Nuns exit Chicago, but leave legacy

Chicago Tribune

Growing up in one of Chicago's predominantly Polish neighborhoods, Sister Pat Suchalski had never imagined a world where people had less because of the color of their skin.

But when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. crusaded for civil rights in the 1960s, Suchalski witnessed hatred in her hometown and heard a call to serve.

"I think, personally, God used that as a wakeup call for me to say, 'Not all is well with our world. What are you going to do about it?' " she said.

At 18, Suchalski took her first vow with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a Roman Catholic women's order devoted to serving low-income black and Native American communities with more than 60 schools in hardscrabble areas across the U.S. In Chicago, the sisters ran St. Elizabeth, St. Monica and St. Anselm parish schools.

But that era has come to an end. Like half a dozen other Catholic women's orders, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have left Chicago, no longer able to carry out the mission with fewer nuns but hoping others will continue the work.

On Oct. 15, 11 women returned to St. Elizabeth for a Mass honoring the order's 94 years of ministry to black Catholic youths in Chicago. Wearing sashes emblazoned with the names of 260 sisters who served the Chicago mission, they shared communion with St. Elizabeth's congregation one last time.

"Our spirits will never leave the city of Chicago," said Suchalski, now president of the order, which numbers 183 sisters, down from 600 at its peak in the 1960s. "Chicago is part of who we are."

The order's mission to Chicago began shortly after it was founded by Mother Katharine Drexel in the late 19th century.

A pious heiress who traveled extensively, Drexel witnessed extreme inequality among American Indians in the West and African Americans in the South and urban North.

On a pilgrimage to Rome, Drexel personally pleaded with Pope Leo XIII to send missionaries to help the nation's oppressed minorities. The pope replied there was none. It was up to her.

In the 1890s in Bensalem, Pa., she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament -- a name that emphasized her belief that all are welcome at the communion table.

"Katharine recognized before many people in our church, even in our country, that God calls all people to come around that Eucharistic table to eat the body, to drink the blood," Suchalski said. "When we do, we are equals."

Drexel, who was honored with sainthood in 2000, established 145 Catholic missions, a dozen schools for Native Americans, 50 schools for blacks, and the nation's first and only Catholic college for blacks -- Xavier University in New Orleans.

In 1912, she opened the first parish school for Chicago's black children at St. Monica, the first black parish in the city. That school merged with St. Elizabeth in 1915. Sisters not only taught classes of up to 100 students, they also made home visits after school and became an integral part of the community.

"The entire South Side was their home," said Patrick Pender, 34, who attended St. Elizabeth. "They were my extended parents. They bent over backward every day and never received pay for what they taught us."

Over the years, tuition at Catholic schools rose as lay teachers replaced lesser paid nuns and priests. In many cases, Catholic schools in poor black neighborhoods have been forced to close, unable to provide an affordable education that would attract families from the surrounding area. St. Elizabeth and St. Anselm remain open.

Drexel, Suchalski and other sisters in the order sought to conquer such lack of opportunity in cities where they established missions, including Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The nuns have since withdrawn from these cities and have closed a number of elementary schools in New York, New Orleans and the Southwest.

The October Mass was not just a farewell to the sisters but an invitation for the congregation to continue the tradition.

Sister Roland Lagarde, 66, one of the last two sisters to leave Chicago, said she had mixed emotions when she was told the order had to leave Chicago. But she had seen it coming and thought Drexel would have approved of the sisters' handing over the reins.

"What was begun in faith has not so much ended; it has taken root," she said through tears. "And because it's taken root, we can move on.... My heart is filled when I see the fruits of our labor."

Nearly 2,400 women representing 156 religious orders operate in the Chicago archdiocese, down from more than 7,300 nuns 50 years ago.

The sisters also inspired parents. Pender, who returned to St. Elizabeth as an eighth-grade teacher, knows he has inherited the order's legacy and mission.

"They taught us how to enjoy heaven on Earth, how to think for ourselves, how to be like the early bird and catch the worm," Pender said. "And when you lose something like that, you lose an essence, a presence, a spirit that cannot be replaced."

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