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A Generous Faith: Sister Bridget Haase
By John Feister
She has served in Appalachia, Sudan and the Mexico-U.S. border. Her latest home, in Boston, is among those who struggle for dignity against multiple sclerosis.

Q U I C K S C A N

Life's Hard Lessons
A Broadening Ministry
Into Africa
The Boston Home
The Many Faces of Multiple Sclerosis

Sister Bridget Haase
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 the Bible.'"

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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 assignments.

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," she says.

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 recalls.

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 the locals.

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 moment."

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 home.

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 box ).

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 increasingly worse.

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 lives.

"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 wheelchairs.

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 "blessing."

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 past summer.

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."


John Feister is the general editor for periodicals at St. Anthony Messenger Press. He holds M.A.s in humanities and theology (Xavier University, Cincinnati), and is co-author of the forthcoming biography of Franciscan Sister Thea Bowman, Thea's Song (Orbis Books). Sister Bridget's Web site is www.WisdomWonder.com.


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