A lively sense of humor and an
inspired ambition have made
Ursuline Sister Bridget an
unstoppable force for good at
The Boston Home. She prays
a lot, too.
PHOTO BY JOHN FEISTER
"I live in the heart of the world," says Sister Bridget
Haase. "You can almost feel the heartbeat."
This 67-year-old Ursuline sister is sitting
for an interview in a quiet room
of the busy Boston Home, where
she tends to the spiritual needs
of 100 people with multiple sclerosis. It
is among these residents that she hears
the world's heartbeat today, but she wasn't
always here. She's ministered across
two continents over her colorful career.
St. Anthony Messenger readers in the
Boston, Massachusetts, area may recognize
Sister Bridget as a regular guest on a
number of Boston radio stations.
She hopes to be a regular guest
next Lent, along with her brother,
Franciscan Friar Albert Haase,
on SIRIUS Satellite Radio's The
Catholic Channel. Her story even
was, this past August, featured
on NBC Nightly News's "Making
a Difference" segment.
Ask Sister Bridget where life
has taken her and perhaps she'll start with Appalachia,
maybe with Sudan, possibly with schoolchildren in Missouri,
on the U.S. border with Mexico or at the dignified, spunky,
inspiring Boston Home. She might even start with her birth
home in New Orleans, where her family suffered an early,
tragic loss. Sister Bridget, you see, is a consummate storyteller,
and life has given her plenty of material.
Life's Hard Lessons
Her story starts in New Orleans, where, as a teen attending
an Ursuline high school, she felt called to be an Ursuline sister.
Actually, the call was rather loud. At a retreat, where she
was horsing around with friends, the priest-director suddenly
raised his voice and pointed to the crucifix: "'Girls! Look at
this man!'" she recalls. "And it bolted me out of dreams and
just total distractions and caught me off guard.
"Then he asked the three Ignatian questions: 'What have
you done for him? What are you doing for him? What will
you do for him?' And all of a sudden I thought, 'I'll be a nun.'"
It was a new thought for her, she who had dreamed the
ambitious dreams of a young Catholic girl in the 1950s, that
is, of having 12 children! But a few weeks after the priest's challenge, thinking, Why not try?, she
decided to enter the convent. "Here I
am, 50 years later—seems like yesterday—with no regrets, and I have been
given many more than 12 children!"
Her early years as a sister, though,
were marred by tragedy. Her father,
who ran a small shoe store, committed
suicide only a few years after Bridget
had joined the sisters.
Her mother, Rita, was penniless, but
somehow managed to keep the
house. She found work outside
the home and eventually became
a manager. "Mama," as
her family called her, made sure
Sister Bridget's three brothers
and sister received a Catholic
education. Albert entered the
Franciscans and, even now, carries
on a good-natured, joking
competition with Bridget. Their
sister, Courtney, spent many
years as a Poor Clare nun.
Years later, Bridget noticed a
worn page in her mother's Bible,
in Matthew, chapter six.
Bridget the storyteller continues:
"I said, 'Mama, what
happened to your Bible?' And
she said: 'Duchess [her family
nickname], nothing happened
to my Bible. People spend years
going to college to learn the Bible, to
learn theology. I was standing at a bus
stop and a pigeon walked over my foot.'
(This is not at all unusual in New
Orleans.) And she said, 'I heard God say,
"Rita, look at the birds of the air. Your
Father will also care for you."'
"Right after that—she was holding
her rosary at the time—she got a job,
and so she would say to me, 'Duchess,
if you want to know about life, just go
right here and look at the birds of the
air. Your Father cares for you. You don't
have to worry about any other page in
That kind of faith is what Bridget has
shown over a remarkable career of
giving. She's a teacher by trade whose
first assignment was teaching schoolchildren.
Ursuline foundress St. Angela Merici,
in the 16th century, devoted herself
and her new community to educating
young girls, and sought to bring married
women together for mutual support
and prayer. Sister Bridget Haase
has been a teacher all along, from her
first class of 40 first-graders ("hardly
room for a desk, but it was a wonderful
year!" she says) to less typical
Those started with a TV show,
Charles Kuralt's Christmas in Appalachia,
in the mid-1970s. She watched the
show and felt a voice in her heart. "I'm
a person who always follows my heart,
because that's where God speaks to us,"
The next summer, on break from her
Illinois teaching assignment, Sister
Bridget spent a few weeks as a volunteer,
teaching Bible school at a Glenmary
parish outreach in eastern Kentucky.
She returned to Appalachia the next
summer, and felt her heart telling her
that she should move into full-time
ministry in the mountains.
