REMEMBERING Sr. Jeannette Normandin

“Sister of St. Anne, counselor, prison chaplain and founder of the Ruah House, serving women living with HIV, for the clarity of her vision, her decades of work with prisoners and the poor in the inner city, and for her courageous devotion to the call for women to serve humanity within the Roman Catholic Church as equals in the eyes of Christ.” from the Peace Abbey, the multi-faith retreat center, in awarding Jeannette their Courage of Conscience Award not long after her dismissal by the Boston Archdiocese from her work and ministry at the Jesuit Urban Center. (The Peace Abbey is at

The following is an excerpt from an interview Sr. Jeannette Normandin gave me for the Winter 2003 VOTF quarterly Voice. PLT

In 2002, Sr. Jeannette Normandin was fired from her work at the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston for reasons and in a way that have never been fully explained to her. She was also told to leave the Center, where she had lived and worked for over 11 years. She now lives in a Boston apartment with her cat, Sophia, and in the supportive embrace of many friends all over the region. Jeannette looks well and laughs easily, but she is not without an occasional sadness for the life she misses at the Center. She notes that this is the first time in her 53 years as a Sister that she is not living in community. “There’s a sense of others and otherness that I believe Jesus wanted for us.” I interviewed Jeannette to ask her if “being Church” has changed for her, in light of her personal experience and the revelations of sexual abuse by clergy.

Q. Your own recent experience must have challenged you in new ways, just as all Catholics have been challenged by our shock over the incidence and handling of sexual abuse by clergy. How does “Church” look to you today?

A. Very, very disappointing but I can’t begin to guess why people do what they do. None of us can throw stones. I have learned that we have to go about whatever it is each of us is about. And pray. I think of the terrible shame they feel and I pray for all of them – the offended and the offenders.

For me, the first thing I had to do was let go of what happened to me. That was very hard. I still don’t understand what happened. I have never been given an explanation, a hearing, nothing – but I did manage to let it go. You know, women have this “thing” – we find ways to connect and to be with others. And the same applies to what is happening in our Church – we see that something has happened and we go about finding ways to connect and be with the survivors, their families, and each other.

Q. Someone you have worked with in the past has called you her “bishop” – such was the impact of your lifework on her. She recalled what you said to women who might be in prison ministry: “Don’t think you are bringing God here; you will FIND God here.” If you were a bishop today (Jeannette laughs at this), what would you be saying to your flock?

A. I’d say what I say now. See who Jesus really is, and come clean to that Jesus. Then, get as close as you can to that Jesus. It’s all that is asked of us, really, and it’s never ending so we always have work to do. That’s how we know what we’re about and how to work with all that happens to us and around us. What Voice of the Faithful seems to be doing is working with what has happened to us as a community. When I was facing what had happened to me, I had to find a way to connect with and work with it. It wouldn’t do to walk away from it.

Q. I see snapshots all over your apartment and I hear you mention all of them by name. It seems you are as much a part of the lives of these children as you are of their parents – an emissary in our Faith. Catholic women ask themselves and are asked by others, “Why and how do you stay in a Church that marginalizes you by virtue of your gender?” What would you say to Catholic women today?

A. The Church is who I am and what I am – how can I leave my own identity? I would say to others that you must find out what you are about, work with it, and be that person.

Women can find something new within them that they can share with the whole world – that is leadership. We can be the people of change, and a real voice in what is going on in the world.

I’m remembering a Voice of the Faithful meeting at St. John’s in Wellesley and how wonderful it was that everyone there was encouraged to speak and was supported for whatever they said just because that was how they were feeling. One older woman stood to speak and she was very, very nervous and spoke in a very quiet voice and said, “No one has said anything tonight about Mary. I think we should not forget to pray to Mary.”

I knew that was a very hard thing for her to do and maybe she never spoke out like that before, but she did that night – that’s what I mean by finding something and sharing it with the world.

This is an era for starting something new. I really believe we are being moved to a new place in our Faith and that whatever happens along the way, we have to work with it – keep praying and keep working with what we find.

Sr. Jeannette had on her windowsill a sculpture mounted on a plaque. It was the Courage of Conscience Award presented to her in 2001 by the Peace Abbey, Sherborn, MA. It reads: “For her loving care of the neglected and abandoned and for gracefully enduring sanctions while remaining true to her conscience.”

In the Vineyard
June 8, 2006
Volume 5, Issue 11 Printer Friendly Version (PDF)

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