Everyone has a vocation, that is, a particular calling and purpose in life. Growing up, we ask ourselves the same questions: Why am I here? Why am I alive at all? What am I to do?
We instinctively realize that our lives must have meaning. We seek knowledge, relationships, experience. Something calls us onward.
For many people, learning their vocation is a process, guided by heart-felt desires and the choices they make. We don’t always follow a straight line, but there is no law that says we must.
Over time our lives move in a certain direction. We reach a point where we have an “existential inability to be, become, and do otherwise.” *
Each member of the Little Sisters started from a different place, and the winding roads they followed led them to our community. Sr. Connie Ladd did not join us until she was in her forties. Her path led first to marriage, motherhood, and a teaching career.
“In the secret of my heart teach me wisdom,” we read in Psalm 51. In our heart-to-heart talks with our Creator, the journey ahead becomes clearer, or at least the next step. Sr. Connie once put into words the fruit of her quiet communion with the Lord. She wrote a prayer that expresses gratitude for her vocation, and also her hopes and aspirations.
Her prayer reveals two fundamentals about vocations. First, we are never alone in our journey. God, the Author of Life, is the One who calls. God is our collaborator and ultimately our goal. Second, our vocation is not just for ourselves, but for others too. No matter our state in life, we are called to place our gifts at the service of others.
Prayer for a Servant of God
My Lord, God of Mystery and Awe, Your choice of servants amazes me. You could have chosen from among those much more wise and talented, yet You have called upon me.
I am honored by this opportunity to be Your servant by being of service to my brothers and sisters. In Your invitation to serve, I realize that I am drawn into a special relationship with You, my Lord and my God.
May my vocation to religious life in the community of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary be for me a means of grace and of building up the Body of Christ.
May I serve with humility and honor, seeking not my own advancement or self-acclaim, but rather to give glory to You and to work for the coming of the Kingdom.
Help me, I pray, to do well – to do Your will – in this vocation with which You have gifted me.
* Nemeck, Francis Kelly and Marie Theresa Coombs. Called by God: A Theology of Vocation and Lifelong Commitment. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992.
In 1995, a local newspaper did a profile of Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, founder of the Joseph House and the Little Sisters.
What was her greatest disappointment? What would she like to tell the youth of today? What trait did she admire the most in others? Read below to find out.
Joseph House Founder Opens Door to Homeless
Her greatest aim: Help others build values
Name: Sister Mary Elizabeth Gintling
Family members (and ages): Two dogs: Fresca, 6, and Ziggy, 13. Four sisters in the convent in Salisbury and two in Baltimore as part of the order of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary. Two brothers living in Baltimore.
Occupation: Founder and head of the order of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary, CEO and founder of Joseph House and Joseph House Village on the Eastern Shore.
What I like most about my job: The fact that we have no red tape. We are free to do for the poor what the poor need.
Previous occupations: I worked as a lay person with Joseph House in Baltimore before coming to the Shore in 1972 to find a new mission.
I had been religious for 21 years and was working with a group in Baltimore that only dealt with institutionalizing of people.
We (Patricia Ann Guidera, who came with Sister Mary Elizabeth to found Joseph House), wanted to come out into the countryside since there were so many agencies in Baltimore.
The first mission, Joseph House by the Sea, gift and religious book shop in Ocean City opened shortly after Sister Mary Elizabeth’s arrival on the Shore. The shop is still open today and all the proceeds from the shop are given to the poor.
From that first mission the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary decided to open Joseph House Center in Salisbury, which still provides support to the poor through food donations, and helping with medical, rent and utility payments.
Since 1989, Joseph House Village has provided “transitional living” for single mothers in helping them to find jobs and be able to support their families.
The Joseph House mission also includes helping to prevent homelessness by taking over a person’s finances when they are unable to handle it themselves for reasons of mental or social problems.
Sister Mary Elizabeth said Joseph House currently has 28 people that they are helping to live on their own.
If I had to pick a different occupation it would be: I’ve been doing this all my life. Even as a child I was attracted to trying to help people with their problems. I was about four-years old when I decided to become a nun. Otherwise I think my occupation would be fishing. I’m 80 years old and there’s no point in changing things now.
