SHM Extended Family Lenten Day of Prayer – The Dignity of Women: An RSHM Tradition

By Jill Muller, Marymount Convent Volunteer and SHM-EF Core Committee Member 

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On Sunday, March 11th, the Sacred Heart of Mary Extended Family (SHM-EF) met at Marymount for a day of reflection centered on themes of inclusion and connectedness. We began the day by joining with the RSHM for Liturgy celebrated by Fr. Senan Taylor, O.F.M. Cap. in the Scavullo Room, followed by a light lunch in the auditorium. In the afternoon, an audience of over seventy people, both RSHM and Extended Family, gathered to listen to Sr. Ellen Marie Keane speak on "The Dignity of Women: An RSHM Tradition." Sr. Ellie's talk was an adaptation of a video presentation she had made in January for a group of younger RSHM meeting in Béziers.

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Beginning with a definition of feminism as "a vision of life emphasizing … inclusion … connectedness … and mutuality", we were reminded that, "Feminism also entails the conviction that full individual development can take place only within a human community that is structured in Justice. And so, feminism works for social change."(K. Fisher, Woman at the Well. Paulist 1988).  Applying this definition to the historical and ongoing work of the RSHM, Sr. Ellie showed us how Pere Gailhac's ministry with prostitutes (starting with a young woman named Adelaide whom he encountered at a hospital where he worked) led him to open a refuge for vulnerable women in 1834, and afterwards to insist that any school which was opened for those who could afford to pay, must include some ministry for the poor and abandoned who lived in the area. Adapting Gailhac's example to new settings and changing cultural conditions, the RSHM community currently focuses on providing safe housing for victims of trafficking, literacy programs for immigrants, and justice and education for marginalized women and their children. 

Sr. Ellie spoke movingly of her own experience of teaching incarcerated women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, describing the transformative effects of education on women denied dignity and hope. In one specific and unforgettable example, she told of a young woman who responded to Plato's "allegory of the cave" in an unexpected way. Instead of identifying with Plato's "prisoners," this student recognized that she had been living in a dark cave before she was imprisoned, wasting her life in criminal activities, and that only now, in prison and enrolled in the Marymount Manhattan College program, was she beginning to see the light of reality, with all the complex questions that entails.

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True to the spirit of the day, Sr. Ellie took many opportunities to include her audience in the conversation. At one stage she invited us to share our reflections about women we regarded as wise, and the qualities we saw in them.  Wise women, we decided, were those who had courage to speak their truth, but also the patience and humility to listen. Wise women eschewed hasty judgements and stereotypes and treated everyone, especially the vulnerable, with dignity and respect. Wise women knew how to connect with others and how to laugh as well as grieve together. Many identified their mothers and other relatives as teachers of wisdom. Equally often, these qualities were associated with beloved teachers and mentors among the RSHM.

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Thank you to the Extended Family's Core Committee for organizing this event, and to all who helped to make the day so inspiring and memorable. Our special thanks go to Sr. Ellen Marie Keane RSHM for sharing both knowledge and wisdom.  

Kasia Laskowski