A Community in the Footsteps of Br. Charles

Our founder used to say, “A community is not so much a group of people living together to love Christ as it is a group of people loving Christ together.”

Being together physically to form a community is not always possible. Distance can keep people apart, not to mention their commitments and circumstances.

Now, thanks to the Internet, there is a new online community called the Companions of Jesus of Nazareth. It hopes to fill a need for those who desire a community in order to “love Christ together.”

This community is open to people from all walks of life – men and women, married, single, lay, ordained, and a variety of faith traditions. What unites them is a desire to become more like Jesus through an understanding of the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld, who is an inspiration for the ministry of the Joseph House.

The Companions of Jesus is under the leadership of Rev. Leonard Tighe, an authority on the life of Br. Charles and a long-time friend of the Little Sisters.

The website has more information. Check it out – this may be something you’ve been looking for:

https://www.companionsofjesusofnazareth.com

It is ironic that in our age of instant electronic communication many people feel isolated. The Companions of Jesus is using that technology to bring people together, all the while each person is living his or her own “Nazareth,” the particular place where God has planted them.

A sense of belonging is such a help to our spiritual growth. Jean Vanier, a pioneer in the healing power of communities, said it well:

We have been drawn together by God to be a sign of the Resurrection and a sign of unity in this world where there is so much division and inner and outer death. We feel small and weak, but we are gathered together to signify the power of God who transforms death into life. That is our hope, that God is doing the impossible: changing death to life inside of each of us, and that perhaps, through our community, each one of us can be agents in the world of this transformation of brokenness into wholeness, and of death into life.

Newsletter: May 2018

Dear Friends of Joseph House:

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, our founder, had a vision for our ministry that continues to guide us. When she started the Joseph House, she had next to nothing apart from a few principles in mind. These principles, and the rationale behind them, were explained by her in this way:

1). Joseph House helps the poor.
We wanted to help the people who fall through the cracks of the welfare system and who cannot receive help elsewhere.

2). Joseph House uses volunteers.
We wanted to give people the opportunity to share in acts of Christian charity. We also wanted to minimize operating expenses so most of our money would go toward direct aid to the poor.

3). Joseph House depends on Divine Providence.
Through the generosity of free-will donations of money, food, and other resources we wanted to avoid government funding and the restrictions and regulations that often accompany it. We wanted the freedom of the Holy Spirit in responding to the needs of the poor.

These three points are just as relevant today as they were 52 years ago when the first Joseph House opened in Baltimore on May 1, 1966. Today we carry on the good work Sr. Mary Elizabeth started, reaching out to people in need to relieve their distress, offer them hope, and uphold their dignity.

We’d like to share with you a story from one of our volunteers that beautifully ties together what Sister envisioned. Jerry has been doing amazing work helping people find employment, whether at the Crisis Center, the Joseph House Workshop, or the Village of Hope. He goes above and beyond the call of duty. A few weeks ago, Jerry met Mary in our Hospitality Room for men and women who are homeless. Mary was definitely someone who had “fallen through the cracks.” As can be seen in Jerry’s write-up, however, her life was about to take a turn for the better:

Mary had just been released from the county jail. We interviewed her, helped her get an e-mail address, created a résumé, performed on-line job searches, wrote cover letters, helped fill out job applications and drove her to interviews with prospective employers. She recently had a second successful interview with one of the employers we helped her target, and she gladly accepted their job offer. She reported for orientation a few days later.

Needless to say, Mary is thrilled with the services we provided. Our volunteers who work in this area are equally joyous each time they help one of our clients become self sufficient.

A lot has changed over the years, but “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11). For people living in poverty, the world keeps creating new barriers for them. The latest is the digital divide — the gap between those who have access to the Internet and technology and those who don’t. That was an obstacle facing Mary until Jerry helped her get to the other side.

We are so happy that the Joseph House allowed these two individuals to cross paths. And they’re just one example. The transformations that occur are life-changing — for everyone involved!

There’s something Sister didn’t mention in her vision for the Joseph House, but it’s always been present in our service to those in need: loving personal concern. She in fact set the standard. Whether in our Hospitality Room, Soup Kitchen, Food Pantry, Financial Assistance department, or at the Joseph House Workshop, our service is never simply the mechanical distribution of goods. Everything is done person-to-person, motivated by a desire to love thy neighbor.

