Sister Anthony: A lifetime of serving the poor
She will turn 84 in September and she is smiling through her rehab from a car accident and hip replacement surgery, but Daughter of Charity Sister Anthony Barczykowski continues to greet each day as an opportunity for both spiritual growth and helping anyone she meets.
That's the ministry Sister Anthony signed up for nearly 65 years ago when she entered the Daughters of Charity in 1949, and she's not about to stop now that she has stepped down as executive director of the archdiocesan Department of Community Services, which oversees a multitude of Catholic programs to the poor, the needy and the elderly.
"I think I've seen more doctors in the last 15 months than I have the rest of my life, so I've been asking, 'What is the message here? What is God asking of me?'" said Sister Anthony, who will officially retire June 30 after serving since 2001 as head of community services and serving the previous 21 years as executive director of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans.
"I've been a Daughter of Charity for over 64 years, and our community is called to serve the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable," she said. "That's also what I was called to do in my ministry with the archdiocese. It's a great blessing to have those two calls be one and the same."
A native of St. Louis, Sister Anthony came to New Orleans in 1972 after having directed child-care institutions in California for 14 years. Her community asked her to administrate St. Elizabeth's Home for Girls on Napoleon Avenue, which then cared for about 60 girls ages 6 to 18.
"There were no computers, no smart phones," she said. "The joke back then was if you wanted a new pencil, you had to go show your pencil stub. They were tight."
Reality came crashing down almost immediately when Sister Anthony discovered she did not have enough money to make payroll.
"I was very naive," Sister Anthony said. "I wrote Archbishop (Philip) Hannan and said, 'I don't have money for payroll. Can you send me some?' And, he did. That shows you how naive I was and what a different world we lived in."
There were other challenges. When she arrived at St. Elizabeth's, Sister Anthony decided to write a letter to parents, introducing herself and reassuring them that she would do everything she could to work with them to help their children succeed.
"I got word from the state that that wasn't my job – my job was to work with the children and their job was to work with the families," Sister Anthony said. "I told them that would have to change or I would have to leave, because you can't separate children from families."
Cobbling together finances and overcoming seemingly intractable challenges helped prepare Sister Anthony when she joined Catholic Charities in 1976 as assistant administrator for services to children and youth and then assumed the executive director's role of Catholic Charities in 1980.
"You learn by doing," she said. "I learned to call on the expertise of others. That's the one thing that has really stayed with me. When I ask myself what gifts I have brought, every one of them has come about by surrounding myself with good people, benefiting from their expertise and learning from them."
She had never even heard of Archbishop Hannan until she arrived in New Orleans in 1972, and then she found out quickly that he operated with a style all his own.
"He loved the poor and he loved people, and when he saw a need, he would say to me, 'Are you going to do this or am I?'" Sister Anthony said, smiling. "We all know that when he wanted something done, he wasn't going to stop until it was done. Each of the four archbishops I worked under brought his own gifts, and each had a deep belief that we as church have a deep responsibility to reach out to the poor. That's what gave me the strength to sometimes fight the odds."
When Katrina turned the world upside down, Sister Anthony said her prayer directed her to dig more deeply into her life's purpose.
"We do not get to control our lives – God's in charge," she said. "You know that, but to experience it was something else. I remember sitting in an airport shortly after the storm and this woman was talking to a stranger. She said, 'I lost my neighbors, I lost my possessions, I lost my city, I lost everything.' That's how so many of us felt. Where do you begin? How do you begin?
"The one thing Catholic Charities always has done is if we see a need, we try to meet the need. If that involves taking risks, you do it. Catholic Charities took a lot of risks in terms of helping people rebuild their homes. Sometimes taking risks gets you in trouble, but it's something you have to do. If you're not taking risks, you're not growing, you're not really keeping your eyes and ears open to what needs are there."
Sister Anthony is not concerned about rumblings that the federal government may put restrictions on Catholic institutions that seek to help the poor, forcing them to choose between adhering to their faith and providing social services. Somehow, some way, Sister Anthony said, Catholic Charities will find a way to serve.
"We will abide by the teachings of the church, but we will not run away from people just because they don't understand the church's teachings," Sister Anthony said. "Some people are just struggling to survive, so talk about rules and regulations and policies doesn't mean anything to them. In my opinion, our main purpose is to bring God's love to people and show them that God loves them, no matter what their circumstances are. If we can accomplish that, that's more important than saying, 'This is the way to live your life.'"
Sister Anthony said she plans to keep working on several important causes, particularly the NOLA Interfaith Peace Initiative, which seeks a faith-based solution to violence in the community. The morning after her final day on the job, she attended a prayer meeting.
"Faith-based organizations have a role in bringing about peace in our community," Sister Anthony said. "It's the Holy Spirit operating. We don't know how it will turn out, but we must do our best. We don't know what seeds are being planted. I firmly believe God is with us, and I want to be a part of this."
In many ways, she says, this is how Pope Francis is shaking up the world.
"He wants us to get out there on the streets – that means, where the people are," Sister Anthony said. "We can't solve all problems in society, but we can be there as a presence of God. And, we can be there to listen to people."