Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Called: Sister Barbara Sable, SS.C.M.

Sister Barbara Sable, SS.C.M
Sister Barbara Sable, SS.C.M

The Called: Sister Barbara Sable, SS.C.M.
Hometown: Gary, Indiana
Education: St. Mark School in Gary, Indiana; Andrean High School, Merrillville, Ind.; BA, Alvernia University, Reading, Pa.; MS, University of Dayton, OH; MSW Loyola University, Chicago, Ill.
Current assignment: General Superior of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Danville, Pennsylvania

Talk about your childhood and where you grew up.

I’m originally from Gary, Indiana, not too far from Chicago. I belonged to St. Mark Parish in Gary. As a child, I also attended the grade school there. I am the second of four children and the only girl. Typical of Catholic families of that time and era, we all went to the Catholic grade school and were active in activities at the school. I was active in CYO sports and in Girl Scouts, and remained in Girl Scouts throughout high school. We did different parish activities too.

Gary was a good place to call home. It was safe, there was a lot of employment. In those days, it was still full of what had been ethnic parishes, because that is how the city was settled and built, in cooperation with the steel mills. When U.S. Steel planned the city, they envisioned neighborhoods of different ethnic populations. The company frequently recruited people from central and eastern Europe. When the people came, U.S. Steel gave them land for a church and helped each of those different groups build churches. There was one for Italians, one for Lithuanians, one for Polish and one for Slovaks, for example. St. Mark Parish had been primarily German, but when I was there, there wasn’t anything particularly ethnic about it.

My graduating class in grade school was large. There were 120 of us. That was kind of typical for the time. After grade school, I went to Andrean High School, which had been built not too long before that. There had been two high schools in our area, but Gary wasn’t named its own diocese until 1956. One of the first things the new bishop, Andrew Grutka, did was to have a new high school built for all the students in the area. When they formulated the plan, they determined that the high school would be co-institutional. There were boys and girls in the school, but we all attended classes separately and mixed-in for lunch and activities. There were 1,600 students in our high school.

The bishop invited priests, the Congregation of Saint Basil, from Canada to teach the boys, and the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius – whom he knew from when he was a pastor at the Slovak parish in Gary – to teach the girls. That’s where my connection with the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius began.

When did you first begin to consider religious life?

It was during high school, and it was because of what I saw in the Sisters who taught there. I saw examples of joyous service, of Sisters who had concern for all the students, of a community life that they seemed to enjoy. They seemed to be real, authentic people. I think I also gave it thought because in classes that graduated before me, there were people I knew who had entered the community.

I found that the careers that I had considered up until then were opportunities that could be delivered through religious life as well. I had often thought about being a teacher and the Sisters were teachers, so it made a good fit for me.

You entered at the Motherhouse in Danville. What was that experience like?

There were a lot of surprises because at that point, the only Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius that I knew were those who had either been my teachers or had been missioned at my high school. At the time I attended high school, there were 24 Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius teaching at the high school. I did get a good cross-section and I thought it was wonderful that they were so different and yet got along and lived in community.

It was only when I came to Danville that I learned some larger things about the community, like the fact that they had been historically Slovak. These many years later, it continues to be a good fit for me.

In the early days, the week of my First Profession helped set me up for what to expect for the rest of my religious life. We were preparing prayerfully and quietly for our First Profession, and it was when Hurricane Agnes spun and stalled over Pennsylvania in 1972. Our Motherhouse here in Danville is on a hill, so we became a center and a place of refuge for people in town and the nearby countryside who had lost their homes. We set up classrooms and the auditorium as dormitories. Helicopters were coming to our grounds to drop off food and supplies. The novitiate became the center for pets, because a lot of people brought their pets with them. Nearly every morning, a Sister would walk over from the main building carrying a wet cat or dog under her poncho. We wanted to make the people as comfortable as possible because we understood that healing and recovery are holistic. Yes, we made sure the people had a cot and food, and they were dry, but there was more to them seeing a future for themselves; realizing their pet was safe and would one day go home with them was part of it.

At that time, First Profession was a closed ceremony only to be attended by members of the religious community. But in our case, any of the displaced people who were living in the building at the time could attend the ceremony if they wanted to. The day of our First Profession, the church was full of people we were assisting. There were so many people there who were crying; some tears of joy because of the beauty of the ceremony, and others because they had lost everything.

We still meet people in town who reference those days and recall they were welcomed to the grounds at that time. It’s an experience you don’t forget. It taught me that God is full of surprises; that what we think we know, we don’t really know; and that there are lots of ways to serve.

Tell me about the day of your Final Profession.

Final Profession was five years later, in 1977. Between First Profession and Final Profession, there was a lot going on in the Universal Church. Vatican II was asking religious congregations to look at their constitutions and the laws by which they lived. One of the changes my congregation made in those five years was to give Sisters the opportunity – if they wished – to make their Final Vows in a place other than the Motherhouse. Up until that time, both First and Final Vows were always made at the Motherhouse. The option they gave was that you could make them in the parish church or a place where you served.

I took that option, and asked to make my Final Vows in the chapel at Andrean High School, where I graduated. It was for a number of reasons, but mostly because I knew my larger family would never be able to travel to Pennsylvania, and I wanted them to be part of it. I also selected the chapel so that my Final Vows could serve as an example to the larger community. It seemed to me to be a good way to speak about religious life and vocations to a larger group.

