The Sisters of Mercy
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For this assignment, I decided to research the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order of nuns. I never before realized that there is so much behind their amazing devotion to the Catholic Church and God. I must admit that they are beautiful examples of God's teaching, and I feel truly blessed to be involved with the Sisters of Mercy. Each and every one of them has a unique story to tell about her life, but none is more intriguing than that of Sister Mary Joel Hopkinson. Having only heard bits and pieces, and not knowing for sure the steps that each of these women had to take to become who she is today, I asked Sister Mary Joel to share her story with me.
When she was born into a Protestant family in New England, no one could have guessed that Sister Joel would end up becoming a Catholic, let alone a Sister of Mercy. But as it turned out, as Sister Mary Joel Hopkinson says, "There was no way to deny it; this is what God wanted for me." Sister Joel has been a Sister of Mercy for almost fifty years. What is so interesting about her story is that she has been a Catholic for only fifty years. Only a little more than a year after she converted to Catholicism, she found herself looking to enter a convent. She explained that all her life she had had Catholic friends. At one of her jobs, she was the only non-Catholic in the carpool. The Catholic Church intrigued her, and she was of a curious nature, but not until years later did she realize that God was sending her a sign. She puts it rather bluntly when she says, "God pushed me out of the window and into the convent." Sister Joel was not always a businesswoman; in fact, she worked in a building in Brooklyn, New York, cleaning windows on the second floor. It was a rather old building, and the chains on the windows had been painted over a number of times. Once, while struggling to pull the window down, she lost her footing and fell out the window. The reason she says God pushed her is that the only ambulance on call that day was from St.
Catherine's Hospital. So out the window, and into a Catholic hospital, Sister Joel lay flat on her back listening to Catholic talk radio. Because her interest in Catholicism could be detected, the religious nurses brought her books and information about the Catholic religion. "The whole experience aroused my curiosity," she says, " so when I finally returned to work, I asked one of my Catholic friends for further information on the faith." This landed Sister Joel in a priest's office, and she was baptized a Catholic at the age of thirty-two. She needed to "repay Him for this wonderful gift of faith," and by 1952 she was confirmed.
Less than four months later, in February of 1953, Sister Joel entered the Sisters of Mercy. Strange as it may seem, she was almost twice as old as the other girls in her band. (A 'band' is a group of girls who enter the order at the same time.) Many of the girls were straight out of high school, but Sister Mary Joel was thirty-five years old. Today, many women enter the Sisters of Mercy Community in their fifties and sixties. But forty-eight years ago, Sister Mary Joel was unique. She began the first of five steps toward becoming a Sister of Mercy. This process of becoming a Sister of Mercy, which Sister Anna Marie Saltzman, of the Incorporation Team for the Brooklyn, New Jersey, and New York Regional Communities, says "can take anywhere from seven to ten years", begins just like any other job. After all, "a religious vocation is a career decision, but it is also a lifestyle choice grounded in a total commitment to God" (Sisters of Mercy website). The process begins with a formal written application. At this stage, which can last up to two years, the applicant is required to meet with a vocational minister. This person, who is already a Mercy Sister, is available just as guidance counselor is in high school. The minister prays with the applicant and answers questions about Catholicism , the role of the Sisters of Mercy, and faith in general. At the end of the two-year period, if the applicant decides the Sisterhood is a wise choice, the application is accepted and the person moves on to the second step. Sister Joel almost didn't make it that far because she was so new to the religion that it seemed she would not last, but she insisted and was allowed to stay.
Sister was then accepted into Candidacy. This, Sister Anna says, may be the most difficult of the steps because "it is a time of transition. The person lives with the community and for the first time has to adjust to living with a group of people." It is a way to get a feel for the order, before making a final and more serious commitment. A brochure about becoming a Sister of Mercy explains that "this period allows you to become active in our day-to-day lives as you reflect more deeply on where this journey is taking you." This is the time for thinking and making certain about the choice.
The third phase, when one becomes a Novice, is a time for learning about the religion and strengthening faith. One studies theology, scripture, and the history of the Sisters of Mercy. This time is also devoted to serving local needs and helping others, which is a big part of the Sisters' mission. The novice can leave after this period has ended; in fact, she is free to leave whenever she decides this life may not be right for her, but the deeper she goes into the stages, the more difficult and serious they become.
Upon completion of the Novitiate, she becomes a Sister of Mercy. This stage is called Temporary Profession or First Vows. This is the time when the Sister makes the vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and service to the poor, sick, and ignorant. This period can last from three to six years. This is the time when one is truly considered a Mercy Sister and begins participating fully in the Mercy way of life. Sister Joel explained that the ceremony used to require girls to wear a wedding gown; she borrowed the gown of the very same woman who served as her Godmother when she converted to Catholicism.
The final step is Perpetual Profession or Final Vows. This is a sign to the public that the candidate is truly committed, and in front of family, friends and the Community of the Sisters of Mercy, she vows to live as God's servant. In a way, she marries the Church because, just as in marriage, she vows to live this way of life until God calls her back to His heavenly kingdom.
This entire process took Sister Joel only five years instead of the minimum of seven, which is now the requirement. Everything that she has done with her life has had an amazing story behind it. Not only were almost all her friends Catholic, but many of them had some acquaintance with a Mercy Sister. Not only did God spare her life the day she fell from the second story window, but he sent her a message in doing so. Not only has she lived as a faithful and loving individual, but she has made the ultimate sacrifice and a total commitment to the Lord. In my opinion, she has said more than "thank you" to God for the gift of faith; she has said thank you and given her gift of life back to the one who, essentially, gave it to her at birth. She will celebrate her Golden Jubilee, or fifty years of service, in 2002, and she continues to serve her community as the treasurer for the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community of New Jersey. I thank her for sharing her story and for the amazing sacrifices she has made for the good of those around her. She truly has become a model of the Mercy Spirit and an inspiration to all those around her.
Allen, John L. Jr., "Mercy Sisters Rethink Vows, Members." National Catholic Reporter. 13 Mar. 1998: 13-14.
Hopkinson, Sister Mary Joel. Personal interview. 7 Nov. 2000..
Saltzman, Sister Anna Marie. Personal interview. 8 Nov. 2000..
Sisters of Mercy Website. http://www.sistersofmercy.org/