Feet in the Vineyard: Sister Margaret Kerry
I recently had the good fortune to conduct an email interview with Sister Margaret Kerry, FSB. Sister Margaret is a Pauline Sister and a member of the team at Pauline Books and Media, located 243 King St.
Although I normally convert interviews into Feet in the Vineyard stories, I found her responses too interesting to edit. As an Anglican, my knowledge of religious sisters, nuns and monks is (very) limited — although I do not believe I am alone in my ignorance. For Protestants, these devout individuals are often “the face” through which we see Roman Catholicism — and I didn’t want to cut short the story she shares. Her story is certainly one of commitment to Christ!
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
My family moved to Louisiana when I turned three. We lived in Lafayette for a year and then moved to Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. Growing up in the South has given me a unique Southern perspective on life. Metairie was a growing town so I attended three Catholic grade schools, with a fifth grade stint in public school, as schools were built and as we built a home. I attended Archbishop Chapelle High School. I am still in touch with my best friends from grade school and high school. We try to get together whenever we can. My family moved to Pensacola, Florida after I joined the Daughters of St. Paul. My studies, in the order taken, were in Organizational Development/Management (DePaul University in Chicago), a masters in Pastoral Ministry/Theology at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and certificate programs in Scripture, evangelization and volunteer programs. This year is my 40th anniversary of vows in the Daughters of St Paul, a.k.a. Pauline Sisters.
When and how did you feel called to consecration?
There are “nuns” (the popular usage) and there are “sisters.” Technically nuns are cloistered in a consecrated religious community. My cousin is a Carmelite (think St. Theresa) and is in a monastery. A sister, on the other hand, is also a consecrated woman and moves from place to place for the mission. My first inkling of a call to religious life was in junior high.
I already enjoyed quiet moments with God on nature walks and in church. We talked often about everything. The sisters I knew taught school or ran hospitals. I was attracted to the missionary life and signed up as a volunteer to assist new mothers in Appalachia — closer to home. At the same time the sisters of my order were opening a book and media center in Metairie. Since my younger sister — the sibling sort — was considering religious life, I drove her to meet the sisters. Then my boyfriend’s sister wanted to spend some time with the sisters in Boston, Massachusetts and he asked if I would accompany her. I said sure. That is when I connected with the sister’s mission — bringing the gospel to others through the media. (Of course, at that time media was limited to print, radio and television.)
In Boston I witnessed the sisters writing, running printing presses, creating radio programs and living a life close to the Lord in prayer. It was very attractive. My mom wondered why I hadn’t considered the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s Order just then being founded. I asked her how she knew about Mother Teresa.
“I read about her,” she said.
That is why, I explained, I wanted to join an order that publishes and uses all new media — to tell people the Good News. Later I found out that our sisters are in 53 countries around the world — and my vision expanded.
Where have you served?
After studying in Boston my mission has taken me to service in New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and Cincinnati. There I reconnected with Appalachia and met Mother Teresa! I was here in Charleston 20 years ago and am so happy to have returned four years ago. I served on our governing board at our Boston headquarters for six years. My journeys out of the U.S. took me to San Paolo, Brazil, various parts of Italy and Lourdes, France. No matter where I go I find amazing people. The best part of my service is that, not only do I bring the Good News of the gospel, I also meet the good news in so many faithful people. Social media and broadcast news may leave us fearful and angry — but when I go out among people in every part of our country ,I am so inspired by the faith, courage and love I witness.
What would surprise readers to know about life as a sister?
Perhaps the study that goes into becoming a sister will surprise you. When I joined I was a postulant for two years (this is a canonical state of living in the convent but without a formal commitment — a “come and see” time.) If you want to go the next step you ask and the sisters say yes or no. If yes, novitiate is next. For another two years you study Scripture and the constitutions of the order (the rule of life). It is a time to form friendships with the women you study with. There is also a period of working in the mission.
After this you can ask to take vows. If the answer is yes, then you live in community and perform the mission with other sisters. There may be a few years dedicated to studies as well. Each year you ask to renew your vows. This happens for five years. On the fifth year you know if this is for life and you may request to study for perpetual profession. This study takes place in at the General House on a hill outside of Rome. There you are able to study with sisters from all over the world. Italian is the common language. Once this year is completed you return to your country of origin and plan a big celebration in your home town (if you wish) to pronounce your “yes” forever.
The other thing that may surprise readers is how normal sisters are. We are women who have dated, perhaps been engaged, been on professional basketball teams, worked in computer programming, may have been an atheist, may not have been born Catholic, are graphic artists, writers, bloggers, are on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, love to swim, hike, kayak and of course pray at all times. Some sisters had the desire to be a “nun” since they were five; others were surprised by God — what St. Paul describes as captured by God’s love.
In what ways would you say the life is difficult?
There are times when you are young that ideals hit the wall of reality. This happens in all of the vocations (calls) we say “yes” to as human beings. We are all people of dreams, ideals, hopes and desires. St. John of the Cross says there are dark nights of the senses and a dark night of the soul. These are part of the journey. Without the dark nights and the surrender to God’s plans our growth would not occur. In religious life it is difficult when a friend leaves the community. It is hard when you are asked to do something that means you have to give up something else. The beauty of this life is that there is meaning in all of this. The meaning is a person — Jesus Christ.
