The Ursulines remained committed to their mission of education, though the form of education adapted as they served different populations. As Sister Mary McCormick explained, it was a question of what the people needed at the time. When early Ursuline communities faced stricter regulations from the Church, they opened convent schools to teach young girls on the convent grounds. Then, when the Ursulines settled in the New World, they taught the children of slaves, and later they opened Catholic schools to teach the children of immigrants.
Almost five hundred years later, the sisters and associates we met with showed us how they are meeting the need for education in today’s world. Casa Madre, which serves children infected and affected by AIDS, provides tutoring services to help the kids with their academic studies and also teaches the children necessary day-to-day skills. The set-up of the building, for instance, models what a typical home looks like. Opportunities for teaching and learning are all around us, as Sister Dorothy told us when we met with her on Wednesday to show us pictures from her experiences camping and gardening. No matter where you go, she said, you are learning: each experience, though not in a classroom, has some seed of insight to offer.
I felt so inspired hearing about the impact the sisters and associates have had in their ministries. In addition to their success stories, they also told us about the challenges they’ve faced. It made me think of Sister Dorothy’s comment as she showed us her gardening journal: “I never knew there was so much loss involved.” As she transplanted the seedlings, some of them took root and some of them died. By the time she got to the end of her diary, though, there were flowers and vegetables in abundance.
On the final evening of the retreat, we attended Sister Bridget’s mandala experience. We began by identifying the circles around us in the room—the clock, the tables, the thermostat. There are circles in art and architecture and music, and it is such an ancient and universal form that we take it for granted. By making the mandalas, we become more in tune with the harmony of circles, and as Sister Bridget read from a book about Native American spirituality: “Birds make their nests in circles for theirs is the same religion as ours… Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.” After two very busy days of immersion and learning, the mandala experience gave me a chance to slow down, relax, and explore the feelings and questions that I didn’t yet have words for. Our time from the retreat had come full circle, and the end was just the beginning.