Pioneer women religious leaders can teach us a lot today

(This reflection by Ursuline Sister Nancy Liddy also appears in the May issue of Ursuline Associate Update.)

By Sister Nancy Liddy

Walking out of the front doors of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, I was struck by the statue directly in front of me of Mother Catherine Spalding with two orphans in tow. The statue of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth founder is at street-level and her half smile and steady gaze, like the Mona Lisa, give the impression that Mother Catherine is engaging each person walking down 5th street to the river. Her legacy for her work with the excluded is so well-known she is often referred to as the leader who shaped today’s “Compassionate Louisville.”

Sister of Charity Mary Ellen Doyle collected Catherine’s letters for publication in 2016. Like so many women religious superiors who often faced difficulties – we know Saint Angela helped others reconcile Brescia when feuding was a way of life – the letters reveal Catherine’s daily struggles with Church leadership (Bishop Spalding was a relative) and internal divisions among the sisters in her religious community. Sister Doyle highlights how Catherine faced these difficulties with wit, a loving embrace and even some fancy footwork with city officials.

Given the current climate of polarization in our country, let’s imagine how Mother Catherine and many of our great pioneer leaders – including Mother Aloysius Willett, who led the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph to independence – could help us today to recognize that the Spirit of God works in everyone – even those who disagree with us.

When we find ourselves avoiding those whose point of view seems so radically different from our own, finding common ground may seem impossible. Spiritual leaders recognize that sometimes distance on the controversial is best for everyone. We know that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:6) and we can allow the Spirit to do what we are unable to accomplish ourselves. We are all flowing along on rivers that end in the same ocean and just for the moment, we offer a blessing across the waters without engaging them ourselves.

When we find ourselves disagreeing with those with whom we have a good relationship and interact with regularly, it is sometimes harder to engage the conflict. We like to think we are open to listen to another’s view but find ourselves offended to discover there actually ARE other views! Over the years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has given us a course on the art of listening. We may have grown in different ways, but we can focus on what we have in common and continue to bring joy to these relationships.

When we find ourselves at odds around a controversial issue with those closest to us, we can experience up close our ego-driven behaviors and our need to be right. When we engage a practice of being generous and always the first to show respect, we invite fruitful conversation. We may not come to complete harmony, but we are still together.

Something to Consider

Mother Catherine’s letters demonstrate the skills she possessed to preserve unity and “affectionate familial feelings” amid struggles. She was a pioneer in meaningful dialogue with others. In her book, Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley encourages us to give the gift of spirituality of communion to the world. She writes, “It’s not the differences that divide us, it’s our judgements about each other that do.” This is nothing new. We can all develop the gift of seeing what is positive in others. In one of her final letters Catherine wrote, “I have lived long enough to learn to take all these things just as they come.”



  1. Angela Schrage

    Thanks for introducing Catherine Spalding to us, and her legacy.
    And something to consider: it’s not our differences that divide us, but our judgments about each other.

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