BVM Associate Reflects
SALT, Summer 2002
BVM Associate Reflects
Associates have different stories as to what drew them into this richer connection to the BVMs. For me, it began with family. My great aunt, now deceased, and a cousin, are both members of the community.
But I would have to say that my years of teaching at Clarke College were most instrumental in my becoming an Associate. I consider my career there as part of my vocation and the example and witness of the many BVMs I have known at the College is an inspiring part of my journey.
Because of the declining numbers of BVMs in active service at Clarke, my recent sabbatical was devoted to researching the history, core values and traditions of the congregation.
As a lay faculty member I am bringing this research into the experiences the students have at Clarke College through the courses I teach. This is one way that the BVM charism at Clarke College can remain strong even as the physical presence of BVMs there declines.
The BVM core values of Freedom, Education, Charity and Justice have become defining elements of life for me - elements that both exemplify the congregation throughout its history and challenge all of us to reach for the best within us as we journey into the future.
As a teacher, the second core value is especially dear to my heart and I would like to share some reflections on both its meaning to the BVMs and its place in my life.
Three words that well describe the congregation are: "schools, school, schools." Education, at its best, brings forth our spiritual gifts and develops our potential as loving and serving individuals. Mary Frances Clarke and Terence Donaghoe both had missionary souls and they sought to bring this gift of education to those who thirsted for it in the United States, still a "new world" to them in the 19th century.
The life of Gertrude Regan, BVM provides a stunning example of the progress and success of the community in the field of education. She was the fifteenth woman to join the community and her long life spanned a tremendous period of change in the life of the congregation. She was in the early novitiate in Philadelphia with Margaret Mann as her novice mistress.
She entered at the age of 15 before the Mexican-American War and she lived to see the end of the First World War. She was the first BVM to live to celebrate her diamond jubilee, spending 77 years in religious life. She was also the second president of Clarke College, although it wasn't called Clarke back then.
In 1841 when Gertrude Regan entered the novitiate, there were 15 BVMs in the world, conducting one school (in Philadelphia) with about 100 students. When she died in 1919 there were 1500 living BVMs, conducting 82 schools with 31,470 students!
From New York State to the desert valleys of Arizona, from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest, in places as far away as Hawaii and in 21 different states, this community opened school after school after school.
Over the entire history of the congregation, it has staffed and operated nearly 200 grade schools, in excess of 50 high schools, over 25 day academies and 14 boarding academies.
In addition, BVMs founded and staffed three colleges, including Clarke and Mundelein. As for me, education is definitely a calling and a vocation. When I was an undergraduate at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, I was exposed to some wonderful priests and sisters who were very active in social justice issues.
Initially, I felt called to the priesthood and I was blessed to be part of a seminary there that was the backbone of the peace movement on campus. I was witness to the idea that I should choose what would be my life commitment on the basis of the spirit, rather than on the basis of what the larger world deemed "practical."
Sometimes, though, when God calls we don't get the message quite right! I had felt called to be a teaching priest at the college level but it turned out that God had a different kind of fatherhood in mind for me, as my wife and I are the proud parents of two teenage sons. I did have the teaching part right, however, as this along with marriage and parenthood remain deeply embedded aspects of my vocation. Teaching is what I felt called to do, it is part of what gives me joy and I feel God inside of me when I do it. I feel very blessed to have recently completed my twenty-first year of teaching at the home of my second family: Clarke College.
Freedom, Charity, Justice
As I look at all four core values of the BVMs, inwardly I see the magnificent history of this congregation and as well as what I feel personally called to do. Outwardly, I see the importance of the core values for an often lost secular world.
The BVM sense of freedom is a needed challenge to this world. It is not the easy freedom of doing what you want, wherever, for as long as you want; it's being liberated to do things that are extraordinary. It's a spiritual choosing of the countercultural: community over competition, a life of meaning over devotion to money and things, and pursuit of faith over false senses of security. The world needs that more than ever!
And what of education? First, it is NOT job training. The word means "to lead or to draw out" out of ignorance, violence and unfulfilled potential. Those who choose paths in life which don't provide them passion and spiritual sustenance are left unfulfilled. Education, in the Catholic liberal arts tradition, leads one not just out of ignorance but out of spiritual barrenness as well. This is a vital concern as we build upon the third millennium of Christianity.
As regards charity it is truly loving, not mere liking. Indeed, in its ultimate sense it is agape, unconditional love. Though extremely hard to accomplish, in my own experience it is profoundly gratifying once you've actually experienced it. And charity also is joyful service to others.
Justice is last, but certainly not least. It includes focusing on the marginalized, those on the fringes of society. I think it's best to judge a society not by what most people do or have, but on how that society treats its least desirable members.
There's a continuing need for focusing on the materially poor and all those facing discrimination and lack of acceptance in their lives. It involves, at times, working for change within our church as well as for change in the secular world, which often doesn't begin to understand the real meaning of the values of freedom, charity, education, and justice.
We can thank the BVM congregation for providing these four "torches" to light our way through the wilderness.
About the author: Associate Norm Freund teaches philosophy at Clarke College, Dubuque, Iowa.
SALT is a quarterly magazine published for friends and family of the Sisters of Charity, BVM.