My interests and hobbies: My interests are naturally in religion and prayer and spending time with the Lord. My hobby is reading.
Community involvements and memberships: CEO of Joseph House and Joseph House Village.
Why I moved to this area: To found Joseph House and help the poor.
Length of time here: Almost 23 years.
Where I lived previously: I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Baltimore.
What I like most about living here: I like it here very much, I really feel at home here.
Changes I’d like to see in the community and why: For the people who have made it in life to try to understand the people who haven’t; not to do something for them, but do something with them. As far as Salisbury is concerned I couldn’t ask for better support than I have here. What they want to do is keep the community in good shape. I think they’re a very kind community.
My proudest accomplishment: I guess, I think the most difficult thing anyone has to do is to come up with their own decision that is life-directing.
My biggest ambition was to give up material ambitions and think of doing things for others.
My greatest disappointment: Not being able to give my values to some people.
My major goals: My major goal is to help people to establish good values.
My pet peeves: Talking on the telephone. I never make phone calls if I don’t have to. Shopping — can’t stand it.
My worst habit: Jumping to conclusions.
The trait I most admire in others: Honesty.
My heroes: Christ is my hero. But I most admire Dorothy Day. She’s the founder of the Catholic Worker and their hospitality houses. I’ve seen her walking around with holes in her stockings. She really lived what she preached.
My guiding philosophy: Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.
My advice to today’s youth: Don’t let TV and Madison Avenue values rob you of the wonderful person you could be.
SOURCE: Salisbury News & Advertiser, Salisbury Maryland 21801 – August 16, 1995
Photos from the Archives of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary
Among other things, the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary are noted for wearing their habit, a distinctive blue dress with a matching veil. Article 11 of their Constitutions states:
An exterior sign of our consecration is the religious habit of our congregation. It must be worn at all times. Exceptions to this rule must come from the superior general or be stated in the directives. (1)
The decision to wear a habit was crystal clear to the founder of the Little Sisters, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling. She once told the story of how she came upon the design:
We wanted to pattern our lives after Br. Charles de Foucauld, and I said ‘We will have a habit.’ It’s a calling card. It’s a witness. And during the ’60s, it was a counter-culture thing for us to do. We wanted something that would be simple, non-threatening to the poor. (2)
Inspiration struck in a department store when she spied a mannequin dressed in a bright orange satin evening gown:
‘There it is,’ I told Sr. Patricia and she just looked at me like I was crazy. But I told her, ‘Just look at it. It’s perfect. It has no zippers, no buttons, just a hole to put your head through.’ We found the Vogue pattern and bought different sizes and then bought some blue denim material. (2)
Sister elaborated on her choice of the design:
I was determined, knowing how few people sew these days and how hard it would be if we didn’t have somebody in the community who could make our own habits. So I was determined that it was going to be something with no buttons, button holes, zippers [laughter] and nothing difficult about it. (3)
Blue denim-like material seems to be the established “look” for communities of women who follow the spirituality of Br. Charles. Is the color a nod to the beautiful virtues of the Virgin Mary? Is the material a sign of unity with the working people of the world? Yes and yes.
The habit designed by Sr. Mary Elizabeth is an adaptation of the one worn by the Little Sisters of Jesus, the first women’s community inspired by Charles de Foucauld (they were founded by Madeleine Hutin in 1939). Srs. Mary Elizabeth and Patricia Guidera spent time with the Little Sisters of Jesus in Washington, D.C. in June of 1974.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth recalled that encounter:
I guess that was when I asked them if they would help us. Also, I told them about the fact that I felt called to follow Brother Charles and wanted to know if that would be any kind of a threat to them. And that we wanted to wear a habit and wanted to be recognized as belonging to the de Foucauld family. Told them that our habit would look somewhat like theirs but would not be made the same. Wanted to know if that would be OK by them.
And they were extremely good to us. The provincial said that they never saw Brother Charles anymore than I have. [laughter] And that there was no monopoly on whether or not someone looked like them, and that we should just follow whatever we thought God wanted us to do. I felt very at ease with them. (3)
The following July 7, Abbot Edward McCorkell, O.C.S.O. blessed the habits of the new community at the Abbey of the Holy Cross in Berryville, Virginia. The Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary consider this their Foundation Day.