She and another sister were assigned
the following year to work "up
Sandylick Holler" near Dunlow, West
Virginia. She lived for five years in a
converted three-room shed heated, not
uncommonly for the area, with a wood
stove. "We shared an outhouse with
our beloved neighbor, Bird," she fondly
There were no Catholic schools in
that region; in fact, in rural West Virginia,
Catholics were suspect. Bridget
went to volunteer her teaching skills at
the public school and was rejected.
"I was a 'Catlick,'" she recalls. "I finally
asked the principal if I could have
all the children that the other teachers
didn't want, who I noticed sitting in the
back of the room, just coloring all day
long." The principal hesitated, but
eventually relented. "I think they grew
in trust of who I was, and then
I was able to teach." She earned
the title "Church Lady" from
She has plenty of humorous
stories from her time in the hills,
like when Bird, in an act of kindness
to the sisters, hunted squirrels
and lined the outhouse seat
with fur for cold days. (Bridget
delicately persuaded him to
move the skins to the wall.) Her
most touching story, though, is
of a family, some of the very
poor, who are typically rejected
even locally as "white trash," a
term that plays on racism as
well as poverty.
Bridget went, by invitation,
"up the holler" (hollow) to have
Thanksgiving dinner at Delena
and Elam's house with their five young children. The house was less
than meager and the meat at dinner
was questionable, but Bridget ate.
Afterward Delena said to Bridget, "I
mean hain't never, never anyone come
to our home for a meal and never, ever
on Thanksgiving Day. But you done
come, and Miss Bridget, I don't have to
look anywhere else for Jesus. He done
come to our home and he stands in
front of us."
When she heard that, says Bridget,
"It shifted everything." She had tried to
see God in the poor, but now the tables
were turned. "The poor had seen God
in me," she recalls. "And I realized
through Delena and Elam, this is what
life's all about. I see God in you. You see
God in me. We are God-bearers, and
everything is a reflection of God....It
doesn't have to do with who you are,
what you're doing; it has to do with the
fact that God is present here in this
Then came another TV special, this
one on the famine in Sudan. Bridget felt
a call in her heart again. "What really
struck me was that one child kept
stretching her hands out for food and
the relief worker kept passing her by."
Bridget started praying, God, give her
something to eat. The girl's image stuck
in her mind.
The next day, Sister Bridget went to
Mass, and, at Communion, an insight
struck her: "When I put out my hands,
I realized that I was doing the same
gesture as this child. She was begging
for bread to live; I was asking for the
Bread of Life. There was something
really wrong with this picture. So then
I intensified my prayer."
A few days later the Gospel was the
miracle of the loaves and fishes (Luke
9:10-17). The disciples said, 'Jesus, give
them something to eat.' And I thought,
Oh, my God! That's the exact same prayer
I'm praying for this child I saw! Then
Jesus said, 'You feed them yourselves.'
And that's when I felt my whole world
shake, split, knees knock, heart pound
because I knew in my heart that God
wanted me to go to Sudan."
Soon she was enrolled in Maryknoll's
overseas mission program, and ended up in Sudan a year later. Once again,
she has many stories of her truly heroic
time among the starving. But they are
not glamorous stories. Every volunteer
expected eventually to get malaria, and
did. When she first arrived at the desert
refugee camp, she became overwhelmed.
Bridget recalls, "When I saw 12,500
people just scattered—brothers and sisters
and children, like skeletons—that's
when I became paralyzed." She went to
her tent, lay on her rope bed and started
thinking, I have to figure out how to go
A doctor came into her tent and
Bridget asked her, "How have you done
this so long?" The gaunt doctor said,
recalls Bridget, "'I'll tell you the secret.
If you think of all the children you
have to feed, you'll never do it. The
secret is, look at the child in front of
you. Feed her or him. One-on-one is
how it's done.'" Reflects Bridget, "That
has become a model for my entire life."
She stayed at the camp for her yearlong
commitment, came home sick, as
all of the volunteers did, and, unlike the
starving who were left behind, returned
to a healthy life. She had several other
assignments in the coming years (the
1980s and '90s) in Senegal, on both
sides of the Mexico-U.S. border, each
chocked with experiences of teaching
young children in the midst of poverty,
always living in an Ursuline community.
Eventually Sister Bridget wound up in
Boston to be near her mother and sister,
who had moved to the area. First
she worked at a day-care center for children
with HIV/AIDS, then switched to
teaching at St. Brendan's Parish.
Looking for volunteer work, she
heard of The Boston Home, a residential
facility in the suburb of Dorchester.
