Sister Christine Smith, last Blessed Sacrament Sister in the archdiocese, set to leave in June
Since 1914, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have been a treasured presence in the Archdiocese of Boston as they tirelessly worked to share the charism inherited from their foundress, St. Katharine Drexel: to devote their lives to the welfare of Native Americans and African Americans.
As Sister Christine Smith, SBS, the last Blessed Sacrament sister in the archdiocese, prepares to go back to her native Pennsylvania in mid-June, she confidently says her departure does not mark the end of a 108-year-old presence of the order in Boston, knowing their legacy lives on in the Associates of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the people whose lives they have touched.
The second of the six children of Daniel and Alberta Smith, Sister Christine was born in 1944 in Philadelphia and grew up in Lansdale, a small town in Pennsylvania with an equally small Catholic community.
"A lot of the Catholics in that area weren't immigrants, but they were a people that had not been there as many of the early settlers were, so it was Italian, Polish, Irish -- many nationalities," Sister Christine said, speaking to The Pilot at the Fontbonne Convent on May 31.
Aside from attending St. Stanislaus Parish, Sister Christine nurtured her faith at the parish school, where she completed 12 years of education, guided by the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia. While the example of the sisters had ignited in her an interest in religious life, it was her maternal aunt, Marie -- a Blessed Sacrament sister who had taken the religious name of Sister Denise -- who modeled for her the zealous labors of a missionary sister.
"If she ever came in from the missions, like South Dakota, Chicago, or other, in those days, foreign part of the country, we'd be able to come over to Bensalem, Pennsylvania, to the motherhouse to visit her. It was a great event," Sister Christine recalled.
After her high school graduation, Sister Christine, not yet aware that God was calling her to religious life, commenced a career as a teacher of Catholic elementary education, taking college classes and teaching third grade in the Philadelphia area. One day, however, during a visit to the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she had a profound spiritual experience. While she was at the chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, she felt a clear call from God to join that community.
"He wanted me there, and I could not say no," Sister Christine said.
Leaving her tight-knit family in Lansdale to enter her aunt's community was especially difficult for Sister Christine, but she embraced the order's mission to evangelize Native Americans and African Americans and embarked on a path of formation to best fulfill her role as a sister of the Blessed Sacrament.
Formation and teaching years
When Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress, established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in February 1891, she and about a dozen sisters-in-training set out to minister to Native Americans and African Americans. Convinced education was the answer to the oppression of racism, Mother Katharine, as she was then called, used her inheritance to build academic institutions, which, in the 20th century, would amount to more than 100 universities and elementary and secondary schools across the U.S. and Haiti.
It was precisely at one of these institutions, Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black university established in 1915, where Sister Christine completed her bachelor's degree in education, having moved to New Orleans after professing her final vows in 1971.
Following in the footsteps of her Aunt Marie, she headed for the mission sites of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Louisiana soon after, teaching young African Americans, particularly in junior high. Periods of teaching in the missions of Alabama, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., among others, followed before Sister Christine made her way back to her native Pennsylvania. While her main focus was math and science, having obtained a master's degree in science education from Temple University in Philadelphia, "you'd fill in where you were needed," Sister Christine said.
The years 1989 through 1993 found Sister Christine teaching at St. Ignatius School in West Philadelphia, while from 1994 through 1999, she assumed leadership of the institution. The time she had spent in the classroom, molding the minds of future generations, prepared her for her role as principal -- as well as a master's degree in private school administration, which she earned from the Jesuit-led University of San Francisco, California.
"We were very well-educated teachers, administrators, or catechetical instructors. Whatever our role was, we were well prepared," Sister Christine said.
In the early 2000s, however, Sister Christine received an invitation to work for the Archdiocese of Boston -- an invitation that would change the course of her life trajectory.
A beacon in the Archdiocese of Boston
Arriving in Boston in the summer of 2002, Sister Christine joined her community of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Patrick's Convent in Roxbury. She wasted no time putting her talents and skills to the service of others as she ministered at the parishes of St. Patrick and St. Katharine Drexel -- the latter of which is a Black Catholic community formed in Dorchester in 2005.
While a classroom was no longer the setting of her work, Sister Christine embraced a different type of instruction: RCIA and Adult Sacramental preparation. Meeting with young couples who wished to marry in the Catholic Church and needed confirmation classes became part of her days, as well as preparing individuals to enter the Church through baptism and the sacraments of initiation.
"It was a whole switch . . . but I got to teach my faith," Sister Christine said.
Aside from actively visiting the sick and shut-in, she was a reassuring presence at nursing homes and hospitals where parishioners were patients, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Senior programming is another endeavor in which she unquestionably leaves her stamp. Since arriving in Boston, she continued the thriving program Those with Leisure at St. Patrick's, which gathers seniors from the culturally diverse Boston community, including Cape Verdeans, on Tuesdays. Such days always started with Mass, and after serving hot lunch, Sister Christine would lead activities like bingo and exercises.
Community outreach was a large part of the senior programming, not only at St. Patrick's, where she partnered with nurses and nursing students for monthly wellness checks, but also at St. Katharine Drexel's, where she headed the Senior Club, established soon after the formation of the parish in 2005.
There, as she ministered to a vibrant community that includes African Americans, Nigerians, and Hispanics, she frequently booked guest speakers to talk about issues regarding health. Among the organizations Sister Christine cooperated with for her senior programming is the City of Boston's Age Strong Commission.
It was in 2010 that Sister Christine started the Associates of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Boston, a group of lay "men and women who are dedicated to a life of prayer and their Catholic faith, centered on the Eucharist," she said. The associates, who, Sister Christine said, have monthly meetings and a special St. Katharine Drexel prayer, also conduct ministry and outreach to the poor and homeless.
Since St. Patrick's Convent closed in mid-2020, Sister Christine, who was the 2017 recipient of the Robert L. Ruffin Award for her "selfless sacrifice, creative vision, and significant service to the Black Catholic community," has been living at the Fontbonne Convent in Milton, alongside the Sisters of St. Joseph. She remained active in her ministries even as the pandemic unfolded, continuing her RCIA and Adult Sacramental preparation classes through Zoom.
As she prepares to leave Boston to continue her ministerial work at St. Ignatius Nursing Home and Rehab Center in Philadelphia, she said, "the mission and ministry of the Sisters continue through the lay people."
"It is in the Providence of God that the Catholic Church is going into this new phase of stronger lay leadership, and that's what we are about: encouraging and praying with lay leadership. They are our future; you are our future," Sister Christine said.