Miss Clavel in Tanzania: Learning to See the World Upside Down

By Sister Jackie Goodin

“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines”

I hold onto a favorite childhood memory, I think from when I was five years old. My mother held my hand as we crossed the broad downtown streets to the grand Columbus Public Library. There, we found Ludwig Bemelman’s classic children’s book, Madeline. This was the beginning of my love of books. (Never read Madeline or want a refresher? You can listen to the book being narrated here.)

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Somehow, the persona of Miss Clavel, the matron of those twelve little Parisian girls who “walked in two straight lines” during their time in Catholic boarding school, has stayed with me. (I’m still working on developing my Madeline persona—but that’s for another blog!)

Of course, don’t we all know that there is not too much in life that is as ordered, structured, and tidy as “two straight lines?” I certainly learned this lesson again and again during my five years in Tanzania, from 2010 to 2014.

Do you see two straight lines
Do You See Two Straight Lines?

Oh, I started out as a Miss Clavel at St. Joseph Hostel (“a boarding school without the school” as I describe it, since the girls at the hostel live and study their, but actually attend classes at a nearby school. ) But soon, I  had to abandon this persona as I guided teenage girls during their years of high school, and learned that nothing moves in “two straight lines” for teenagers! You parents of teenage girls are laughing at me now, I’m sure.

My time with the girls and the other Sisters of St. Joseph with whom I served, from India, Brazil, and Canada, transformed my life and gave me a world view that is much more up-side-down than from the perspective I had previously; one of a person from a first world nation.

Sr. Malathi with a graduate
Another sister from the hostel,
with a kindergarten student

So, it was with great excitement and gratitude that I was able to return to my second “home” in southwestern Tanzania for two months at the end of 2016. I was asked to fill in at the Hostel for a Sister who had returned to her home country for medical treatment. Fortunately, I knew what to expect this time around, so I left my Miss Clavel identity back in the U.S. (Well, I did feel like I was forever straightening desks and tables into nice lines in the Hostel’s classrooms and dining room! But otherwise, I kept Miss Clavel in check!)

It's been a long day!
It’s Been a Long Day!

The girls were studying frantically towards their final examinations since the school year  in Tanzania runs from January to December. I was there to help them stay on task, but certainly not to keep their spirits in two straight lines. In fact, the girls have taught me over the years to find your own lines–whether they be dashed, squiggled, curvey, and yes, sometimes straight!

And what happens at the end of a school year? Of course, graduation! It was my joy to attend two kindergarten graduations, and to be with Tanzanian children who took me back to my Madeline years—but, oh, in a very different setting!

Madeline has the giggles
Which Girl Might be Our Own “Madeline”?
Maybe the One with the Giggles?

Not one darn straight line in sight, with children running around, one hand grabbing their flying-off-the-head graduation caps. Wonderful free-form dancing by the children and their families that had even this old Miss Clavel moving her hips and clapping her hands.

dancing, cropped
Everyone Dances!

Delighting in watching even the smallest graduate keeping rhythm on a goat-skin covered drum. Sharing in the parents’ pride in their children, particularly in a country where every year of education is a privilege.

Keeping the beat!
Keeping the Beat!

Congratulating the teachers and staff for their love of the children and their hard work teaching them ABC’s and numbers in Swahili. And finally, loving the Sisters of St. Joseph who work so hard each and every day in an adopted culture to support the dream of universal education for Tanzanian children. All culminates in graduation day!

Which one is Madeline
A Big Accomplishment!

The country, the language, and the culture are not my own. However, there is no better way to experience the one-ness of the human family than to be immersed in a different culture or place. Once again, I experienced our Creator’s divine dream to bring all into one family—and what a fun way to dance into this reality!

Proud mother with graduate
A Proud Mother and her Graduate!

Parents are parents, children are children, teachers are teachers, and Sisters of St. Joseph are all the same wherever we are! And this Miss Clavel will never be the same for it!


