I was born and raised in Chicago, on the Southside, and was a White Sox fan. I attended St. Killian grade school in a very Irish neighborhood. Upon graduation I was accepted to Mount St. Mary Academy where I received my high school education.
Both of the schools I attended were staffed by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. While in high school I decided to ask the Dominican Sisters if I could join them. My reason for this request was rather esoteric, as I wanted to know more about God, always a mystery, and I thought that by becoming a Sister I’d have time and opportunity to understand this Mystery. I’m still trying to learn.
My first appointment, once I finished the novitiate, was to teach in the primary grades in Jacksonville, Florida. I remained in Florida (Ft. Lauderdale, Tallahassee, Melbourne) for eleven years teaching first through seventh grades. I finished my Bachelor’s degree at Barry College (now university) in 1962 and began work on a Master’s.
Vatican II was a wonderful change for women religious and we embraced it with seriousness and openness. Studying and returning to the teachings of the early Church and the core reasons our Congregation was founded gave new life to us, and a re-commitment to the life we chose. Many women left the Sisterhood, this was painful as we saw many friends leave, but today I believe this was the work of the Holy Spirit.
The reason I say this is because the women who left had studied leading theologians from the Council of Vatican II and could share this more easily with people who did not have the same opportunities to study. As Sisters, we were still in habit and who would think of asking a Sister about the Council? But these women could spread the word.
In 1969, when sisters had an opportunity to choose their ministries I asked to return to Chicago. I was teaching in the Social Studies department of Aquinas Dominican High School when I asked to complete my Master’s degree.
Teaching in an inner city, all-girls high school I felt I needed to understand the how and why of urban development. With the idea that I would return to teaching, I enrolled in the University of Illinois/Chicago department of Urban Planning. The classes were held during the day so I could not continue teaching.
So, I began working for the City of Chicago Department of Housing to help with the costs of my education. This was a whole new education for me because, since high school, I had been enclosed in the life and work of the Church, living in a convent, where women’s leadership was the norm. Working for the City of Chicago I became aware of how educated and gifted women were rarely given the opportunity to use their gifts and advance in the work place.
I stayed with the City for eight years and then ministered in a homeless shelter, eventually becoming the Program Director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. It was while I was with the Coalition that I began thinking about working to empower women who wanted to respond to the many needs of the poor, women and children. So many women saw needs but were unable to receive funds from the institutional Church, even though these were ministries that responded to the teachings of Jesus.
At the time in Chicago, Cardinal Bernadine reversed his decision about girls being altar servers after two years. So girls who had been serving and doing a good job were “kicked out.” I was so angry about the treatment of women, so when Sheila Murphy said we needed a Mary’s Pence I knew I was not alone. I had already had the vision in my head. And you know the story of my mystical experience. Then, I felt all those women who came before me, Theresa of Avila, Dorothy Day, calling out, “Quit being angry and do something!”
Well, starting Mary’s Pence was a lot of hard work! Remember this was before the internet so a lot of the early part of spreading the message was by word of mouth. Sheila Daley from Call to Action was really helpful and did mailings to their supporters. Barbara Blaine, who was running a Catholic Worker house in an old convent gave us our first office, so I didn’t have to work off of my dining room table anymore. Sister Pat Hurley, OP, helped with the bookkeeping and my sister-in-law, Loretta Gallagher, kept the donor lists and took care of communications. I could not have done it without them.
And the early board members were invaluable. They wrote articles and gave speeches and in some cases were able to get support from women religious congregations, especially the Sisters of Saint Agnes congregation, the Loretto Sisters (Mary Luke Tobin’s congregation) and the Incarnate Word (Yolanda Tarango’s congregation). My own congregation also gave $20,000 so with all that we were able to give grants the following year.
I was on the road a lot going to conferences and parishes. Women would contact us and say, “My pastor is very supportive.” So I would encourage them to go to their parish about taking up a second collection or having a table with information. As active parishioners, they had a good chance of getting a positive response.
I drove all over—Maine, Texas, Connecticut—meeting with groups of women, usually in their homes. I just knew that once people were given the chance to direct money to women—who had been ministering in the name of the Church for so long without recognition—they would jump at the chance.
Things were changing in the Church. Catholics were no longer following the line “Pay, Pray and Obey.” We were already leading our own prayer experiences, and many were following the Vatican II teaching about following your conscience, especially when it came to contraception. The institutional church would never listen to us—ever—unless we hit them in the pocketbook. I figured if we held back the money, the institutional church would have to talk to us.
I saw Mary’s Pence as part of the Church, but also a movement to realize the church that didn’t exist yet. Being part of Mary’s Pence meant donors were funding that future church.
Once Mary’s Pence got a real office in Evergreen Park, IL (old timers will remember this site) it took me 45 minutes to drive to and from my home. Every day I would turn on the car radio and get frustrated with the bland, and sometimes even mean, conversations. I began thinking what radio needed was a program that enlightened and helped listeners grow.
So when I left Mary’s Pence I created a radio program, Voices That Listen a talk show that covered faith paths, wellness, spirituality and human growth. It was a spirit-filled experience and I enjoyed meeting so many wonderful people from different backgrounds. Chicago has so many resources, people and organizations: Chicago Theological Union, Loyola, DePaul, St. Xavier Universities, Spertus Jewish Institute, Islamic Institute to name a few, along with leaders in the Jewish, Hindu, Black Muslims and Christian faiths. I loved every interview and so did the listeners.
But radio is a cutthroat business and my congregation and I realized the costs were too prohibitive to continue. After four wonderful years I had to give up the program—a sad day.
As we all know when a door closes, God opens a window! In 2005 I met one of our sisters who was working with poor Mexican women. I joined her for lunch and she told me about her ministry in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She was going to be alone—the two Sisters who were working with her responded to other ministries—and she wasn’t sure she could handle all the components of the ministry by herself. I said I didn’t speak Spanish but would be glad to come and try to help out in any way I could. I was invited to “come on down” and she showed me the programs.
Needless to say, I was in awe of Centro Santa Catalina where the poorest of the poor women and children were being given a chance to succeed. (This was a Mary’s Pence grantee.) The program includes education, an economic component, spirituality classes for the Mothers, a garden program and self empowerment of women aged 17 into the sixties—many unable to read and write when they begin at the Center—it was a ministry we all dream existed. I took the job of Marketing Director and I travel into Mexico a few days a week and I travel around selling the women’s weaving. You can see the work and purchase beautiful products at Centro Santa Catalina. (click here)
I still live in El Paso, Texas with Sister Rene Weeks, O.P. who is the director of the Center. It is a wonderful (sometimes stressful) life – God is good. Peace!
Watch: Sister Maureen Gallagher speaks about founding Mary’s Pence