Collaborative ministry

Friday, January 15, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am
By Sister Mary Parks

While the number of Catholic sisters in many congregations is getting smaller, sisters are banding together across communities to support their neighbors in need. This has resulted in life-changing ministries, such as housing and life-skills training for homeless families and efforts to end human trafficking.

Efforts to work together have a long history in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. With a start offered by the Diocesan Sisters Council several decades ago, the major superiors joined together with the religious in Greensburg and in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese to form the Tri-Diocesan Sister Leadership Council. Within the past five years, the Tri-Di was dissolved and a new group, the Catholic Sister Leadership Council, was formed.

For nearly 50 years, men and women religious have worked together to develop formation programs for those entering religious life. Vocation directors representing men and women meet to strategize and plan vocation activities throughout the diocese. Religious have formed healthy and trusting mutual relationships addressing retirement planning and support groups for retirement community leadership.

Collaborating to address other critical needs flowed naturally from these relationships. Two such needs, addressed by a social justice group called PATH (Persons Against Trafficking of Humans), are the plight of vulnerable people being trafficked and that of those who are immigrating to this country.

Another very successful collaboration in the Pittsburgh Diocese is Sisters Place, which offers a home and supportive services to homeless families throughout Allegheny County. In 1993, the organization incorporated and received its nonprofit status through the auspices of the bishop of Pittsburgh, and today Bishop David Zubik continues to recognize Sisters Place and the work it does with families who are homeless.

Twelve congregations remain active on Sisters Place’s member board and the 20-person board of directors includes five women religious. In these ways, the sisters protect the mission to help homeless single parents, the vast majority of them single mothers. In addition, exceptions are made from time to time to support intact families and single fathers with children who are homeless.

Homeless families do not fit the street homeless image. They are usually not ragged or dirty or living in a cardboard box. Parents try very hard to protect their children and, at times, they are living wherever they can — in someone’s basement, on their living room floor, in a spare bedroom. This is not always a safe situation, but as one of our moms said, “I was less afraid of whatever might happen to me in that house than I was of losing my children.” They hide their homelessness if they think authorities will place their children in the care of others.

Rachel came to Sisters Place after Clairton school personnel discovered she was living in her van, parked in front of an acquaintance’s home. Her daughters, Mattie, 7, and Jessie, 5, were attending school. They had no home because Jessie had just spent months in a local hospital battling critical illness. Rachel lost her job and her home during the months of hospitalization. She was also pregnant. A few months after moving into her home at Sisters Place, Lizzie was born. Rachel worked on her goals, and this past summer she moved into permanent housing. The girls are all doing well.

We have so many wonderful stories of people using the opportunities they have at Sisters Place to forge a new, far more stable future. Our small dedicated staff provides critical support to the parents and their children — from birth on. But we could not do this mission without the support of so many friends who come to our events and donate what they can in furniture, household goods and dollars.

The sisters have always provided what financial support they could, but we have also been blessed by generous area Catholic pastors who have allowed us to come to their parish and share our work with the people. They buy our raffle tickets and they provide angel tree gifts for Christmas. By far the largest increase in our individual donors has come because these caring priests have allowed us to come into their churches and share the good news of the Gospel alive at Sisters Place.

Sister Mary, a Sister of St. Joseph, is executive director of Sisters Place.

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