About the Author

Sr JackieSister Jackie Goodin worked as a librarian at the Cleveland Public Library for 10 years prior to joining the Congregation of St. Joseph (and is still a pretty good whiz at book trivia!) Since receiving her Masters in Social Work from Case Western Reserve University, she has held several positions as a Clinical Social Worker. She is a darn good cookie baker, and loves to read detective stories from around the world.


Sisters Wear An Invisibility Cloak Every Day!

Confession: I am a Harry Potter fanatic. I have read the books and seen the movies more times than I can count, and could recite most of the lines for you if asked (no one does :-). So, it should be no surprise that in a recent meeting when a sister said, “I’m just going to put on my invisibility cloak,” my mind immediately went to young Harry, opening his first ever Christmas present, and finding an invisibility cloak inside. If you’re unfamiliar with the movies or this particular scene, you can watch it here.

giphy (27)The cloak ends up playing amajor role inHarry Potter lore. Harry, along with fellow wizards-in-training Ron and Hermione, use the cloak to get into all manner of mischief, from sneaking around the castle to playing pranks on friends, but then ultimately using it in their quest to defeat the villain of the series, Lord Voldemort. But the sisters’ comment that day got me thinking. The invisibility cloak from the Harry Potter series is very much like the “invisibility cloaks” often worn by women religious as they move about and minister in our communities.

Here are 5 things Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and sisters have in common:

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  1. They move around the world unseen.
    While they are not using their invisibility to sneak past teachers in the hall, the invisibility cloaks of sisters do allow them to move through the world without being noticed. Since Sisters of St. Joseph no longer wear the habit that many people still associate with women religious, they are once again able to move through our communities without calling attention to themselves, as they did way back in 1650 France when they first formed. Wearing plain clothes means sisters are no longer seen as “separate” or on a “spiritual pedestal,” but it also means you may not know when you are seeing a sister.
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  2. They work for the good of others.
    More often than not when employing the invisibility cloak, the characters in Harry Potter have altruistic goals. They are trying to uncover the keys to a perceived danger or help a friend escape trouble. In this same way, the invisibility of sisters is used for good. The Sisters of St. Joseph’ mission is to bring all into unity with God, with one another, and with all creation. They, along with their partners in mission, do this through prayer, direct service and ministry, standing with and for the poor and vulnerable, and advocating for systemic change. By putting themselves in the background, they are able to focus on the needs of others and our world.giphy (24).gif
  3.  Many people don’t know about them.
    “There are still nuns?” “How would I have known you’re a sister?” “Why don’t you wear a habit?” You’d be surprised how often we hear these questions. We know that there are many sisters living and working in communities all over the country and the world. But many people’s idea of what a sister is, or should be, means that they don’t see sisters in their lives. Just as many of the adults in Harry Potter don’t suspect that the students are using an invisibility cloak to get around undetected, many people don’t realize that sisters are around either! In fact, you’ve probably talked to or seen a sister out in the community and not even realized it.
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  4. They helps us in our most human moments.
    Ok, so I know that humans are not actually invisible. But in a poignant scene, Harry has just learned that his parents were betrayed by one of their best friends. Upset, he uses the invisibility cloak to seek solitude in his pain. Who hasn’t wished for the ability to disappear from the world in times of trouble? But what is even more important about this scene is that Harry’s friends don’t just let him go off on his own. They follow him, letting him lean on them for support. While sisters may seem to wear an invisibility cloak to much of the world, they are also always surrounded by a community of other sisters who understand their struggles and support them in their most human moments.giphy (34).gif
  5. They are an unexpected gift.
    When Harry comes downstairs on that first Christmas morning at the castle, he does not expect to receive any presents. He has never received Christmas gifts at all, let alone a gift that is such a magical, and ultimately important, one. When one becomes a sister, the gift of invisibility is not one that is expected. But their ability to do good in the world, to move through our communities and help others sight unseen, is a true gift.giphy (35).gif

So the next time you watch Harry Potter, remember the Sisters of St. Joseph and how, like Harry, they sometimes wear invisibility cloaks. While you may not always be able to see them, they are still here, working in the world and praying Jesus prayer, “that all may be one.”

