A tale of two Sisters

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It is no secret that religious congregations of sisters have been shrinking for years. In many parts of the world, sisters are growing older, and fewer young women are entering religious life. While the number of religious sisters may be smaller, the legacy and impact of women religious continues to be enormous. Time spent with a special sister pair reveals how women religious have been shaping our lives, our community, and our world for years.

Sister Elizabeth Joseph Toomey, CSJ, and Sister Catherine (William Francis) Decker, CSJ, belong to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston and live at the Motherhouse in Brighton. Their community's mission is to work for unity and to help people become both whole and holy. These two religious women have been dedicated to that mission and to God during their religious lives. And, in their journey, they have walked with many others on the path of Christ.

Recently, these two lovely ladies sat and shared stories about their lives of dedication and service. Their joyful spirit and cheerful gratitude permeated both the conversation and the hearts of their listeners. It is easy to understand how these two devoted Catholic women have marked the lives of so many with blessed grace.

Hearing and answering the call

Growing up with five brothers, Sister Elizabeth Joseph learned early on to be resilient. She attended Gate of Heaven Elementary School and later the parish high school. It was in her sophomore year that she first felt the tug of religious life. "I was so impressed by how happy the sisters were there and the great work that they did with the kids," she recalls. "Nothing was ever too challenging for them. They were kind and they were fun, and they just seemed to be people who really knew the direction they were going. And most of all, they wanted that for us."

Her call to religious life became stronger so, when she finished high school, and with her mother's blessing, she entered immediately. After an initial bout of homesickness, she completed her postulancy and her novitiate in Framingham. "I became comfortable being away from home and here I am . . . 70 years later."

Over the years, Sister Elizabeth Joseph was missioned as a teacher in several Catholic schools, arriving eventually at St. Joseph School in Medford as one of only three sisters. "They were struggling to survive," she reflects. "It was a hard time in the Church. Many sisters were leaving and there was a lot of unrest. But the people in Medford loved their school and their parish community. We felt a different kind of spirit there."

"Unlike Sister Elizabeth Joseph, I've only been on two missions," Sister Catherine is quick to point out. "I grew up in Jamaica Plain and attended St. Thomas Aquinas, which is the cradle of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Boston. I made my way through high school and eventually to Boston State. After one year, I entered the novitiate." Like Sister Elizabeth Joseph, she also experienced homesickness. "I used to cry when anyone said a word that began with the letter "M" because it reminded me of my mother."

From the novitiate, Sister Catherine went to St. Charles Borromeo in Waltham and spent 15 years there, teaching until the school closed. "Everything was changing so we sisters could choose where we wanted to go. There was an opening for a seventh- and eighth-grade teachers at St. Joseph in Medford and so I went!"

Together, these two sisters spent the following 47 years in service to the students, faculty, and families of St. Joseph. The special spirit that was alive and flowing through that community made a significant impact on them both. "The spirit there was so strong. People's lives revolved around the church and the school. They had all kinds of programs and activities, things like boxing and choir and a school band. Parents would help coach and lead student groups and it was just a very vibrant community."

Among the many blessings that Sister Elizabeth Joseph and Sister Catherine recount are the memories shared with them from former students. "We've had youngsters write and tell us how much of an influence the sisters had on their lives and how much they're bringing their learned values into their current professions."

"One young lady is now a mayor," Sister Elizabeth Joseph eagerly shares. "In a recent column, she set out to speak of all her accomplishments as a council member. But then she changed her mind and instead spoke of what the sisters had taught her in school, how they encouraged her to do good for other people no matter what career she pursued."

"And at a funeral the other day, an alumni policeman came up to us," said Sister Catherine. "He remembered that when he was in school, students came from many different towns and backgrounds, but no one knew the difference. Everyone treated each other with the same respect and dignity. He told us that we had a lot to do with developing that attitude. But that was just one of the great motivations and incentives in our work."

Alumni stories underscore the influence that these sisters had on students and families' lives. They were responsible for not just teaching lessons but educating children in values and virtues. But to these sisters, the appreciation is all theirs.

"We don't think we could have been as happy at school if we were in places where we didn't come to school happy. We lived in great communities of sisters. Were there difficulties and hard days? Of course. Were there situations over the years that needed change? Of course. But those were incidental kinds of things. Both of us have wonderful memories of the community life that we had in the convents."

"We have been so fortunate. Both in the convent life, the parish life, and the school life. It was all together -- it was one whole piece."

The gratitude, dear Sisters, is all ours.