There are many people alone and adrift with nowhere to go for help. We are here for them because of your donations.

Sybil, 51, is coping with mental health issues and living in someone’s garage. Her income is only $195 per month (Temporary Disability). Sybil came to the Crisis Center and asked for one thing: money to see a dentist. We paid $150 so she could make an appointment.

Harvey, 63, needed to move from the house he has lived in his entire life. Badly run-down, his home was returning to the elements from which it came. Mice and insects were speeding up the process. Harvey is limited in what he can do for himself. We paid $200 toward the security deposit so he could move into a place that will be easier for him to manage.

Edwina, 62, is trying to work while being treated for cancer, but sometimes the pain from radiation treatments is too much. She’s had to cut back her hours from her job in a cafeteria. With her reduced income, the rent has been taking almost all of her money. We paid $200 toward her past-due electric bill to keep the power on in her apartment.

Margot, 28, has a four-year-old daughter and newborn twins, a boy and a girl. She took a maternity leave from her job, believing that her husband would be able to take care of the bills. He, however, is a veteran and suffering from PTSD. His violent episodes became so severe that he needed to be hospitalized. The family’s income quickly dropped to zero. Margot’s landlord said something had to be paid toward the rent or else an eviction was likely to happen. We sent $300 to buy Margot some time.

The mission of the Joseph House goes forward because friends like you have been part of it from Day One. Sr. Mary Elizabeth could not do it alone and neither can we. Thank you for your donations, financial contributions, prayers, and encouragement. Learn how you can help: Donate.

We remember you faithfully every day in our prayers. You are precious to God and to us.

Your Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary


URGENT REQUEST: We need a full-size pickup truck for our Crisis Center. The truck will be used primarily for our Food Pantry and must be suitable for heavy-duty work. Our current truck is ready to be retired after 300,000 miles of commendable service. If you can help in any way please Contact Us.

What Am I Preaching With My Life?

Every religious community has its own charism, a particular way of life and a spirit that forms its identity. In setting the charism of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling looked to an obscure French priest who lived from 1858 to 1916. His name was Charles de Foucauld.

Charles spent his final years in the Sahara Desert, seeking to imitate the “hidden life” that Jesus lived in Nazareth. Emptied of pride and vanity, Charles embraced his littleness, eager to be non-threatening and approachable to others. He welcomed everyone as a “universal brother.”

Charles represented a new kind of missionary, one who practiced a ministry of presence. Although he wrote a rule for religious communities, it was considered too strict to be livable. Elements of his spirituality, however, can be applied to any number of circumstances, and in this way his life became the blueprint for the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth was already in tune with what defined Charles: love for the poor, faithfulness to the Gospel, simplicity of lifestyle, and a preference for silent adoration of the Eucharist. These became the identifying marks of the community she founded in 1974, and Charles is considered its founder in spirit. For the remainder of her life Sr. Mary Elizabeth modeled for us how to live his spirituality.

We are half a world away from the Sahara, and more than a century has passed since Charles’ death, but Sr. Mary Elizabeth showed us how to embody a key component of his message, which is, as he wrote:

“Let us preach the Gospel in silence and with words….”

“It is the responsibility of all to preach in silence.

As for preaching with words, some should do it more than others,

but there are very few who should not do it at all.

This is according to each one’s vocation.”

Sr. Mary Elizabeth made preaching the Gospel her life’s work.

What made it natural for her was that she let the Gospel shape every aspect of her life. Anything she might possibly call her own she gave back to God. He had access to everything.

Sister exemplified the observation of St. Vincent de Paul: “If God is the center of your life, no words are necessary. Your mere presence will touch hearts.”

She had a few big moments in her life, but like everyone else her days were filled with little ones. She did the same things, with the same people, day in and day out. She “preached” a lot in those moments, giving witness to the love and mercy of God by being loving and merciful herself. Charles said his goal was to have people look at him and say, “If that is the servant, imagine what the Master must be like!” Sister took that approach, too.

For personal reflection: What am I preaching by the way I live my life? I might be the only sermon someone else hears today.

Newsletter: October 2017

Dear Friends of Joseph House:

She was born in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore.