About the Author

Elizabeth-Powers,-WebElizabeth Powers is the Electronic Communications Coordinator for the Congregation of St. Joseph and manages the blog, Beyond the Habit. She sometimes acts as a contributing writer when faced with a particularly poignant, sister-inspired moment. She loves reading, writing, and Harry Potter.

Welcome to My House: An Anthropological Study

By Sister Carol Crepeau

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Welcome! I want to invite you into my house, my home. It’s actually an almost-100-year-old-farm-house-turned-rectory that the Sisters of St. Joseph rent from an Episcopal parish. Two of us live here in Helena House, Sister Jackie and I, but in reality many in our Congregation and neighborhood have experienced this homes warmth.

Thinking about our house I started wondering, what would an anthropologist, that is, one who tries to figure out what makes humans human, who studies the origins, the behaviors, the physical, social, cultural reality and the developments of humans, say about Sister Jackie, me, and our house?

I’ll bet that an anthropologist (let’s name her “Ms. Anthropologist”) would concentrate on three aspects of Helena House:

  • The Dining Room
  • The Deck
  • The Refrigerator Door

These three areas could serve as symbols, or even better, examples, of what make my housemate and I most human, most whole, and, hopefully, most holy.

I would imagine that, upon visiting our home, Ms. Anthropologist would have questions for us about these three areas. For example, why, since there are two sisters living in the house, do you have a dining room table that seats ten?


In a very real way, our dining room table is as sacred as an altar in a church. The Sisters of St Joseph was first founded in 1650 in Le Puy, France by a Jesuit priest and six women in a kitchen that contained a large table. For Sisters of St Joseph, gathering for a meal is an extension of Jesus dining with friends. If we squeeze together at our table, we can even seat 12!

Ms. Anthropologist might then ask, why the deck? The deck is our outside gathering place for experiencing life in Spring, Summer and Fall. Often times we are visited by seven deer, including a buck, two pairs of mourning doves, countless warblers, one yellow tail hawk and of course robins, cardinals and blue jays, chipmunks and squirrels. There is something wholly perfect about wine, cheese, close friends, neighbors and nature.


Finally, Ms. Anthropologist might ask about the refrigerator door. After all, aren’t most people interested in the contents of the refrigerator?

But for us, our refrigerator door is really an illustration of our lives. It is our bulletin board, art gallery, and where we post artifacts of significant people, places and things in our lives. When Ms. Anthropologist studies the refrigerator, she will see a number of magnets, each symbolizing some significant realities in the lives of myself and Jackie. Magnets from places we’ve been: New Orleans, Le Puy, Seal Beach, Tanzania. In the center of the door, right now, is a photo of an Air Force Doctor hugging his daughters’ good-bye as he leaves for deployment in Afghanistan – he is Jackie’s nephew, Matt.


Ms. Anthropologist might notice a couple of magnets with quotes on them:

“You would make a great nun.”

And my favorite

“DANCE as though no one is watching you, LOVE as though you have never been hurt before, SING as though no one can hear you, LIVE as though heaven is on earth – Souza”


On one side of our refrigerator lives our list for the store. On the other? The refrigerator bulletins the photos of the next generation of children in our families – Ms. Anthropologist might see Mason, Charlie, Gracie, Jack, Lila…the most recent photos, all depending on our families’ current Facebook activity.


Finally, Ms. Anthropologist should know that there are two principles of spirituality that underpin life at Helena House:

St Irenaeus in the third century proclaimed, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Jean Pierre Medaille SJ, our Congregation’s primary founder, wrote: “Let the Sisters live that they will become fully human, in glory and grace, with God and the dear neighbor.”

Hopefully, Ms. Anthropologist’s study, and our own, concludes that Helena House is truly a warm, welcoming, unpretentious, real home, and that hospitality, a core value of the Sisters of St Joseph, is an important reality for the two humans who live in this home.

