Radical sisters

Changing the world by consensus

They belong to one of the world’s most patriarchial organizations, but when it comes to their own leadership, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) do things differently. This global order uses a model of prayer and consensus to select leaders and make decisions.

‘We’re all Reverend Mothers’
“As someone once put it, ‘We’re all Reverend Mothers,” said Sister Barbara Moore with a warm chuckle. “Although we don’t use that term anymore.” Historically, a Reverend Mother was the leader of a convent, elected by all the Sisters by secret ballot. While some CSJs still live in convents, many others live in their own homes and apartments. There are 1,600 CSJ’s worldwide.

Moore, a CSJ Sister since 1955, is part of CSJ’s St. Louis-based Congregational Leadership Team (CLT)-five Sisters who make decisions by consensus. Although three are full time and two part time, they share equal authority-there’s no chair or vice chair. CLT members are elected at a two-week, once-every-six-years gathering called the “Chapter.” In 2007, this meeting will happen in St. Paul, from July 12 to 26. Among the St. Paul “locals” preparing for this event is Susan Oeffling, a CSJ Sister for 46 years. To her, the order’s consensus approach is very important-and very female.

“Women’s religious communities have been moving more toward a team model of leadership since Vatican II,” Oeffling said. “The consensus model is more fitting for women who consider themselves a community of equals. Everyone may not agree, but they can at least live with the outcome.”

When it comes to the Catholic Church, Oeffling said, “I would love to see it move in that direction… but I think it will take some time.”

In the meantime, Oeffling was asked what it’s like being a feminist working for change in a patriarchal system. “It’s both challenging and invigorating,” she replied. “As a member of a women’s community, you have a great deal of support [within the community]. And we keep looking for ways to involve more people in justice issues.”

Living social justice
The Sisters live out their dedication to social change and service in many ways, including teaching English to adult immigrants and providing home care to low-income seniors. Sisters hold a vigil for peace at Alliant Tech Systems in Edina each Wednesday morning.  They also operate Peace House, a storefront on Minneapolis’ Franklin Avenue that gives people surviving on the margins a gathering place to share fears, hopes, daily struggles and triumphs.

In 2005, the Sisters sponsored an awareness-raising workshop on human trafficking through the College of St. Catherine’s Center for Women, Economic Justice and Public Policy. A post-workshop task force helped put Minnesota’s first anti-trafficking laws on the books.

But locally, among the more well-known of the Sisters’ ministries may be the massage therapy of Sister Rosalind Gefre, who’s been doing her hands-on healing work (along with lectures and advocacy for high standards in the field) since 1983.

Oeffling described the leadership structure at the local level as “extremely complex,” consisting of province committees and offices. Additionally, a leadership team carries out the directives of the province assembly (which meets five times a year; all local CSJs are eligible to vote) and the international Chapter. The ultimate governing body, of course, is the Chapter when it is in session.

The next “Chapter”
The July Chapter meeting’s 150 delegates and alternates will be comprised of Sisters from the provinces of Albany, Los Angeles, St. Louis and St. Paul; and the vice provinces of Hawaii, Japan and Peru. Along with choosing new leaders for the next six years, they will:
Review the life and ministry of the Congregation in light of its spirit and purpose, and in light of the current needs of Church and society.
Make decisions necessary to strengthen the Congregation in fulfilling its mission.
Make any necessary changes in its various governing documents.

Worship and socialize
Much of the work preparing for the Chapter has been under way at the local levels for some time, said Oeffling, who explained that each province and vice province will bring issues of concern to the table. Both Moore and Oeffling agreed that issues of sustaining the earth (including global warming and clean water) are at the top of the agenda. Other issues they think will loom large include war and violence, the exploitation of women and children, immigration, the disparity between rich and poor, and human trafficking, a longtime concern of the Sisters. Even when the Sisters look inward, they’ll look outward: “We will also have questions about our own identity as a religious community,” Oeffling said. “How do we build relationships with other groups? Are there other models we ought to be looking at?”

Unlike political conventions, this election of leaders involves no campaign speeches, lobbying for endorsements, vote-trading, fliers or position statements.

“Fourteen nominees have emerged” from the provinces, Moore said, and for about a year, the nominees have been in a process of facilitated “prayer and discernment” as they decide whether to move toward a leadership role. The nominees will spend time hearing from the Chapter delegates, added Moore, and “through prayer, they will discern among themselves which four or five will come before the body for final affirmation.” There is a proposal before the Chapter to reduce the leadership team from three full-time and two part-time members to four full-time members. Moore described this proposal as being primarily for practical reasons, and added a that in cases where Canon Law requires five voices, a fifth member would be designated. Since the group makes decisions by consensus, it doesn’t matter whether it’s composed of an odd or even number of CSJs.