She lived in a house built by her father on the banks of North Point Creek, from where she liked to set out in a row boat and go crabbing.

Trained as a registered nurse, she had several “careers,” and wasn’t afraid to start a new one at age 50 with nothing but a suitcase in hand.

When she was feeling burned out she sought advice from Mother Teresa.

She was fluent in French, had an eye for art, was an astute businesswoman and never owned a credit card.

She never married but was a mother to many.

She was, of course, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, the founder of the Joseph House and the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary. It has been thirteen years since she passed away from this earthly life on October 27, 2004.

Sister is with us in spirit and we see her handiwork everywhere we look. We’re speaking of the buildings where we live and serve the poor, and also of something deeper, on the inside. Hopefully we are not the same people we once were.

Her sense of mission was guided by the Mystical Body of Christ: we are many parts yet one body, and if one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12:20,26). Sister felt that intensely. She told us, “When you see someone who is suffering, you realize that God is in that person. And He is suffering in that person. And if there’s anything I can do to help, to improve that situation, to let someone know his own value, I will do it.”

Sr. Mary Elizabeth visiting her family home. Photo taken in 1999.

We carry on the work she started and make it our own in the here and now. In one of the last staff meetings she attended, Sister gave us these words of encouragement, as recorded in the minutes: “Don’t give in, and don’t give up. It is such a privilege to work for God. Don’t cut God short, be happy He picked you. God picks those who are lowly, He wants to defeat His enemies that way.”

Sr. Mary Elizabeth knew that our work with the poor would be impossible without the support of countless individuals who want to share what they have with the less fortunate. Thank you for being a part of our ministry. You are the agents of Divine Providence for the Joseph House. Together we show solidarity with the weak and the poor, give hope and dignity to the destitute, and extend a hand to people in need.

Chantell, 48, has two children and lives on a monthly disability check. After falling behind in paying her electric bill, the power was turned off in her home and she was removed from the utility’s budget plan. That was more than 60 days ago. To get the power back on Chantell needs to pay the entire balance due, a large amount. She has been slowly raising the money but ran out of options as she approached her goal. She came to the Joseph House for help and we sent $200 to the electric company.

Cynthia, 72, also needed help with her electric bill, but it was the last thing on her mind. She is being treated for cancer of the jaw and throat. She was in the hospital recently for surgery and her daughter Marian came to see us on her behalf. Marian lost her job and is not able to help her mother as she normally does. We sent $200 to the electric company to help stop the impending cut-off in Cynthia’s home.

Leona, 51, needed help buying prescriptions, but she also needed to talk and have someone listen. After many surgeries for a brain disorder, her husband is now legally blind. Leona has become his “eyes” for him, and although they both keep a positive attitude, coping with this loss has been difficult. It’s hard to be brave and strong 24 hours a day. The Joseph House paid the pharmacy bill of $132. We also found out that Blind Industries has been a terrific resource for Leona’s husband.

Madeleine, 44, has been out of work for two months after falling and injuring herself. She has one daughter and has been living on the $310 monthly child support. Madeleine is rapidly falling behind in all of her bills. She came to the Joseph House because the water in her home was scheduled to be turned off. We paid the $202 bill. Madeleine works as a nursing assistant, and she said her doctor will soon give her clearance to return to her job.

Anna, 63, was finally approved for subsidized housing. She is disabled and was not keeping up with her basic expenses. In order to move into her subsidized apartment, however, Anna needed to pay a deposit, which was impossible given her budget. Fortunately, the Joseph House was able to make the $300 payment to the Housing Authority.

There are moments of joy and relief every day at the Crisis Center. Thank you for making them happen. You are a blessing to us and to the poor.

We depend on your generosity. You can donate online here.

Do you have a copy of the book about Sr. Mary Elizabeth? Entitled Sister Mary Elizabeth Gintling: A Life For God, it can be ordered through our website (Book on our Founder) or from your favorite bookseller.

Click here for a newspaper profile of Sr. Mary Elizabeth.

With our love and prayers,

Your Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary

Newsletter: August 2017

Dear Friends of Joseph House:

Every organization and institution, whether it is civic, business, religious, or charitable, has its own style of operation. It’s not just what they do, but how they do it that sets them apart. This is true of the Joseph House, and our founder Sr. Mary Elizabeth looked to a particular person for inspiration: Charles de Foucauld, who also went by Br. Charles of Jesus.