About the Author

Sr. Carol photo editedSister Carol Crepeau, CSJ ministers as a facilitator and leader of group dynamics for non-profits. Guiding the annual Congregation of St Joseph Pilgrimage to LePuy and Lyon, France is one of the most wonderful activities of her life. She also enjoys a good book and gathering with friends for prayer and conversation.



Keeping Focus During First Communion

By Sister Jean McGrath

After many years as principal in a large parish school, spring time has become synonymous with First Communion. For weeks preceding the celebration, the anticipation increases exponentially for our second graders. Because I began my career in education as a second grade teacher, the event always holds special significance and an awareness that although times have changed, the day is always a memory maker.

Despite my best attempts to provide age appropriate theological reflection on the significance of the sacrament, attention to other details often took precedence over my desire to plan grace-filled days of preparation.

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First, there was the dress.  Would the church be filled with mini brides and prom queen wannabes? Move over Louis Viutton, our communicants had beautiful white plastic purses with mini missalettes and tiny white gloves inside.


The boys were at their sartorial best, often in bow ties and suits that suggested a board room position at the local law firm.

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First Communion cakes were adorned with lilies, crosses, and gold cups the size of small kettles.

My how things have changed!

Today, First Communion gifts like silver miraculous medals have been replaced with iPhone 6s.

Perhaps the greatest evolution has been in the way we encourage the communicants to be on their best behavior. “Be good because your guardian angel is on your shoulder” is now, “Be good, the videos are capturing every moment.”

guardian angel cropped

One could easily be discouraged. Did we lose the beautiful meaning of this precious sacrament to the commercialism of pretty dresses and after mass parties?

Absolutely not!

On the Monday after First Communion I ask the second graders to tell me about the most special part of the day. “When I went to Mass yesterday, I had my second Holy Communion with my mom and dad.” “My Nana gave me her rosary.” My personal favorite from last year: “When I was in Church, I felt like Jesus really loves me even more.”

rosary cropped

Each year at the beginning of the First Communion Liturgy, our Director of Religious Education invites all present to close their eyes and think about their own First Communion and about the child who invited them to this very special Mass. Each year it is a moment of grace for me as I think about the thousands of Communions I have had since my first. I invite you to do the same. You may be amazed at the graces and blessings you will remember.

First communion historical photo, cropped

But be careful, the videos will be rolling.

About the Author



Sister Jean McGrath is principal at St. John Fisher School in Chicago and enjoys a good book, a good conversation, and a great bargain.


Can We Talk? Speaking the Language Known ‘Round the World

By Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger

Oi! That’s Portuguese for “Hi!” I’m writing today from Itu, Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Sisters of St. Joseph have just finished hosting an encontro, or gathering, of younger sisters and mentors in Latin America.

You can find Sisters of St. Joseph
all over Latin America, and the world!

What’s a sister from Chicago doing at a meeting for Latinas in Brazil? Happily, I was invited (I didn’t just crash the party!) and I jumped at the chance.

It turned out there were almost a hundred of us—many from Brazil, as well as some from Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Haiti. There was also a sister from Mozambique, one from India, myself from Illinois as well as a sister from West Virgina. Yes, Sister Barb McCartney and I were the only two from the Global North. We were welcomed with love beyond imagination, yet it was an enlightening experience to be the relative “outsiders” as English speakers.

All sisters
We all came together,
and learned to work through the language barrier!

So, okay, let’s talk “language.”

Our presenters spoke Spanish, which was mostly understood by the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Every once in a while, the women listening to Spanish with Portuguese “ears” would raise their hands and say the Portuguese equivalent of “wait, wait, I don’t know what the heck you just said!” The Haitian sisters spoke French and Creole, but their mentor understood Spanish, and so translated for them.

Sister Barb and I knew enough Spanish between us to get us into conversation with other sisters, but nowhere close to enough to get us all the way through. So luckily, we were provided with the translation services of Brazilian Sister Bette. Other sisters sometimes pitched in to help Sister Bette get ideas across to Sister Barb and me (It took a village!)


