Daring to Risk a Caring Response: Sisters remember their Central and Eastern Europe missions
By AJ Keith, Communications intern
In 1995, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sought the help of women religious with their intended goal of religious expansion and education on Vatican II. Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia were among the many countries that the Sisters of Charity served. As the Sisters ventured to Central and Eastern Europe to spread their mission of peace and love on a global scale they experienced firsthand the sincerity of the human spirit that transcends the oppression of violence, poverty and tyrannical rule.
The following article is part of a series featuring those Sisters of Charity responding to the call.
In 1995, three Sisters of Charity volunteers were missioned to Europe, not knowing what life-altering events would guide them in their future ministries. Sisters Juanita Marie Gonzales, Mary Gallagher and Teresa Dutcher made their way to Poland where they would come to cherish their memories of service and the friendships that were created.
“This is a large building and one of the few left standing when Warsaw was bombed,” S. Teresa wrote in her journal about where they stayed for four weeks. Their ministries took them to Warsaw where they taught Polish Sisters English to prepare them for study in Europe. It was during this time the Sisters discovered the scope of communist rule that had left the country in shambles. When they realized that Catholicism in Poland was behind in their traditions and practices due to the hold of the communist regime, they found many of the Sisters celebrating their faith for the first time in these decades with their newfound freedom. “They kept the faith while under persecution and moved the Gospel forward in very creative ways,” S. Teresa says.
In addition to the cruel circumstances of the citizens of Warsaw, the Sisters felt discouraged within the first few days because they were unsure how to navigate their new surroundings. They assumed that they would have similar experiences with their students since they were divided by a language barrier. Surprisingly, they still found themselves bonding because of the students’ strong work ethic and desire to learn. Their evenings with the students proved to be unifying as well, as they would sing well-loved and traditional hymns or globally known songs, each in their respective language. S. Mary says, “To know that we were singing the same thing in different languages was fun. We felt a deeper relationship and oneness in our common hopes and dreams for a better future.”
Mary did not expect to have such a pivotal experience because of her hesitation before the trip, which nearly dissuaded her to go. She remembers that Sisters Juanita and Teresa reminded her that it was a chance to discover a different culture. S. Mary says that she was grateful for her experiences in Europe. She commended the Polish Sisters for their “indomitable spirit to rebuild their beloved Poland.” This experience proved to be important to all who attended, including S. Juanita who says, “The one year that I was supposed to be there became six wonderful years.”
Feeling blessed from her ministries in Poland, S. Mary says that the greatest lesson that she had learned was that you can still connect with others even if they don’t have the same practices, language or culture as you. She encourages all people to do the same in their ministries as she held the memory of the Polish Sisters in her heart throughout hers. Sisters Juanita and Teresa have affirmed the feeling of S. Mary, as S. Teresa says that their new friends “were all the face of Jesus.”