Given that he was a hermit in the Sahara Desert more than 100 years ago, it’s not surprising that Charles is a mystery to many people. René Bazin, his first biographer, didn’t think Charles was important enough to warrant a book. He had to be convinced otherwise, and fortunately he was. Bazin’s Charles de Foucauld: Hermit and Explorer, published in 1923 in English, kept alive the memory of this fascinating and saintly figure. This passage from the book shows why the life of Charles found a home in the heart and mind of Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

“Charles was one who gave a fraternal welcome to the poorest and most unknown and undeserving of neighbors, who never let it be suspected that he was put out, and was willing to waste his time for talking with God upon unreliable nomads, corrupt slaves, beggars and bores.

“Every minute somebody would come and open the door, and Brother Charles appeared with his beautiful eyes full of serenity, his head bent forward a little, and his hand already held out. . . .

“He wrote : ‘I wish to accustom all the inhabitants, Christians, Muslims, Jews and idolaters, to look upon me as their brother, the universal brother. . . . They begin to call the house the Fraternity (the Khaua, in Arabic), and I am delighted.’

“This beautiful word suits our missionary and might describe him: he was truly the universal brother, not in words, but in deeds; he did not scatter political formulae, or promises which only add to the weight of wretchedness, but he forgot himself for the sake of his nearest neighbors, he spent beyond his means to feed them and to ransom them if ransomed they could be. His way was the silent way.”

Being available to the poor is at the heart of our ministry. Many people have good intentions for helping the poor, but far fewer have the inclination to “waste time” with them.

Charles did everything he could to address the material needs of the poor, but he gave them something else too: the fruit of his time spent in prayer and recollection. People have deep hungers that go beyond an empty stomach. Charles offered them the peace of Christ. The poor could see it in his face, they could know it by his actions and his unhurried sense of time, and in the way he made his home a home for everyone. He preached by example, letting charity be God’s ambassador.

Br. Charles distributing bread. Illustration by René Follet.

If the Joseph House is to have a corporate culture, we hope it resembles this. We want people in need to receive your generosity with love and respect. Along with our many volunteers, we do our best to make sure our ministry welcomes everyone. Hearts need to be open as much as the front door.

On a typical day, Charles might have received 70 poor people, plus 15 sick, 50 children, and 20 frail and elderly. We can sympathize. One will never be lonely working with the less fortunate.

Valencia, 63, was not in a good mood when she came to the Joseph House Crisis Center. We could understand why. Pain radiated from her hip that was healing from a fracture. Anyone of us in a similar situation would have wanted to be home resting, but an eviction notice from her landlord required Val to get up and look for help. She was angry and distraught and it took a little time to find out what was going on. Val regained her composure and explained that she lives alone and her monthly income of $756 doesn’t always cover her basic expenses. We agreed to send $200 to her landlord, alleviating one of the burdens Val is carrying.

Dominic, in his fifties, recently had two serious surgeries as part of his treatment for liver cancer. His doctor has ordered him not to work for several months. In the meantime, Dominic is trying to get by on a temporary disability payment of $640 monthly. It is not enough for his rent and utilities. A firm job offer for the fall and the promise of better health give him hope. We sent $225 to Dominic’s landlord. The Joseph House depends on Divine Providence, but the poor know what that really means.

Amber, 44, is another cancer patient. She’s been hospitalized and has received several rounds of chemotherapy. She believes the worst is behind her. Amber missed a lot of work during her illness and also a rent payment. This is a new experience for her since she has been a stable renter at her place for well over a decade. Her wages make it nearly impossible for her to catch up. Amber asked us for help; she especially didn’t want her son to undergo the trial of being homeless. We sent $225 to her landlord.

Ingrid and her three children were homeless. A shelter had beds for them and Ingrid found a job in a chicken factory. Unfortunately, they had to leave the shelter before Ingrid received a paycheck. To break the cycle of homelessness, we paid $170 toward the security deposit for an apartment for Ingrid and her family.