Mary Jo and other sisters

That’s me, on the left, with Sister Barb (right),
smiling because Sister Bette (middle) had our back!

Sometimes we could feel the discombobulation of it all. But, for the most part…it worked! It’s amazing how quickly sunny smiles and warm hugs break the ice! And the Latina sisters communicated unsparingly with these affectionate media. Song and dance-y movement introduced every session.

The purpose of coming together, after all, was to open ourselves more deeply to our common spirituality and life: echoing together the prayer of Jesus that all might be one, ourselves with the dear neighbor “without distinction,” even as we are one in God (John 17:21). One could expect a good bit of relating in such a group, right?

sisters dancing conga line, cropped

Communication can come
in many forms, even a conga line!

The ingenuity of the organizers was in fashioning many of the prayer times such that they were less dependent on words. Prayer was often centered on gesture and music, images and imagination, symbol and gazing. In so doing, we were able to share our hearts without the frustration of the language barrier. Upon reflection, I realized that this freed up some of my energy while staying totally engaged. It was quite moving, really.

And heavens to Betsy! These Brazilian sisters knew a LOT of songs in common! It felt like we were hanging out with Maria and the von Trapp family singers. There were also evening dances that were crazy fun. For one, sisters wore traditional ethnic dress; for the other, the Brazilian sisters kept the contemporary tunes flowing. We didn’t need to speak the same language to understand the joy in song and dance!

sisters dancing in garb, 2

Song and dance is joyful,
no matter your language!

So, what I observed is that my Latina sisters’ spirituality is very much embodied. They are very comfortable in their own skin, and relate to one another with touch, embrasos y besos (hugs & kisses) as well as pats on the shoulder and hand-holding. And there are always vibrant smiling eyes to meet one another.

What an amazing trip! What a wonderful way to remember and deepen our understanding that we are “bearers of the tradition,” carriers of the charism of unity and reconciliation, at the same time as our Sisters and Associates of St. Joseph all around the world. We are all more the same than we are different, all speaking in the language of unity and love. I’m leaving Brazil with a deeper sense of gratitude for the gift of belonging to the “Congregation of the Great Love of God.”

Obrigada! That’s Portuguese for “thank you!”

About the Author

Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger is a former school psychologist and high school teacher of theology. She is now working on a doctoral degree at Catholic Theological Union. She loves movies, dancing, and little kids.

Flying, Time Travel, and a World Without Borders

By Sister Christine Parks

As I begin to write this blog, I am sitting at 35,000 feet, headed back east toward Chicago at 600 mph. Amazingly I will arrive home the same day, several hours before I left Tokyo—and so I wonder: will I be younger when I arrive than when I left? If I kept traveling east would I keep getting younger—would I be able to see the most immediate past a bit more clearly? I suspect not, but that’s just one of the mind-twisting mysteries of time-traveling the globe by jet.


Many of us have been here,
35,000 feet up with only our thoughts!

Another “mystery” is that if I were able to see the ground below this plane there would be no lines (neither latitude nor longitude.) There would be none of the artificial boundaries we have erected to separate ourselves from others—those we determine to be “not us”; those whose differences we build into impenetrable walls rather than invitations.


What other “mystery” lies beneath the clouds?

Looking down through the periodic breaks in the clouds I can see all the structures of the amazing geography of this globe that is our home. The landscape unfolds in rivers, mountains, prairie, forests—large and small, and the inevitable signs of human habitation.

The one thing I can’t see are the borders, the thin blue lines that cover every map. Lines that divide us from each other. Boundaries that we try to mark out with checkpoints, fences and walls. Lines that we sometimes seem all too willing to kill and die for.


Looking down from above, the landscape is beautiful.
And borderless.

These past couple of months I have been trying to figure out what it is that is happening in our nation and world. Trying to puzzle out the swirling chaos. Trying to frame this in my sense of the difference between our Congregation of St. Joseph charism of unity, with its appreciation of diversity, and our all too human temptation to seek uniformity in thought, religion, relationships, and so many other aspects of life that creates division.


