The Called: Sister Mary Joseph Albright, SCC
Hometown: Nutley, New Jersey
Current assignment: Vice President of Mission Integration at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center in Camp Hill
Talk about your childhood, and your upbringing in the Church.
I grew up in a faith-filled family. We were members of St. Mary’s Parish in Nutley, and since we were a large family, we took up two pews at St. Mary’s Church. No matter what time we arrived, the pews were saved for us. Everybody knew everybody, and we all watched out for one another. My siblings and I went to St. Mary’s Catholic School, and after parochial school, we all attended the town’s public high school.
Nutley is a nice, beautiful town with a lot of parks. I was a runner, so I ran those streets and through the parks. It was a very safe and fun place. As kids, on the weekends we ran outside to play with the neighborhood kids. When one family rang their dinner bell, everybody scrambled back to their houses.
We ate supper as a family, every night at 6:00. God bless my mom, we were eleven lively siblings she cooked for, yet that meal was never late. I was second in line and the oldest girl, so my parents counted on me to help out. My siblings thought that they had “two moms.” I was frequently playing school with them, which is probably why I eventually became a teacher.
When I entered public high school, my classmates came in from different elementary schools. It didn’t matter what faith background you had, or if you had any faith at all – we were all friends. It was a very beautiful experience, and one of service. We had a Protestant principal, and we loved him. If there was something on the floor in the school corridors, he would pick it up. We followed that model. We took pride in our school because our principal did, and he modeled service.
When did you first consider religious life?
I had wanted to be a Sister all my life. When I was really little, probably four or five years old, I pointed to a Sister and I said, “I want to be one of those.” I didn’t really know what Sisters were, but I knew that I wanted to be that, to be what they were. The Sister I saw had a warm, gentle smile and a peaceful presence. That attracted me.
When I was growing up, Missionaries came to our church and spoke, and I liked what they were saying. They would talk about their mission work and service to the poor. The one country they spoke about that stuck with me was Africa, Tanzania specifically. In my mind, I was going to be a Maryknoll and I was going to serve in Tanzania, and that was that. Later, I came to know God had other ideas.
After high school, I met our Sisters in college – the Sisters of Christian Charity. This was in the days before computers, so how do you find out how to become a Sister? I knew I wanted to be a Sister, and I knew I was called to be a Sister, but where do you start? When I was in college, I had eight Sisters of Christian Charity in my class. The Sister, who was the teacher, was taking roll one day calling each one: “Sister…,” “Sister…,” “Sister…” She was in the pattern of saying “Sister,” and the next thing you know, she called my name and accidentally called me Sister Mary. Everybody laughed and I turned all colors, but finally I said, “Don’t laugh. I’m thinking about it.” That was all it took. The SCC Sister students went home, gathered up materials, and brought in a big envelope for me. They had three weekend “come and see” events coming up, and they insisted I go to one of them.
At the same time that I was searching, I was bringing friends with me to visit different congregations. And every one we went to, each friend that came along decided it was the congregation where she belonged. Soon, I was running out friends to go with me! Eventually, I started to realize that I didn’t just have a vocation to religious life, I also had a vocation to a specific community.
When I was young, I had written to the Maryknolls to ask them to join. They sent a rejection letter, so I knew I wasn’t going to be a Maryknoll. But the missionary spirit never died, and it was still there when I entered the Sisters of Christian Charity. They said, “Don’t try to squash that spirit; it’s there for a reason.” Eventually, our community opened a mission in the Philippines for the blind and handicapped blind. I begged and pleaded to go, and I was assigned there. They opened the mission in 1995 and I arrived there in 2000. I was teaching at the time, so I was able to go to the Philippines in the summer and do some mission work there.
Religious life is the beauty of vowed life, ministry and prayer, and how we Sisters come together in community living. I see God’s hand in my life, and in my ministry. God speaks, and we have to listen to him if we are to be our happiest and serve Him well.
Your vocation has led you to various ministries.
It’s so freeing to just be, to just do what the Lord asks. I entered in 1978. I’ve taught in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I’ve lived in the Philippines in service to the poor. My community asked me to set up a mission for the congregation for the purpose of an experience of international community, spiritual renewal, and service to the poor. Fifteen of us met in Argentina and we visited our SCC schools there, then we traveled to Uruguay to continue our mission to the poor.
