Walking with God: for nearly 180 years, Oblate Sisters in Baltimore enjoy serving inner cities in the oldest Black convent.
Then, He spoke to her again and again and again, telling her the same thing, possibly the last thing that any 18-year-old wanted to hear. It's not that she had anything against nuns--only God's insistence that she become one.
"I wanted to be a nurse, marry a doctor and have four children," she says. "But God had other plans for me."
After she "stopped fighting the Lord and started walking with Him," the Washington, D.C., native says she moved to Baltimore and joined Oblate Sisters of Providence, turning "my back to the world and giving myself to God through service to my fellow man and woman."
The year was 1946. Now 80, Sister Fish says that the past 62 years inside the convent have been more rewarding than she ever could have imagined. "It is a life of excitement, adventure, dedication," says Sister Fish, who has traveled to Michigan, Illinois, South Carolina, Florida, Minnesota and North Carolina in service to the church. "It is certainly not boring."
The first Roman Catholic sisterhood established by women of African descent, Oblate Sisters was founded in Baltimore in 1829 by Caribbean teacher Elizabeth (Mary) Lange and Father James Nicholas Joubert, a White priest. The two had initially worked together to teach Haitian refugee children to read and learn religious studies. Lange's impact on the children was so great that Joubert persuaded her not only to become a sister, but to help found the Oblate Sisters and to start a Catholic girls' school, the St. Frances Academy.
Some 180 years later, the order still has approximately 100 members. They work primarily with African-American communities in the inner cities. In these ministries, they continue Mother Lange's tradition of education mad service to the poor, neglected and needy. The centerpiece of their education ministry continues to be the St. Frances Academy. Now coed, it is the oldest continuously operating school for Black Catholic children in the United States.
And while the Oblate Sisters--for a time the only order that would accept Black women--once ministered in 25 U.S. cities and a half-dozen countries, today their work is limited to Baltimore, Miami, Buffalo, N.Y., and a foreign mission in Costa Rica.
When Sister Fish joined in the mid-1900s, there were more than 300 Oblate Sisters, some serving in places such as Havana. She remembers those days quite well. "Back then, there was a fascination with developing a spiritual life and a relationship with Jesus Christ," she says. "It was total dedication. It was strict obedience."
While today the nuns still have to forsake marriage, accept celibacy and give up all of their material possessions, the rules they live by have been relaxed to the point that they live relatively normal lives. Where they once wore full garb, the sisters now wear a modified "habit" consisting of contemporary clothing and a veil. And when the sisters are not working in a professional capacity, they can even wear shorts, go on vacation mad work outside the convent, as long as the money they earn is given to the motherhouse. At the motherhouse, called Our Lady of Mount Providence, they can watch television--and even have a drink every once and a while.
"We have fun," Sister Fish says. "I like to say that you haven't had real fun until you've had it ha a convent."
Even so, most women, especially younger women, aren't interested in that kind of spiritual life. The Oblate Sisters don't officially "recruit," but they do conduct "come and see" events for women who might have some interest in the sisterhood.
Former sociology professor Marcia Hall joined the sisterhood 10 years ago. At 52, the Trenton, N.J., native is still the youngest American-born Oblate sister. She worries that the misconceptions about sisterhood have kept many younger women away. "I feel very strongly that I was called to be here, called to do the work that I am doing now," Sister Hall says. "But we don't have that many women who seem to be interested in religious fife. I'm praying that that will change."
Sister Hall believes it's also more difficult for older women to make the decision to join the order. "It's not just walking away" she says. "You have to sell things, everything. If you're 42 mad a middle manager at some corporation, you're comfortable. You have to really think, 'Do I want to give up everything that I've worked for?'"
Once a decision to join is made, Sister Hall says, there are always questions about whether or not it was the right choice. "You have your ups and downs. You have your good days and bad days. You have your days when you wake up and you ask, 'Why am I here?'" she says. "It's like anything else ... But you made a commitment and you try to work your way through the issues that you may have from time to time."
In 2000, the City of Baltimore erected a monument in honor of the Oblates, and the sisters have asked the archdiocese to consider canonization--one of the highest honors the church can bestow on an individual--for Mother Lange.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDRIE F. CHUNG
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|Article Type:||Organization overview|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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