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Queens Chronicle

Sisters for social justice: history revisited

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Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011 12:00 am

In her 25 years with the Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn and Queens, Sister Caroline Tweedy has only experienced recent manifestations of the long history of Catholic sisters’ involvement in the community she serves. However, on Jan. 15, the Greater Astoria Historical Society will explore the entirety of Catholic-sisters’ contributions to American society at a roundtable event titled: “Civil War to Civil Rights: Sisters of Compassion.”

“Very few people are aware of the challenges and the prejudices that Catholic nuns faced as they sought to establish their ministries and their institutions,” said Brendan Fay, organizer of the event with Debbie Van Cura of the historical society.

“It’s extraordinary the things they did, and this is an opportunity to explore that,” Fay said. The event will feature two panels. The first is a presentation by historians who focus on Catholic women, the second, a panel of sisters who will discuss their perspectives and experiences.

Tweedy will be included in the second panel. In an interview on Friday, she spoke of the ways that sisters circumvented social and political prejudices. “They were really able to work within the church and with the church to foster social services, healthcare and education,” Tweedy said.

õhough religious sisterhood may seem to some like a tame vocation, many sisters become activists, some are beekeepers or winemakers, others devote themselves to family counseling or law. Each sister’s vocation depends upon the order she joins.

The Sisters of Mercy, one of the three organizations to be represented on the panel, has been serving Brooklyn and Queens for almost 150 years. They founded the Mercy Home in 1862, “quite by accident,” said Tweedy, in order to care for children who were victims of Civil War violence.

While many nuns at that time remained cloistered, the Sisters of Mercy went out into the community to extend medical care and other assistance to some of the most disadvantaged. “They were called the walking nuns,” Tweedy said.

“One of the things that I really admire, because I do developmental work for the agency, is their creativity,” Tweedy added.

“Women at the time were kind of subservient,” she said. “It was the man who could make money and make financial decisions.” In recognition of this, the Sisters of Mercy set up an advisory board with the wives of men of means in the community, in order to solicit contributions for their orphanage.

“They saw it as a need to be done and they did it,” she said. “They worked within that structure.”

The Sisters of Mercy grew their mission to advocate for the disabled in the 1960s and ‘70s. The mission was natural since prior to the establishment of the modern welfare system, the disabled and marginalized members of society were dependent on charitable organizations for healthcare and social services.

After seeing this great need, “we created the first developmentally disabled unit in the community,” Tweedy said. “We brought therapists in, established a school on the grounds and opened a series of group homes in communities for teenagers and young adults.”

The Mercy Home continues to work with developmentally disabled and autistic children, and has homes in Flushing, Rosedale and South Ozone Park.

Fay is glad the sisters will be able to share their rich history of social involvement at the roundtable, noting that many are unaware of it. “They were leaders in the movement for church renewal and social reform,” he said.

“There’s absolutely no question these women, their extraordinary work and their accomplishments should be acknowledged,” he added.

“This is a pause to look at their history, especially the earliest who had to deal with so much hostility and faced prejudice, and I think, lived their lives with incredible dignity.”

The event at the Greater Astoria Historical Society coincides with the final week of an exhibit on Ellis Island titled: “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America.”

Sisters of Compassion

When: Jan. 15, noon

Where: Greater Astoria Historical Society, 35-20 Broadway, Astoria

Refreshments provided

RSVP by email at astorialic@gmail.com or call (718) 278-0700

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