Jerrod, 32, works for a landscaper. He and his wife must both work to support their family of four, soon to be five. Jerrod came to the Joseph House shortly before his wife was due to give birth. She had stopped working temporarily, but this interruption for a natural and beautiful part of family life was wreaking havoc on their budget. Jerrod had an eviction notice with him and no means of paying the back rent by himself. Wanting Jerrod and his wife to welcome their new baby in an atmosphere of peaceful security, we mailed a check for $225 to their landlord.

Thank you for supporting the Joseph House. You’re the answer to someone’s prayer! Working together, the little that each of us can do adds up to something great. You can make a donation here.

May God smile upon you and guard you as the apple of His eye.

Your Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary


August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, is also a time to honor the Blessed Mother under her title, Our Lady of the Fields.

From The Rural Life Prayerbook:
“When this great feast of the Mother of God is celebrated, nature is still arrayed in her summer glories, although the harvest has already begun. At this time, the Church blesses the finest grain, fruits, herbs, vegetables, and flowers.”

Psalm 65
Lord, you care for the earth, give it water,
you fill it with riches.
Your river in heaven brims over
to provide its grain.

And thus you provide for the earth;
you drench its furrows,
you level it, soften it with showers,
you bless its growth.

You crown the year with your goodness.
Abundance flows in your steps,
in the pastures of the wilderness it flows.

The hills are girded with joy,
the meadows covered with flocks,
the valleys are decked with wheat.
They shout for joy, yes, they sing.

Profile: Sr. Mary Elizabeth

Sister and her beloved Ziggy.

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.

Not taking yourself too seriously is also important.

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

Religious Habit

A magnet in the Little Sisters' convent.
A magnet in the Little Sisters’ convent.

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.

Foundation Day and the first incarnation of the habit.
Foundation Day and the first incarnation of the habit.

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.

This photo shows the heart and cross insignia. Also, the Little Sisters used to wear a metal cross before switching to a wooden one. Photo taken in the Holy Land.
This photo shows the heart and cross insignia. Also, the Little Sisters used to wear a metal cross necklace before switching to a wooden one. Photo taken in the Holy Land.

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.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth wearing the habit. This nice photo was taken in the Salisbury City Park.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth wearing the habit. This nice photo was taken in the Salisbury City Park.

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.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth and Fr. Edward McCorkell, former abbot of the Trappist Monastery where Sister first received her habit. Photo taken in 2002.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth and Fr. Edward McCorkell, former abbot of the Trappist Monastery where Sister first received her habit. Photo taken in 2002.

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SOURCES:

(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.

The Poor One

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René Voillaume, who helped to start the Little Brothers of Jesus, once gave a series of conferences about religious life. These were compiled in a book, and our founder, Sr. Mary Elizabeth, had the following passage underlined:

“We must again consider what is implied by the notion of the ‘poor one.’ The poor person is one who has nothing but his human dignity. He has nothing which can hide this essential dignity, nothing that can create an illusion, nothing that others can love in him except himself. Seldom, if ever, do we have occasion to love in others that which they would be in reality, if stripped of all they have acquired.”

Voillaume went on to say:

“Here we grasp the mystery of the human person and understand that really and truly we do not love men; we love what they give, what they appear. How often we say that someone is grand, wonderful, delightful and cultured! But do we say we love the poor person who has no charm, nothing to say because he is too much taken up with his work and the countless worries that beset him in daily life?”

God gave Sr. Mary Elizabeth the grace to love the poor, and she nurtured this grace throughout her life. She never hesitated to love people in their naked humanity. Sister wrote about one experience she had, when she went to visit a young man serving time in prison.

“He turned his face from me in the penitentiary visiting room. He was very young, tall and filled with hate, especially towards white ‘honkies.’ His face was hard and defensive in every aspect. I looked at him and loved him because he needed love so badly. ‘You need not talk to me if you choose not to. I just want to tell you I have seen the Warden and have gotten your friend out of solitary, I hope all goes well. If anything else bothers you or goes wrong just let me know. Goodbye.’

“As I rose to go and he realized I wanted nothing from him — not even recognition — that I had helped to bring about something he wanted very much, he reached across and shook my hand. Our eyes met. ‘Lady, this is the first time in my life I ever touched white skin without getting the creeps.’ I smiled — gave him the black brotherhood handshake — and departed.

“As I turned in leaving he stood with the first smile I had ever seen on his face. At that moment I shared with him the great degradation he had suffered from whites, and I flew to the car in tears.”