“It’s a powerful process,” said Moore, and it is decidedly not about winners and losers. “Your gifts may not be the ones most needed at this particular time, but you’re still a good person and a potential leader in the future.”

This fits with the Sisters’ charism (charism is a power, generally of a spiritual nature, believed to be a freely given gift by the grace of God) of unity and reconciliation-and so does the manner in which they deal with the Catholic power structure. “We want to ‘stay at the table’ and try to reach common ground about any issues where there is disagreement,” she said. “On the other hand, we support the hierarchy when we can.  For example, the National Catholic Conference of Bishops came out strongly against the war in Iraq… the conference also supports decent immigration legislation.”

Oeffling also noted that dating back to the 1800s, the St. Paul CSJ province has had “very good relations” with the Archbishops of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Although Bishop John Nienstedt, who will take over that role next year, has a decidedly conservative record, “we don’t want to jump to conclusions about him,” Oeffling said. “We’ll wait and see.”

What is a consociate?
Cindy Kennedy is not, and has never been, Catholic. She doesn’t plan to convert; in fact, she recently graduated from seminary and has just received her first appointment as a United Methodist pastor. She is, however, a member of the community of the Sisters of St. Joseph-not as a nun, but as a consociate.

The seed was planted when she attended a Wisdom Ways Celtic spirituality service in 1999. Kennedy asked someone there what it meant to be a consociate, and was told it means you share the philosophy of the CSJ sisters-love of God and love of neighbor without distinction-and try to live it out.

For years, Kennedy had been fascinated by the McDonalds-four CSJ nuns (and biological sisters) who have long been active locally in peace and justice causes. She heard one of the sisters say “she had gone to a Goddess thing on Saturday and to Mass on Sunday,” Kennedy recalled. “I thought, wow-you can do that?”

The consociate path begins with a year of learning about the community and meeting monthly with a Sister. At the end of the year, you decide both whether to make the commitment to be a consociate, and how you want to live that out.

No one keeps track of how many hours you put in loving your neighbor or working for justice, or whether you’re attending Mass (or Goddess rituals). A consociate’s form and level of involvement are up to her-or him (men may be consociates; Kennedy knows of five or six among 40 to 50 consociates locally). Kennedy stays connected mainly through getting together with her “Sharing the Heart” group, the CSJ exploration group with whom she met regularly during her candidacy.

Though Kennedy’s path led her to become a United Methodist pastor, she “absolutely” intends to continue her association with the Sisters of CSJ. “They have been my spiritual outlet while I navigate the Methodist hierarchy,” she said.

She recalls sharing her ministry plans with a group of Sisters and being “stunned” by the outpouring of support. “Here I was, sharing this news with people who can’t pursue ordination in their own tradition, and they were so thrilled for me,” Kennedy said, adding, “I credit them with my decision to be a pastor.”


More about the Sisters• The Sisters’ roots go back to 17th century France, where they worked with prostitutes-victims of poverty and prejudice then as now.
• There is no such person as St. Joseph of Carondelet. St. Joseph was the husband of Mary, Mother of Jesus. The first Sisters chose Joseph as their patron, hoping to emulate his life of quiet service. Carondelet is a port town on the Mississippi River downriver from St. Louis, Mo. The first Sisters, sent to the United States from France in 1836, began their ministry in the settlement of Carondelet.
• Some Sisters have salaried positions (for example, as teachers or healthcare providers). Salaries are contributed to a common fund that supports retired members and those who work in ministries offering direct service to persons who cannot pay.
• The CSJ Sisters sponsor the St. Joseph Worker Program, a volunteer program that trains, supports, and mentors women age 21 to 35 to be change agents while meeting direct needs in the community and working for justice.
• The four McDonald sisters-Kate, Jane, Rita and Brigid (left to right)-are the subject of a short documentary produced by students at Southside Family School in Minneapolis. Called “Four Sisters for Peace,” it is “Rated R for Rebellious.”
• Several CSJ Sisters (including the McDonalds) have been arrested for peaceful civil disobedience, including Sister Rita Steinhagen, who spent six months in federal prison after a 1997 protest at the Fort Benning Military Base in Georgia.
• Steinhagen, who died last year, wrote her memoir, “Hooked by the Spirit,” in which she details her life of public service as a Sister of St. Joseph.
• The Sisters of St. Joseph were named one of the 15 most influential organizations for Social Betterment/Social Change in Minnesota in the 150 years since Minnesota was established as a territory. (St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 7, 2001)
• The world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics are led by one man (it’s always been a man and, the men who run the organization maintain, always will be) whose word is law. Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, states: “[T]he Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”