The Boston Home, over 100 years old,
is home to about 100 middle-aged people
with progressive neurological illnesses,
mostly multiple sclerosis (see
Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects about
400,000 Americans and their families
(worldwide, about 2.5 million). It
is a disease of the brain, optic nerve and spinal
cord and has many manifestations. Its onset typically
happens to people between ages 20 and
50. More women than men get it; more people
of northern European background get it.
MS can cause poor coordination, slurred
speech, loss of balance, blurred vision or blindness,
partial or complete paralysis, concentration
and memory problems and more. It comes
and goes for some people; it affects differing people
in different ways, and in some cases it progresses
in severity over time.
There actually are four types of MS, and each
can be mild, moderate or severe. The first type,
experienced by 85 percent of patients initially,
is called relapsing-remitting since it comes
and goes. Second is primary-progressive (10
percent of people with MS), which starts,
doesn't relapse and slowly gets worse.
Many of those with the relapsing-remitting
type progress to the third type, secondary-progressive
MS, in which the disease becomes
Finally, there is the relatively rare progressive-relapsing
MS (five percent) with a steady progression
from the beginning.
The Boston Home (www.TheBostonHome.org), featured in the accompanying article, is
one of only a handful like it in the United
States. More information about
MS, including a "Just the Facts" brochure, can
be found at www.nationalmssociety.org.
After a short time, the home offered
her a position as spirituality coordinator.
For the past seven years she has
served and witnessed among the residents helping them to cope with the
progression of their illness, the limitations
on what once were normal
"I think my main ministry is to be
present to the residents and they are
present to me," Bridget says. "I would
like to think I bring hope or I bring a
spark of courage or a spark of compassion.
But I also know it's kind of a
mutual sharing of life."
For her it's a ministry of presence
rather than a ministry of doing things.
"Everything is happening slowly. I had
a resident who said to me once: 'This is
a place of waiting. And we're patient.'
"It is almost like living in an Advent
building," she says. "You're dependent
on others, you're waiting on others,
you're patient with others." These are
people with sharp minds, but progressively
paralyzed bodies. Most are in
It was there that I met Sister Bridget—at a book-signing party for her and several
residents who are authors.
Throughout her many years in the
classroom, at the early advice of a principal,
she had kept scraps of paper with
cute or insightful things the children
had done or said. Challenged by her
brother Phillip to collect the scraps into a family album so her stories would
not be forgotten, Sister Bridget eventually
wound up publishing them as
the 2002 St. Anthony Messenger Press
book Well Said: Children's Words of Wisdom.
That book led to more people finding
out about her amazing story. A St.
Brendan's parishioner nominated her
for "Exceptional Women" at Magic
106.7, Boston's top-ranked radio station.
She was chosen to receive the
award earlier this year.
To say that her reputation has been
growing in recent years would be an
understatement. When she and I visited
the radio station, everyone seemed to
know her. It turns out she had been
recruited to come and talk regularly
on most of the stations in the building—
one country station, one soft rock,
and so on.
Sister Bridget's exposure in the community
led a donor who supports
Catholic causes to contact her and ask
her to help give money away, in whatever
way she wished. She created small
"Blessings in Burlap" pouches, put a $20 bill and a prayer card in each, and
handed them out on Boston's streets to
people she saw doing good things, until
the money was spent. Once again, there
are seemingly endless stories of her
encounters, like the saleswoman at the
ticket counter who broke into "Hallelujahs!"
when Bridget gave her a
Bridget keeps working to get her
word out, to influence people to recognize
the poor and to do good. Her latest
writing, a collection of her true
stories and reflections on lifelong ministry,
is Generous Faith: Stories to Inspire
Abundant Living, published this year by
Paraclete Press. This is the book that was
unveiled at a colorful party for residents
of The Boston Home late this
If you ask Sister Bridget what she has
learned from her most recent years
among the residents with multiple sclerosis,
she gives a ready answer: "The disease
does not end a life; it changes the
way you see things." The question she
poses to the residents is, "Can I still
live with passion and a burning fire or
am I going to let this disease make me
into smoldering ashes?"
Whether a resident humbly asks her
to wipe a nose or to move an elbow,
Bridget serves gladly and with sensitivity.
"I feel that every person is Christ
in disguise," she echoes Mother Teresa.
She recalls a lesson learned as a child
in New Orleans, in the days before
racial integration. Just before Christmas,
her mother had offered to a begging
man, a black man, the opportunity
to take his pick of her children's extra
toys so that he could have presents for
his own children.
"Sometimes you have to break the
taboos," Bridget says, then pauses.
"After all, your care for others is God's
care. Each person needs to find that in
his or her own life."