Sr. Mary Elizabeth and members of the Prison Program at the House of Corrections in Jessup, Maryland.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth and members of the Prison Program at the House of Corrections in Jessup, Maryland.

Sources:

Voillaume, René. Vita Evangelica 4: Religious Life in Today’s World. Translated by Catherine Ann MacDonald, C.N.D. Ottawa: Canadian Religious Conference, 1970.

Archives of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary.

2009 McCulloh Street

2009 McCulloh Street, Baltimore. Photo taken in 1999.
2009 McCulloh Street, Baltimore. Photo taken in 1999.

May 1, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the first building known as “Joseph House.” It was a three-story row house with green-and-white-striped awnings at 2009 McCulloh Street in Baltimore.

The house was a God-send. At the time, the nascent Joseph House ministry was operating out of the rectory basement of Immaculate Conception Church. That space was proving to be too small for the number of people coming for assistance.

Years later, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, our foundress, recalled how she obtained the house on McCulloh Street in the early months of 1966:

“I went down Pennsylvania Avenue and found a man named Herman Katkow. I wanted him, I knew I had to form a board to be tax-exempt. So I asked Mr. Katkow if he would be on my board. And he said his only acquaintance with me had been that he had a shop, a clothing shop, and I had sent people down to get clothing that we couldn’t give them, and he said he would give it at cost, and we could have an account with him, so that was his acquaintance with me.

“So I went down. (He had told me of a store that had a piece of linoleum that had a misprinted pattern on it that I could have for nothing to put on the floor so I wouldn’t be sitting on the cement floor. So I got that from him.) I asked him to be a member of the board and he said no, he really didn’t want to be a member of the board. He had all these activities, he was Jewish and had all these activities that he needed for his own congregation. But he would help me. He’s the one who got me the house.

“He invited me to the Pennsylvania Avenue Lafayette Market Association’s annual banquet. And at that dinner he announced that he had hoped that they would sponsor one of the women who was a guest there. He gave me the opportunity to get up and talk about what I was trying to do and that I needed a place to do it out of. Mr. Kurland was there.

“They had all been feasting and having little drinks. They were not drunk by any means, but they were convivial. So Mr. Kurland said that he was landlord of a house that was empty on McCulloh Street, and he would let me have it for a dollar a year and that I could use it for my work.

“Well, I was a little apprehensive. I thought what kind of house was this going to be, but when I saw it it was lovely, it was very nice. So I had it. Then I went up there and looked it over and as I said it was a very nice house. It needed just a little bit of painting and stuff. So that’s where we started.”

With help from seminarians from St. Mary’s Seminary and novice Franciscan sisters, the house was ready for its official dedication on May 1, 1966.

Here is a newspaper article about the aforementioned banquet of the Pennsylvania Avenue Lafayette Market Association. Mr. Katkow is on the far right in the photo, and Sr. Mary Elizabeth is seated next to him (she was a layperson at the time).

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As seen by this notice from a local paper, the dedication ceremony for the new Joseph House building had an inclusive, ecumenical tone:

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2009 McCulloh Street became a home for the entire neighborhood. Volunteers tutored children and teenagers and organized recreational activities. A Job Placement Program gave special attention to people with police records and those with limited education and skills. Families received fiscal help through the Budgeting Program. Lessons in cooking, sewing, and care for the sick and infirm were part of the Home Management Program.

A Block Program sent volunteers out into the community, to meet the residents and learn firsthand what their needs were. A few of the volunteers stayed around and lived on the upper floor of 2009 McCulloh Street, along with Sr. Mary Elizabeth.

In October of 1968, Arnold Kurland sold the house on McCulloh Street to the Joseph House for $5,000. A benefactor helped with the purchase price. Mr. Kurland died in 2002.

Mr. Arnold Kurland (Ancestry).
Mr. Arnold Kurland (Ancestry).

Mr. Katkow died in 2013. His obituary from the Baltimore Sun highlighted his progressive and generous actions:

“In a talk he gave in 2010 at a Morgan State University forum, he reminisced about selling clothing in an African-American neighborhood. He said he was color-blind to race and enjoyed his experience. He said he hired his salespeople and managers from the neighborhood and when he and his wife traveled overseas, he left the store in their hands. He acted as a confidant to his customers and helped them get better jobs and schooling.