The chapel wasn’t large, so it was jam-packed with Sisters in the choir loft, and we had a reception in the courtyard of the convent there. When I think of that day, it combines that sense of inclusion and outreach. Some of the Sisters there were also my teachers in high school, so that also was a special part.

In what ministries have you served, and where?

I began my religious life in education, and for the first number of years I was an elementary school teacher and then a high school teacher, guidance counselor and guidance director. As a teacher, I was in New York, South Carolina, Connecticut and a couple of places in Pennsylvania. I was in Swoyersville in the Diocese of Scranton; and then guidance director at the former Bishop Hafey High School in Hazleton in the Diocese of Scranton. I also served at the residential high school for girls we had here in Danville, St. Cyril Academy in the Diocese of Harrisburg. At the academy, I was an English teacher, guidance director and dormitory supervisor.

After my assignment at Bishop Hafey, I went back home to Gary and thought that I would teach at Andrean, but instead I wound up as a case manager at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Gary. I served for ten years, first as a case manager, then as Refugee and Resettlement Director, overall Program Manager and interim CEO. I served there until I was elected to leadership with the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

The years in Catholic Charities were wonderful and challenging. The motto of Catholic Charities, “Providing Help, Creating Hope,” was something I tried to bring to the programs I directed or created. I had a lot of opportunities not to just serve in existing programs, but also to create programs that really reflected help and hope. For example, we had a very active food pantry that served a lot of people. To that, we added a nutrition education program, so that the people would know what was healthy. In that program, as with many others, we always looked to see with whom we could collaborate, where existing programs could enrich each other. With the nutrition education program, we collaborated with Purdue University. They provided the teachers, we provided the class and we got the parishes to donate some incentives. We did the same with our rent and utility assistance program. Some of our clients needed the assistance, but we could tell there was a piece missing, so we added budgeting and financial education so they would hopefully be able to get ahead.

With refugee resettlement, it was a small but robust program and I was able to invite a lot of churches from all denominations to help. Not only were we able to successfully provide refugees with initial food and housing, we could also secure jobs, English classes and friends for them in the community.

One of my favorite programs with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Gary was one that we created for individuals who had serious mental illness and were chronically homeless. We devised a “Housing First,” program. Existing programs were difficult for these individuals to access because applicants wouldn’t be approved for housing unless they fulfilled some requirement first, like long-term participation in therapy. Often, people couldn’t do that for an extended period of time while still on the streets, so they didn’t get approved for housing. We built a program that placed them in housing first with a lot of case management and their mental health improved immediately because they were off the streets. That made them more inclined, then, to do the work that was necessary for them to retain their housing and continue working on improved mental health.

You currently serve as General Superior of your congregation. When did you take that role, and what does it involve?

In 2011, I was elected to leadership in my congregation. Our leadership structure is such that we have five people on the leadership team, and only two of them are required to live in Danville; the three others can continue with their assigned ministries while serving as members of the team. I was elected in 2011 as Assistant to the General Superior, and that required my presence in Danville. I served four years in that capacity, was re-elected for another four years, and then a bonus year because of Covid and our inability to gather and have another election. Last year, we had our normal elections, and that’s when I was elected General Superior.

It’s a role that is different for every religious congregation, depending on their ministries and where they live. My congregation serves only in the United States; we are an American foundation, originally founded in 1909 to teach the children of Slovak immigrants and to serve their families. Right now, we continue to serve in different capacities in Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Indiana and Illinois. In most of those places, it’s a small presence of three or four Sisters and we serve as teachers, pastoral assistants, chaplains and program directors. There are 54 Sisters in our Congregation.

My role and that of the four members of the leadership team is to inspire and coordinate the life of the Congregation. We do that by supporting the Sisters prayerfully and spiritually and assisting them in whatever ministry-related needs they might have to ensure that the ministries they serve in are still viable and needed for God’s Kingdom. Alert to the signs and needs of the times, it is my role to lead the Congregation in Gospel fidelity to the mission of the Church.

My job also entails helping to oversee and direct the outreach of our ministries for the good of the Church. We have a number of places where we serve in ministries sponsored by a Diocese. We also have what we call sponsored ministries, which are our own, and those include the Franciscan Center in South Carolina – a multi-faceted, social service outreach to the poor who live in and around St. Helena Island. Another sponsored ministry is the Saint Cyril Pre-school and Kindergarten here in Danville on the Motherhouse grounds. We also have the Spiritual Center here, where we offer retreats and spiritual direction. Our largest sponsored ministry is Maria Joseph Continuing Care Community, also in Danville. It provides a variety of services for the elderly, which is something we have done since the foundation of our community in 1909. We have homes for the independent elderly, and also provide personal care, skilled care and memory care.

What advice would you give a young woman who is discerning religious life?

Come and see. If you’ve thought about religious life, connect with a Sister. Ask to visit the community, to eat with the community, to pray with the community. Have conversations. Take things beyond just thinking about it; come and see what religious life is like.

Religious life has always has been part of the Church, and it’s always been about serving God’s people, through both prayer and action. For a young woman who would like to be part of something bigger, consider religious life.

(Interview conducted by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

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