By BISHOP EDWARD BURNS
A BISHOP’S PERSPECTIVE, in the Juneau Empire

Since 1980 there has been a bronze statue of a Catholic sister, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. The state of Washington placed her statue there to recognize and honor her tireless 19th century work to establish hospitals, schools and orphanages throughout Washington Territory, which in those days encompassed Washington, Idaho, northern Oregon and Montana.

She was a Sister of Providence who — with four other sisters from her order — left her motherhouse in Montreal, Quebec, for the Pacific Northwest. They did so to carry out the mission of the Sisters of Providence, which, in the words of their 1859 act of incorporation in the territory, was “the relief of needy and suffering humanity, the care of orphans, invalids, the sick and the poor, and the education of youth.”

Sister Helena Fox photographed on January, 31, 1997.
Sister Helena Fox photographed on January, 31, 1997 at St. Ann’s Nursing Home, Juneau, AK.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Sisters of Providence had established 29 hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the aged, shelters for the mentally ill, and schools for Native Americans throughout the Northwest. In 1902, the year in which Mother Joseph died, the Sisters of Providence first came to Alaska, eventually founding Providence Hospital in Anchorage, which continues to be a ministry of the Sisters of Providence.

Monday, Feb. 2 in the Catholic Church is the World Day of Consecrated Life. In addition, this year is being observed by Catholics as the Year of Consecrated Life. So I am thinking with particular gratitude about the holy, dedicated and committed women such as Mother Joseph and so many other religious sisters who have made such a contribution to our country and to our state.

In Southeast Alaska during the mining era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Sisters of St. Ann, a nursing and teaching order of sisters from Quebec, established hospitals, schools and orphanages in Juneau and Douglas. They also served as teachers at the Pius X Mission School in Skagway and in Interior Alaska.

Throughout our country, religious sisters continue to live amazing lives of community and service. They dedicate their lives to serve the poor and disadvantaged and work with others to promote the common good.

Let me briefly share with you the stories of three great women religious (all of whom have been recognized as saints) who lived out this remarkable dedication to the poor and those in need: St. Katherine Drexel, St. Marianne Cope and St. Francis Cabrini.

Katherine Drexel was a wealthy American heiress from Philadelphia who upon entering religious life at the turn of the 20th century donated her inherited fortune to the mission of education for African-Americans. Despite violent opposition in the segregated South, she and her sisters persevered. Overcoming great difficulties, she helped found Xavier University in New Orleans.

St. Francis Cabrini had hoped to serve in the mission field in China but instead was sent to serve the hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants who were pouring into the United States. In New York City, she and members of her religious community established hospitals, schools and orphanages for new immigrants who were often despised and discriminated against as they struggled to survive in their new home.

St. Marianne Cope had already founded two hospitals in New York State that welcomed all patients, regardless of their ability to pay, their occupation or their religious or ethnic heritage. In the 1880s, she and a small group of her sisters accepted the invitation to travel to Hawaii to care for patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) on the isolated island of Molokai. She served there for 35 years and worked with Father Damian de Veuster. Sisters from her order continue to serve there today.

In our own day, sisters continue to live this legacy of compassionate and selfless service. Currently there are two women religious serving in Juneau: Sister Marie Lucek, OP and Sister Dee Sizler, SC.

Sister Marie, who celebrated her Golden Jubilee of religious profession this past year, works in parish ministry and as a volunteer hospital chaplain. Sister Dee, who will be celebrating her Jubilee in the fall, is a counselor and has been part of the effort to establish Haven House for women seeking to build a new life after being released from incarceration.

Motivated by their love of Christ and their love of neighbor, religious sisters all over the world are doing their part to serve the poor and those in need. Out of the spotlight and without fanfare, they serve as teachers, doctors and nurses, administrators and advocates to make our world a more just and more compassionate place.

As St. Marianne Cope once remarked: “What little good we can do in this world to help and comfort the suffering we wish to do it quietly, and so far as possible, unnoticed and unknown.”