Bea Piekarski, a friend and volunteer from Baltimore, made the first habits. Later modifications included using a simpler, lighter belt, re-doing the front placket to make the wearing of a dickey around the collar unnecessary, and removing the cap inside the veil.
A small wooden cross necklace completes the habit. When a Little Sister makes final vows, an image of the Crucified Christ is engraved on the cross.
In years past, the Little Sisters also wore a leather “heart and cross” insignia on the chest. Attached by velcro, it invariably peeled off whenever a Little Sister was carrying a load of boxes. Sr. Mary Elizabeth finally said “Enough!” and the insignia was removed from the habit permanently.
Wearing a habit was crucial to Sr. Mary Elizabeth’s understanding of religious life. She always defended her decision to make it a requirement for the Little Sisters:
I felt that people who wanted to wear habits should feel free to wear the habit. And I can tell you right now it took us more courage to put on that habit than it did to make vows because everybody criticized us for wearing a habit. Here you are, in the middle of an effort for all the nuns to get some freedom and dress like the people today and you’re putting on a habit. And I said it’s because I believe in habits. And I intend to keep the freedom to wear one.
So it was very important to us, it indeed was. I still see the importance of it. I have never lost that because it’s what tells people who you are, which is very important. (3)
Of course, Sr. Mary Elizabeth understood that clothes do not make the man, or nun. She wrote in the Joseph House Newsletter:
She [the Little Sister] will always be a visible sign to those with whom she works, not only by her habit, but also by her actions. (4)
And in her directives concerning the Rule:
The habit makes us mindful of who we are, but does not make us who we are. (3)
The habit is a way to be in the world, but not of it. For the Little Sisters, the habit encapsulates their mission and lifestyle. As Sr. Mary Elizabeth explained:
That’s our vocation, to cry out the Gospel with our lives. We wanted to be poor, but we also wanted to identify our poverty with our vocation. So we designed a simple blue habit that makes it clear that what we do, we do for love of Jesus.
We don’t hide behind our habits. The poor recognize us and know that we are just as poor as they. The habits also keep us from getting caught up in materialistic pursuits. (5)
The habit is a witness of total dedication to Christ and a counter-cultural protest against the materialism of today:
It spares us having to keep up with current styles and having to be immodest to be in style. It says who we are and what we stand for. (3)
Women in formation to become Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary wear a variation of the habit. They start out with a simple uniform of a blue jumper, white blouse, and light blue veil. After completing the novitiate and professing first vows, they receive the habit.
Regarding the habit, Sr. Mary Elizabeth used to say whether a Little Sister is going to meet the Pope or mop the floor, she is ready.
Nevertheless, the Little Sisters tend to wear an everyday habit that is soft and a little faded, keeping another habit looking fresh for special occasions.
By the way, bleach was banned in the convent laundry room a long time ago. Accidentally tie-dyed habits are certainly not regulation.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth loved her habit, and she wanted her community of Little Sisters to share that love. She described it as a “peasant look.” Simple, sturdy, no fuss — it is the appropriate attire for a handmaiden of the Lord.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth was buried in her habit. It is her chosen garment for the Resurrection.
(1) Constitutions and Rule of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary.
(2) Zuniga, Marielena. (1985, August 2). Order’s foundress helps ‘poorest of the poor.’ The Dialog, pp. 1,5.
(3) Archives of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary.
(4) Joseph House Newsletter, April, 1975.
(5) Brankin, Rev. Patrick. (1987, August/September). A new community grows. Extension, pp. 12-15.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling was very deliberate in choosing the names of the two organizations she founded.
The Joseph House was named in honor of St. Joseph. Sister said that if God trusted Joseph to care for Mary and Jesus, then she could trust him, too. She always referred to St. Joseph as our provider and protector.
The name of the religious community Sr. Mary Elizabeth founded was also carefully chosen. In her words:
“The beautiful name God has given us of ‘Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary’ should be the explanation of our lives. We must become true ‘little sisters’ of Jesus present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in the world and present in the Eucharist. We must look to our Mother and older Sister Mary as a model of how to live with our brother and Lord Jesus. And in company of Joseph and Mary our lives should be directed towards and emanate from the Eucharistic Jesus who lives in our midst.”