Africa is next stop in Sr. Regina’s prolific journey

While navigating the rutted dirt roads leading to her religious community’s outpost in Dubbo, Ethiopia, Cabrini Sister Regina Peterson got a taste of what her missionary foundress might have encountered as a horse-and-buggy-traveling immigrant in 19th-century America.

“An image of Mother Cabrini flashed though my head,” said Sister Regina of the bumpy car ride – part of a January visit to Ethiopia designed to gauge Sister Regina’s handling of that country’s super-high altitudes.

“The only good thing is, (today’s missionaries) can roll up the windows and Mother Cabrini couldn’t,” Sister Regina observed. “We don’t have to choke on the dust or deal with the horses.”

The altitude test now behind her, the 66-year-old is set to return to Ethiopia as a missionary helper in July following a five-year tenure serving the homeless and hungry of New Orleans. Sister Regina, who will reside in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, will join about 20 Cabrini Sisters currently serving in ministry in the landlocked African country.

While the details of her new post are incomplete, Sister Regina most likely will be advising the social work program at the Catholic university in Addis Ababa, and making the occasional five-hour commute to rural Dubbo, where the Cabrini Sisters operate a hospital, a Montessori school, a religious formation program for young women and a vocational training center for adults.

“They spin cotton, but there’s no spinning wheel – they do this all by hand,” explained Sister Regina of one of the adult programs. “The cotton that they spin goes into the next room, and there’s a gentleman there who is weaving. The shawls that he weaves are sold. It’s a little cottage industry.”

Created for a purpose

The sixth child born into a family of 12 siblings in suburban New York City, Sister Regina felt the seeds of her vocation sprout after she survived a serious car accident at age 6.

“I remember crying when my mother was scrubbing dirt out of the wounds and (her) saying to me, ‘I’m surprised you’re still alive! God must have something important for you to do!’ That thought always stayed with me,” Sister Regina said. “I dreamed of getting married, but that never became a focus.”

A larger quandary was finding the right religious community. Although Sister Regina was the niece of two religious sisters and educated by Dominican nuns, none of their respective traditions appealed to her.

“The two things I knew about Mother Cabrini was that she was the first American-citizen saint; the other was that I broke her statue,” said Sister Regina, recalling how she accidentally knocked over her grandmother’s sculpture of the saint as a child.

After spying a picture of Mother Cabrini in a college guide, Sister Regina, then a high school junior, wrote a letter of interest to the community’s vocation director. Over the next couple of years, the teenager’s volunteer work with abused, neglected and orphaned children at the Cabrini Sisters’ school in West Park, New York, inspired her to enter the convent in 1967 and make her final vows in 1974.

Productive college student

During that period of formation – in 1970 – Sister Regina was sent to New Orleans to earn her undergraduate degree in social work from Loyola. Her four years in the city produced even more fruit, thanks to an ambitious senior project: a mentoring and fellowship program that operated for nearly a decade inside the former St. Mary’s gym on Chartres Street, near the Cabrini Day School.

“The children would come in the afternoons,” said Sister Regina, noting that youngsters could access homework help and recreation, while teens could earn their certification as lifeguards at an on-site swimming pool.

“In the mornings we had the nutrition program for seniors. Easter Seals provided the funds to pick up people, and anyone who was approved by the Meals-on-Wheels program could have a hot lunch,” said Sister Regina, who also initiated a sharing program in which the senior participants were invited to present talks on their former careers.

New Orleans: Part Two

Sister Regina, who went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University, returned to New Orleans in 2010 as part of the Cabrini Sisters’ continuing commitment to assist in the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Her primary ministry, in addition to helping in the rehabilitation of about 20 houses, was greeting the homeless individuals seeking lunch and other weekday services at the Rebuild Center at St. Joseph Church in the CBD. Sister Regina said she witnessed astounding acts of selflessness while manning the center’s check-in kiosk – like the time a homeless man literally gave a shivering stranger the shirt off his back.

Another homeless man perplexed Sister Regina when he would cyclically disappear from the lunch line during the first part of the month, only to reappear later on.

“It turns out that he got a little money at the beginning of the month – enough to get a $39 hotel room,” Sister Regina explained. “He said, ‘It’s not much, but for at least a week I can feel like a human being. I can get up when I want to get up; I can go to the bathroom when I want to; and there’s a little coffee service in the room.’ In many, many ways these people have ministered to me and helped me realize how much I take for granted,” she said.

In the 36 years between her bookend tenures in New Orleans, Sister Regina served in virtually every ministerial setting: nursing homes, hospitals and schools; as her community’s vocation director; and as the developer of the social work program at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania, where she also completed a second undergraduate degree – in art.

Healing power of art

From 1997 to 2009, Sister Regina took her various areas of expertise to her native New York to serve as an art therapist for her community’s ministry for at-risk teenagers. Sister Regina helped hundreds of young survivors of neglect and abuse unleash their creativity and turmoil through painting, ceramics and other arts and crafts.

“I created an atmosphere where they could come in and do anything. If they needed to sleep in the corner they could sleep in the corner,” Sister Regina said, sharing one especially moving breakthrough.

“One of the students painted (a ceramic figure of) Donald Duck black, blue and bloody,” Sister Regina recalls. When asked about the unusual color scheme, the boy replied: “This is me when my father gets finished with me.”

“He had never (before) opened up about the abuse from his father; he had virtually denied it,” Sister Regina said, noting that the boy became more willing to share his art – and his story – as the sessions unfolded.

Sister Regina anticipates having many more inspirational moments at her new home in Ethiopia. During her January visit, she had the surreal experience of children and adults pulling her hand to their foreheads – so Sister Regina could bless them with the Sign of the Cross.

“I’m looking forward to doing whatever the Lord wants done, just to be a presence for the people,” she said. “I go, knowing that the Lord is walking with me no matter what happens.”

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Catholic Journeys & Clarion Herald Pilgrimage 2015

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