Religious women plant ministry seeds; some may blossom
While setting up her parade-watching spot on the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground one recent Mardi Gras, Sister of Mercy Padraic Hallaron was approached by a man who recognized her as the chaplain who had helped him achieve sobriety through a spiritually-based 12-step program for those battling chemical dependency.
After thanking Sister Padraic for her life-saving counsel and proudly introducing her to his wife and children, the man vividly recalled the stained-glass window the nun would use as a visual aide for addicts seeking treatment at Our Lady Lake Hospital’s Tau Center in Baton Rouge: on the bottom of the window was a fire-filled scene of chaos symbolizing chemical dependency; at the top – representing sobriety, peace and fulfillment – was a rose.
A metal bar across the window’s center represented the main hurdle chemically dependent individuals had to cross before ascending to the rose: handing over all control to God.
“He quoted me chapter and verse (about that window),” said Sister Padraic, describing the chance encounter as one of the most “awesome” moments of her ministry as a woman religious.
In honor of the World Day for Consecrated Life, to be marked locally with a Feb. 13 Mass for religious brothers and sisters at Brother Martin High School’s chapel, Sister Padraic, 84, and Sister of Mercy Phuong Dong, 26, discussed the joys of their vocational calling.
Early love for daily Mass
Born Florence Hallaron in New Orleans, Sister Padraic credits her growing desire to be a religious sister to attending daily Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in New Orleans, across the street from her childhood home. From sixth grade through high school graduation, and without any parental prodding, she and her older sister would attend 7 a.m. Mass.
“We got up at 10 minutes to 7, washed our face, brushed our teeth and threw on our clothes,” said Sister Padraic, whose formation also was nurtured by her Sisters of Mercy and Jesuit teachers at Holy Name of Jesus Elementary and High.
In 1948, as Sister Padraic neared the end of her senior year, she knew she had to board the train bound for the Sisters of Mercy novitiate in St. Louis to discern if life as a sister suited her.
“I said, ‘OK. I’ll go for six weeks and if it’s not for me, I’ll come home and go to Loyola and study journalism,” she recalled. The 17-year-old got her answer after joining that summer’s intake of 28 young women.
“Within two weeks many of the others in the group were weeping with homesickness. I was fine and I never had any desire to leave,” said Sister Padraic, who went on to profess her final vows in 1954 and take her unusual religious name – the Anglicized version of the Gaelic for “Patrick” – in memory of her late father.
A more than 30-year ministry in education followed, with Loyola-educated Sister Padraic serving as an elementary school principal at St. Joseph in Springfield, Missouri, and St. Alphonsus and Holy Name of Jesus in New Orleans; and eight years as an assistant superintendent at the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools, responsible for overseeing teacher personnel and certification.
In her mid-50s, after completing assignments in St. Louis as her provincial council’s education director and working at Mercy Hospital in New Orleans as director of staff education, Sister Padraic shifted into another area of ministry – hospital chaplaincy – earning her clinical pastoral education (CPE) degree at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.
She was completing a 16-hour semester in theology at Notre Dame Seminary when she received a phone call from a friend informing her that a chaplain was needed at Our Lady of the Lake’s chemical dependency unit. Sister Padraic had been mentioned as a candidate for the addiction treatment team of counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and nurses who helped patients through the 12-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I called my provincial and she said, ‘That’s exciting, because usually you think of a priest in the role (of chaplain),’” said Sister Padraic, who got the job and learned the 12-step model at Hazelden in Minnesota, the “mecca” for chemical dependency training.
“We took the patient through the spiritual steps of AA,” Sister Padraic said of her role at the Tau Center, her ministry hub from 1986-2000. “For the first step, the patient must say ‘I’m powerless;’ the second step is, ‘I really believe a holy power can take care of me’; for the third step you make a decision to turn your life and will over to God,” she said, adding, “You can see how those three steps are in synch with religion religious life: ‘I’m powerless; God can take care of me; and let him.’”
A persistent pastor
Currently a second-year novice, Sister of Mercy Phuong Dong came to New Orleans last October to begin a year of ministry as a kindergarten aide at St. Alphonsus School in New Orleans. Sister Phuong, who was born in Vietnam but moved to Atlanta with her parents and older sister at age 5, attended public schools and spent seven years as an altar server at her home parish.
“From the time I was young my mom would tell me, ‘If anybody asks you what you want to be when you grow up, say you want to become a sister,” Sister Phuong said, smiling. “ I did as I was told.”
Initially drawn to nursing or teaching, she said the idea of religious life kept resurfacing. At 22, Sister Phuong began a two-year candidacy with the Sisters of Mercy, working at a Mercy daycare center in Cincinnati. She struggled with homesickness at first, but grew to love working with children.
“I saw the joy that they gave me every single day. It was so wonderful to see them changing,” said Sister Phuong, who followed up her time in Cincinnati with a year of prayer and formation at the Sisters of Mercy novitiate in St. Louis.
In addition to the little hints from her mother, Sister Phuong credits her pastor for her life decision. The priest would ask her every Sunday: “Do you think you have a vocation?”
“I got tired of him asking me that same question every week so one day I told him I would look into it,” said Sister Phuong, noting that the Sisters of Mercy drew her in with their incredible hospitality and the story of their foundress, Catherine McCauley.
The Father’s love
After leaving the Tau Center in 2000, Sister Padraic served on Sisters of Mercy-affiliated hospital boards in several states, and until recently took Communion to patients at Ochsner Hospital.
A veteran “people person,” Sister Padraic says the story of the Prodigal Son is a guide to just about every human interaction. Of course there is the forgiveness that is modeled by the father who runs to embrace his wayward son, but there is an equally rich lesson in the way he treats his obedient son, who feels ignored.
“The father says to (the obedient son), ‘You are mine; I have been with you; and everything I have is yours,” Sister Padraic said. “What a beautiful lesson the father gives us on how we should deal with different people!”