Religious sisters reflect on aid to refugees, homeless

by SISTER SHELIA STONE, GNSH
Wed, Jul 19th 2017 11:00 am
Women and men who are celebrating their silver, gold and diamond jubilees pray at St. Joseph Cathedral during the Jubilee Mass. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)
Women and men who are celebrating their silver, gold and diamond jubilees pray at St. Joseph Cathedral during the Jubilee Mass. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)

As jubilarians, we welcome and thank all who come to celebrate with us today: Bishop Richard J. Malone, our family and friends, priests concelebrating, and all who have supported us along our way to this day.

When Sister Jean Thompson, OSF, our vicar for religious, invited me to reflect, she suggested that we lift up the story of all our religious communities in their living out of the Catholic Social Justice themes.

As one of our sisters pointed out recently at a similar celebration, through the years, whatever our form of ministry, we have all held in our hearts compassion for the poor and oppressed, desire for peace and an end to war and violence, an urgency for women to be treated equally in our society and Church, hope for healing and an end to racism and all forms of discrimination, and a cherishing of God's beautiful creation of our common home, the earth.

The Spirit of Jesus expressed in the gospel to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty and to let the oppressed go free is upon us too as we celebrate jubilee.
I invite us to remember and give thanks for three great movements in which we religious have participated and at times led the way.

First, religious in the Diocese of Buffalo have embraced the call to welcome the stranger. From our earliest days, improving the life of immigrants through education and health care was carried out in ethnic parishes, schools and neighborhoods for people new to our country. Then, when immigrants from South and Central America fled violence in the 1970s and '80s, they were often housed in our churches, convents and motherhouses. Living near the Peace Bridge, the officers there would send refugees who were being turned back from crossing to Canada to our convents on the West Side of Buffalo. In 1984, Vive de Casa, House of Life, was opened to offer shelter to those awaiting acceptance to the United States and Canada. Vive was founded through the efforts of various religious denominations. On the Vive website, Catholic sisters are cited as the "founding mothers" of this ministry. Today, we continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, speak out against unjust discrimination and minister directly to people from Burma, South Sudan and many other countries.

Second, in the late 1990s, Catholic sisters again wanted to answer current needs and to sponsor a joint project. A sister was hired to research pressing needs, and it was determined to begin a collaborative ministry to shelter homeless single parent families, to offer skills training to empower them to obtain permanent housing, education and employment. The dream of Gerard Place was born, and it opened its doors in November of 2000. Little did we know that we would house about 100 students from school buses that couldn't get through the snow on that record stormy day. Gerard Place has expanded as a place of safety and growth and reached out to the people of the Bailey-Delavan neighborhood.

We learned that we could do more together than separately, and that collaboration in dreaming and imagining, research and planning, led to greater creativity and response to need. Our collaborations have been ecumenical and with the larger civic community.

Thirdly, religious have early recognized the connection between our spirituality and ecological care of the earth. With so many Franciscan communities in our diocese and so many of the rest of us having Franciscan hearts, this was a natural movement for us.  We concerned ourselves with water issues and care for the Great Lakes, our international treasure. The Diocesan Care for Creation committee nurtured this concern for the earth in our parishes. Following Pope Francis' encyclical, "Laudato Si," or "Blessed Be," some of us formed study groups and gave presentations on the call to care for our common home, to practice integral ecology so all may have life and have it more abundantly. The Interfaith Climate Justice Community continues to unite environmental organizations and member of various faith traditions in continuing to directions of the encyclical.

At home, various religious are now living in a LEEDS certified building in Hamburg, using geothermal energy for heating and cooling in Cheektowaga, preserving open green space by selling property to the Land Conservancy along the Niagara River, and promoting renewable energy to address climate change.  

We are humble, yet proud, that our Church and our communities have encouraged us in embracing these works of social justice. Laudato Si! Blessed be!  

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