“As the founding president of the Pennsylvania Avenue Lafayette Market Association, he promoted events such as a popular Easter Parade along the street and voter registration drives. He lobbied city registration officials to keep Saturday hours to accommodate working people.”

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/obituaries/bs-md-ob-herman-katkow-2-20130827-story.html

Mr. Herman Katkow (Baltimore Sun).
Mr. Herman Katkow (Baltimore Sun).

Both Mr. Kurland and Mr. Katkow show what can happen when business people care for more than just the bottom line. Fifty years ago, these two men helped to get the Joseph House established. Could they have dreamed that what they did is still bearing fruit today?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth on the steps of 2009 McCulloh Street during a visit to the old neighborhood. Photo taken in 1999.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth on the steps of 2009 McCulloh Street during a visit to the old neighborhood. Photo taken in 1999.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth on “Mother Angelica Live”

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Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), died on March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday. Born in 1923, she was a pioneer in religious media programming.

EWTN was the first Catholic satellite television station in the United States. It began broadcasting on August 15, 1981. Today the network has 230 million viewers in 140 countries.

A mainstay of EWTN was Mother’s talk show, “Mother Angelica Live.” Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, our foundress, was a guest on the show in 1987. Here is a partial transcript:

Mother Angelic: How and when did you start?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: I started in 1974, I don’t know how. I had already begun what we call Joseph House, which is our apostolate, and I was doing that as a layperson with other lay people, but knowing that I was waiting for the first vocation to come. So I think it was nine years after I started Joseph House that a young lady came to be a helper, and I recognized that she had a vocation, so the two of us decided that we would start. And so we went to a bishop and we said to him would he mind if we tried it? And if it didn’t work, well it was a sign from God. He said, well, it was a free country, and if we wanted to try it just try it. And I thought, well, evidently he doesn’t know anymore about it than I do! So from all that ignorance we got started.

Mother Angelic: You made a deal with the Lord. What was it?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: I told the Lord that I would be willing to do the work if He would do the worrying. I would not worry. So He has done magnificently with His end of the job, I hope I’ve done well with mine.

Mother Angelic: What do you do?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: We do anything that the poor need. We are free, that’s the beauty of our work. We are absolutely free to do anything that the poor person needs. So we do many things, from job placement to instruction to counseling to paying rents, paying mortgages, turning on gas, turning on electric, feeding people, minding children, cleaning houses. Whatever a person needs at the moment is what we try to do for them.

We work very well with the established agencies and mostly we’re happy to take care of people who fall between the cracks with other agencies. People that they can’t take care of, people who for example either live in the wrong vicinity to get help from an agency or have maybe $10 too much to get Food Stamps — it’s just pathetic — or who are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid and so they can’t even go out and get medicine when they need it. They simply cannot supply the necessary things to get what they need, and so we’re very happy to be able to step in there.

We live totally on Divine Providence. Sometimes we spend today what we might get tomorrow, which is very daring, but we often do that. I started this in the sixties and we have lived that way ever since. It’s just wonderful. What comes, goes. And it goes for whatever is needed, whatever God sends, whatever people He sends and the problems He sends.

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Mother Angelic: What can people do to help the poor?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: One of the things I think they can do is just become very friendly with some poor families, help them to understand what help there is for them, many of them do not know how to use the organizations that are set up to help them. And the other thing is to just be a good listener for them, a person who is empathetic, somebody who will mind their baby for them while they go to the store or somebody who will tell them what to do about a problem with someone.

Most of the poor need friends, they need friends more than they need money, they just need someone who makes them feel like they are somebody and who will be there when they have trouble and listen to them. That is very hard for social workers to do because they are just not able to do that. We don’t consider ourselves social workers, we consider ourselves as carrying out the Gospel. That’s really what we want to do.

Caller: How can I get a strong faith?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: I don’t know how you get it, I just know I have it. But I’m sure that God will give it to you if you desire it. God gives us everything that we really need — everything — and we don’t have to feel that we have the faith, that’s what we have to remember. We do not have to feel that we have the faith. We simply have to believe that God will take care of us. He does, that’s all I can say. It’s in the will.