My office colleague, a good Catholic lad, opined that some priests and nuns say “obedience” is the hardest vow — partially because of the faith required to obey when you learn you are being re-assigned to … say … a position on Shetland Island off northern Scotland. What are your thoughts on this?
I have heard this as well. We have vows of chastity and poverty as well. Many may consider giving up a spouse the hardest vow to pronounce. In youth this may be true and the sign of a vocation to consecrated life is that married life looks wonderful yet you choose to love others with a larger embrace in a chaste way. Poverty has its moments and yet we are blessed by the generosity of people who help supply our needs. When we are truly poor we surrender our desires. That is why obedience is the hardest. To be obedient really means to keep your ears open (the origin of the word) to God’s desire, God’s will. In religious life we discern God’s will and the superior brings that discernment of the community to a decision. It may be my way of doing things; it may be an assignment I really like; it may be a transfer to a colder location!
How did you arrive at Pauline Books as your ministry?
Our foundation began with a young man of 16 who had just re-entered the seminary. He had been kicked out of the minor seminary for reading material that confused him about social issues and theology. Then he prayed for three hours a day between the 19th and 20th centuries. During that time he felt God call him to organize a group of men and women who would employ the media for the gospel message. After he was ordained he began this organization which became what it is today — five groups of religious men and women and five groups of lay people who work together using media to bring the Gospel. In 2010 I traveled to Rome with a film crew, friends of the congregation and a sister/screenwriter to film his story. It is available on DVD or streaming (“Blessed James Alberione: Media Apostle”).
Pauline Books & Media is one of our responses to the need for the gospel in today’s world. It is not a store, but a center. The Pauline center, besides looking and feeling like a retail location in the best location (34 years on King Street) also has a chapel open to the public, a meditation garden and tea room, hosts two bible studies, a young adult study group and more.
What sorts of additional programs and resources do y’all offer?
I mentioned the Bible studies. We have an early morning “Faith Sharing” on Tuesdays. In the fall this begins at 9:00 a.m. and in the summer at 10:00 a.m.; during the fall a Bible study follows faith sharing from 10:15 until 11:30. In the evenings another Bible Study follows at 6:30 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.
The young adult group, “Lucis Via” or “Way of Light,” meets from 7:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. This young adult group also does works of charity: an Annual Fun Nun Bowl is the main fundraiser. They also participate in soup kitchens, building homes for the homeless, and other social ministries.
Various Christian authors visit for book signings and presentations throughout the year.
Each of these events takes place in a room dedicated to accommodating groups. The original art on the wall is for sale (I also contribute paintings) and the tea room and garden are an extra benefit.
This fall we will begin a discernment series for those young women who want to discern their call.
Throughout the year we hold book fairs at churches and schools. We also present a weekend biblical/eucharistic multi-media program and take our books to conventions throughout South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Volunteers often assist us in this mission.
The first Saturday in December we have a Party for Baby Jesus. Families come with their children to dress up like characters in the Christmas story. We have a life-sized stable and photographers. The photos are printed on site and families can also take digital photos. St. Nicholas often joins us to hand out chocolate coins to the children and tell the Christmas story.
At Christmas we join Pastor Gordon for Christmas at the Citadel. We set up tables to provide copies of the Bible, inspirational books for children and adults, DVDs and music.
What might you describe as the difference between a typical Protestant/non-denominational bookstore and a Roman Catholic bookstore. What unique nuggets might one encounter?
Walking into our center we do have C.S. Lewis in a prominent place so all Christians and people searching for answers feel welcome. Interspersed throughout we try to have Christian books that appeal to many denominations and seekers. We also have a number of Bibles in the front with a variety of translations, Bible tabs and covers. Other popular authors who are Catholic but have a wide appeal are Richard Rohr, Henry Nowen, Thomas Merton, Ronald Rolheiser, Pierre Philippe, Joyce Rupp, Joan Chittester and books such as Jesus Calling and God Calling.
The very Catholic books are obvious as you move though the categories: A Mariology section, books by Pope Francis (and a standing cardboard Francis for selfies!), catechisms, exploration of the Catholic faith, and theology. While the children’s area is stocked with a variety of Bible story books and story books with appeal to a wider audience, there are also some Catholic saints and study books. Another Catholic clue is found in the sacramentals — holy water bottles, Icons, statues, medals. In the back of the center we have a card section that appeals to everyone. We have new books coming in every week while the perennial classics are continually stocked. Another service we provide is ordering Liturgical items for churches in the Charleston area. We also ship items that are requested.
Oh, and you are greeted by friendly “nuns” in habits!
We hope everyone feels welcome to come in for a cool drink of water, to have tea or coffee in the tea room, to sit out in the garden for a while or to meditate in the chapel.
The local Pauline Sisters can be found Facebook -@PaulineBooksCharleston; on Twitter at @CharlestonPBM and online at Pauline.org. Sister Margaret can be found on Twitter @Kerrygma. They also respond to queries through social media.