It was during my time there that I was asked to come back and do my current job as Vice President of Mission Integration. Ironically, what did we wind up establishing in Uruguay? A medical mission. I also ran a retreat center, am a trained spiritual director and had training as a bereavement facilitator. In bereavement, I mostly worked with individuals who had lost children. From there, I was asked to be part of prayer formation for seminarians in the Diocese, Newark Archdiocese.
In religious life, the greatest grace is in saying yes. It’s all His. It has nothing to do with me. I just show up, say yes, and then be ready for where it leads.
Did you ever have any doubts or challenges during discernment?
No doubts whatsoever. I’ll be honest, I had dated, and there was a guy I would have married if God didn’t tug harder and win. It’s part of the human element about having healthy relationships.
His name was Joe, and he and I were talking about getting married at one time, and I said to God, “Please tell him that I’m going to be a Sister, because I can’t.” Somehow, Joe ended up knowing that I was called to religious life. We’ve not kept in touch, but to this day I continue to pray for him and his family. As much as I loved him, I loved God more, and I couldn’t not choose God.
I was out running when I made the decision to say yes to God. I’d go on 21-mile runs on the weekend. I got back to the house, ran all the way up to the third floor of my parents’ house, and threw myself on my knees. I said, “Ok, God. You can have me.” Entering religious life, I knew what I gave up. But you have to be real; if you’re called to married, single or religious life, you have to go where God calls, and I have no regrets.
What do you remember most about making final vows?
The most beautiful and memorable thing for me was something the priests can relate to. During the ordination for a priest, there is a time where they are lying prostrate before the altar. My congregation does that too. I remember at final vows, the Sisters in the choir were chanting the Litany of the Saints. There were four of us making final vows that day, and none of us wanted to get up off the floor. It spoke of, “I have died, and I arise to a new life and belong now to a religious congregation.”
We all wore a white mantle, and we had record-breaking heat the day of our final vows. There was concern that we were all going to pass out if we wore it, but we were determined to do it. The reason is, Mother Pauline, our foundress, wore the mantle and we did not want to skip that tradition.
But for me, my heart made final vows when I made my first vows. It was forever for me. I had two years of postulancy, and then we got our religious name, a white veil and the Constitutions of our order. We spent that year learning Church documents, learning the essence of the SCC Constitutions – our vows, our prayer, community living and our apostolate life of service. At the end of those two years, we made our first vows. My heart was already committed.
Why did you choose Mary Joseph as your religious name?
I was baptized Mary Elizabeth, and my Confirmation name is Anne. Poor St. Joseph was left out of the mix, and I always felt that he was hidden. How beautiful is it that Joseph is so holy and so good, and yet we have no words from him in the Bible? That’s why I decided to be Sister Mary Joseph. I included Joseph in my name to help people remember him, that every time they’d say my name, they’d have to think about him and pray for his intercession. An easy prayer that I love is, “Dear St. Joseph, Good St. Joseph, Great St. Joseph, help me.”
What does your ministry as Vice President of Mission Integration involve?
The Sisters of Christian Charity continue to sponsor the hospital, so I am their representative tasked with keeping the mission, vision, values, Catholic culture and identity strong. The connection to the Diocese, because this is a Catholic hospital, has an element of accountability and responsibility.
I speak with all the new practitioners. I give them an understanding of who we are with our Catholic identity. We follow what’s called the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare. We want practitioners to understand the Directives are not just about “do” and “don’t;” but about respecting the dignity of every human person, no matter what. Education of employees of our faith-based culture is a big piece of what I do.
Does your previous experience in bereavement ministry and as a spiritual director play a part in your current ministry?
Absolutely. I remember being interviewed early on in my religious life before I professed final vows. The phrase that I used in that interview still comes to me today: “Religious life unfolds.” When I look back to when I was appointed to this position, my first thought was, “A hospital? I don’t do blood, I’m not clinical in any way, shape or form.” But I said, “Ok, Lord, you brought me here, so give me what I need.”
You have to come into a new assignment with an attitude of humility, and trust. That’s how I approached this new experience. Yes, I doubted that I was the right person because I didn’t know anything about hospitals, but I came to find that the role I have is really about education. It’s a teaching role, and one of support.
