the Vincentian Family to work in the school and parish, but it was clear to me that the Vincentian Spirit was already present and alive there. Everyone – parents, students, parishioners without children in the school – worked as a team to make sure the students and teachers had what they needed. Any time there was a task to be done or problem to be solved there was always a group of parents there ready to lend a hand or share resources and ideas. That could mean welcoming crippled children from Belize who stayed with a host family for 1, 2, 10, or 24 months to receive medical treatment from a local hospital or installing air conditioners so that the classrooms could be comfortable in the warm, humid temperatures during the fall and late spring. There was never a complaint or grumbling; just the question – “Sister, what can I do to help?” It was as if they lived their lives in the mode of Vincentian Discernment asking, “What needs to be done? What can I do to make the situation better?” It was an incredible experience to work with and for the people of this parish where I felt very much at home.
These two schools were essential to the preparation for my life here at the Mother House where we are truly international – about 150 Sisters from 30 countries. My service is less concrete than working in a school, but it is what needs to be done at this time. I know that one day I will probably return to the education field. But until then, I am happy to be part of the adventure of living and serving with Sisters from around the world because I am a Daughter of Charity and I am available to be sent where I am needed.
Sister Bernadette Miller, DC