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 www.peaceabbey.org.)
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
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
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
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.”