In my days as a spiritual director and bereavement facilitator, I’d say that I held hearts. I still hold hearts. I’m a morale booster.
Speaking of morale, talk about what has been a source of encouragement for the staff during this pandemic.
The beautiful thing is that prayer is a non-negotiable here. We’re allowed to pray with each other, for each other. You can always pray from your heart for someone. Our employees are just absolutely beautiful people. Their heart and soul is so much the Sisters of Christian Charity. This hospital was owned and operated by our congregation when the hospital began, so the spirit of the Sisters lives here, and we need to keep that going.
The Catholic schools have been incredibly supportive with goodie bags. I reached out to them, asking for help during the height of the pandemic. We were stressed and stretched, and the schools came through beautifully with prayers and cards and gift bags. That’s a beautiful partnership we have with the principals and teachers in the Diocese. I love that this position has given me the opportunity and the great grace to be connected to the Diocese in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
Prayer keeps us going. I see people in the chapel, people of all faiths. Prayer grounds us and roots us in charity and love.
What words of advice would you give a young woman who is considering the call to religious life?
You need to pray. You need to pray and ask, “God, what is your will for me? Help me to know it and have the courage to accept it and follow it.”
Recognize that when you know you have a vocation to religious life, and that it’s truly of God, you need to discern where He is calling you. It’s very wise to visit a minimum of three congregations.
When I visited the Sisters of Christian Charity, I had deep peace. When I was at Felician College, there was a flood, and I had volunteered to help clean up the mess. I was in jeans and sneakers and covered in mud and wound up going to the SCC motherhouse because one of the professed Sisters of Christian Charity was also helping with the clean up and I gave her a ride in my car. She rode with me to the motherhouse, and that’s how I presented myself for the first hello. And the Sisters acted like I was dressed to the hilt. I was warmly embraced. If my appearance bothered them, it didn’t phase them – either that or they swallowed it. Of course, when I asked permission to change clothes, the request was granted quickly! But there was a family spirit, there was warmth, and that’s what I was looking for.
When you visit the different congregations, you’ll know which one is for you. You’ll have peace. You’ll know why you’re called to belong to that congregation.
Talk about the joy you’ve found in your vocation.
While joy is real and deep, every life has its challenges. We live the Paschal Mystery. If we make peace with that, we allow ourselves to not be perfect. I tell people, “Don’t put me on a pedestal, because the only thing I’m going to do is fall off.” The best any of us will ever be is human. When we give ourselves permission to “be on the way” to holiness, we can know joy no matter our shortcomings.
I was a teacher for my community for 30 years, and one day I knew I wasn’t supposed to teach anymore. I ignored God for a bit, but He does not go away. After a year of hearing Him say I wasn’t supposed to be in the classroom anymore, I contacted my provincial. I said, “I love what I’m doing, and the kids love me. But I know, as clearly as I know I have a vocation to religious life, that I’m not supposed to be teaching anymore, but I have no idea where God is calling me to.” I think it’s important for religious to come with that humility because it allows us to discern. I didn’t know where I’d be sent next, but I saw God’s hand in it. Everything happened because I finally listened to God and surrendered.
One of the gifts of religious life is that we go in obedience. Every place and ministry prepares us for the next. To me, that is why Sisters have such joy. If we’re really open to listening and really living our vows, it’s a true gift.
I’m at my happiest when I give back when I’m serving. But you have to be careful that it’s not because of your ego. You have to have a continual check: “Am I doing this because of the warm fuzzies I get in return, or is it really because of God? What motivated me? Was I listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit?” One of the greatest joys of religious life, for me, is that I have so many opportunities to hear, listen and respond to God’s graces.
Religious life is 24/7. That’s why I love the habit. People see us; we’re visible. They look at us and they either get annoyed by God, or they give thanks. In some way, I’m making people think of God. It can also lead to excellent conversation. When I’ve been stopped in stores or on the street, I’ll say, “Ask me whatever you want. It’s ok.” When you give people that permission, it leads to conversation. I’ll stand and talk with them. Mother Pauline taught us: whether it’s convenient or inconvenient, if it’s good for the other, it must be undertaken. When you live by that, it’s so freeing.
(Interview by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)