You can’t hold the whole world in your hand,
but you can try to hold it in your heart.

And yet some of us yearn for the unity promised by our experience of the Holy. We yearn, seek and pray for the union that respects and reverences the incredible diversity we see all around us. The diversity that gives the rich texture of wonder and beauty to this world that is our home. That is what I see outside this window; what I hope for in the world around me; what I seek inside myself.

About the Author

Christine Parks

Sister Christine Parks currently serves as a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph Leadership Team. Her leisure activities include gardening, long walks in nature, reading, writing, attending plays and concerts, as well as museums.


Konnichiwa! Reflecting from Japan

 By Sister Jeannie Masterson

When I entered the convent 55 years ago at the age of 18, I assumed that I would teach elementary school in Cincinnati all my life. The furthest thing from my mind was that I would travel to Japan! Yet, in the past 9 years as a part of the Congregation Leadership Team (CLT), I have been to Japan 17 times – in fact, I’m in Japan as you read this! The delights are many, from coming to know our Japanese sisters to being introduced to an entirely different culture.


Our sisters have always gone where they are needed,
and in 1950, they went to Kyoto!

When in Japan, I am constantly challenged to open my mind and my heart to another way of thinking, speaking, living. I’ve learned how instinctively I assume that “my way” is the ONLY way, and how often I am dead wrong about that. I am by nature direct in my communication; Japanese are circular. I expect immediate decisions; Japanese need to mull thoughts over time. I think in terms of what I want; Japanese hardly have vocabulary for “I” as they focus on “we”. I have food preferences because of familiarity, for which there are no comparable options in the Japanese cuisine. I expect traffic delays, whether on the highway or at the airport; Japanese are extremely punctual and reliable – as a matter of fact, should a taxi not be at least 5 minutes early, the passenger will receive a phoned apology and a new arrival time!


I’m not sure where I was heading in this picture,
but I know I got there on time!

While in Japan, I find myself listening differently now than I did on my first visit: what’s beneath the words? What are the words for which our meanings are totally different without our realizing it? Where are the hidden assumptions, on both sides – those beliefs that are so ingrained that neither of us ever thinks to say out loud? How do I comprehend and appreciate those assumptions that refuse clear translation, when I’m never there for more than ten days?


We may have words with different meanings,
but we all agree that this building is beautiful!

The central value of the Congregation of St. Joseph is unity – Jesus prayed “that all may be one”. These exposures to Japanese culture invite me to pray more deeply to understand what “unity” means: surely it doesn’t mean blending so that neither culture is maintained. It brings me to the realization that our world contains hundreds of cultures, each unique and developed and cherished. How do I cultivate true respect for each, neither imposing my ways on them, nor fearing their influence on me? How can I continually be conscious of, and appreciate, their multiple gifts to the totality of the world?


We are all one! Whether from Japan,
the United States, or anywhere else in the world!

Going to Japan calls me to think global, to open myself to new understandings, to acknowledge that we Americans are not the center of the universe. We are part of a whole, and the more we work to bring the whole together – rather than divide it – the more amazing that whole will be.

In 1950, the Bishop of the Diocese of Wichita asked Sisters from our founding community of Wichita to establish a clinic for the poor in the Diocese of Kyoto, Japan. Since our first sisters arrived, our congregation has ministered to those in need through engaging in  healthcare, senior care, education, and retreat ministries in Japan. Sisters from our Congregational Leadership Team visit our sisters in Kyoto and Matsusaka twice a year.

About the Author

jeannies-picture-2015Sister Jeannie Masterson is currently serving her second term on the Congregation Leadership Team. Earlier she served in provincial leadership, teaching, high school administration, and as a pastoral associate for adult formation. Sister Jeannie was the founding and active director for eight years of Cincinnati’s Jordan Center, which brought health attention to uninsured working people and their families.