70 Years

Sister for Christian Community Ita Hickey

Sister Ita Hickey was a normal teenager growing up in Dublin, Ireland in the 1950s. She went to dances on the weekend, went on dates with boyfriends, and worked to help support her family. Unlike most teenagers however, she would wake up early after a night of dancing to make it to the 6:30 a.m. Mass before heading to work. And the boyfriends weren’t around long once the relationship started to get serious.

“Once they asked me to come meet their mother, that was the end of it!” laughed Sister Ita. “I knew marriage was not for me. I knew it was something else God had planned. I never asked the question of what it was. I just went on with my life.”

When her best friend joined the Poor Clare’s, Sister Ita began to get an idea of what God’s plan might be. After a meeting with the abbess, she was convinced to give religious life a try, entering at 19 years old. Initially, Sister Ita felt unsure of what she was getting herself into, but as the middle child in a family with 14 children, she had an advantage over the other novices.

“I was very happy I entered because for the first time in my life I had a bed to myself, a room to myself, and a closet to myself!  All the others were missing their families, but I was enjoying the peace and quiet,” said Sister Ita. “I don’t miss people. I live in the moment. That’s how my life has been since I was young. I’ve always enjoyed what was happening to me.”

That attitude would help Sister Ita as she moved from Ireland to teaching positions in England, Scotland, and Wales. While she loved the work, the weather was a challenge. She remembers freezing nights grading papers wrapped up in a sleeping bag to keep warm. She was more than happy to leave the cold behind when an opportunity came to serve in California. After 30 years there, working in education and dealing with health struggles, Sister Ita was ready for a slower pace, so she accepted a job in the Diocese of Orlando at the newly opened Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe in 1993.

“They asked me to be in charge of the volunteers. I thought it was a small job. I thought I would pray with people at the little shrine,” said Sister Ita. “It turned out it was a big job! I was in charge of 300 volunteers. But it was a marvelous job. We became a beautiful family in the eight years that I was there.”

At the same time, Sister Ita trained to work with premature infants at Arnold Palmer Hospital, bringing her gift of a healing touch to the children and their families.

“There are people who came to me and I would pray over them, and they would be healed. But most of all I tried to give them inner peace. That was my real goal, to share the inner peace I found with God,” explained Sister Ita.

As Sister Ita approached retirement, she wanted to focus more on her inner peace ministry. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an area the Poor Clares were involved with. Feeling a strong call to pursue this path, Sister Ita would join the Sisters for Christian Community, a community founded in response to Vatican II. As a collegial, self-supporting community each sister is free to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance on how best to use their gifts. For Sister Ita, that was founding Peace That Heals Ministries, an organization that provides bible studies, spirituality classes, retreats and workshops to share God’s inner peace and healing. Even after 70 years of religious life, she is not showing any signs of slowing down.

“Peace that Heals Ministries is for anyone who is stressed out, having a bad day, or dealing with something in their life,” explained Sister Ita, who just four months ago, began renovating a property that will be the new headquarters. “It will be a brand-new venture at nearly 90 years old! But the Lord is calling me to do it. I let the Holy Spirit guide me. You can’t rush it. You don’t rush anything with God, just go with His time. I’m available; I’m with the people; I try to be a happiness and to help them in their walk with God.”

65 Years

Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Reparatrix Concepta Najjemba

As a young girl, Sister Concepta Najjemba asked her mother what religious sisters do. Her mother responded that sisters pray. This simple answer brought up more questions: how do they pray all day? Why is it so important to pray? What is the power of prayer? That question to her mother was the beginning of Sister Concepta’s vocation, and she didn’t waste any time seeking the answer.

“In 1956, at the Ggoli Primary School, I met the sisters and was convinced that they prayed but I still did not understand the meaning of prayer or how to pray. I wanted to learn more about the power of prayer and I felt a calling to their religious way of life,” remembered Sister Concepta. “After celebrating my fourteenth birthday I entered into religious life to learn to pray and I am still learning how to deepen my relationship with my Lord Jesus through private and community prayers in my life journey.”

After years of formation and education, Sister Concepta worked as a teacher and headmistress at primary and secondary schools in Uganda. In 1982, when a civil war in her country forced her into exile, she found refuge with the Sisters of Charity in the United States. With their support, she would spend her time as a refugee obtaining advanced degrees in secondary school administration and formative spirituality from Duquesne University. When she returned to the motherhouse in 1986, she continued to pursue higher education, becoming a trailblazer for other women religious.

“The Bishops Episcopal Conference of Eastern Africa started a university in Nairobi, Kenya designated for priests. In 1987, the university decided to accept women into the religious studies program. I was the first woman to study in the same religious program as the priests,” said Sister Concepta. “I earned my doctorate degree and was the first woman to graduate from the university.”

With a doctorate in spiritual theology, Sister Concepta took on the role of novice mistress at the motherhouse as well as giving talks and retreats around the archdiocese. In 1994, she would begin giving talks at parishes in the United States and Canada as she sought to secure mission appeal funding for her congregation. It was often difficult work, with extensive travel arrangements to be made by plane, train and bus. With no permanent address, communication to the dioceses was difficult. Nevertheless, Sister Concepta would continue to do this work for six years. During that time, she applied to speak in the Diocese of Orlando. The first parish she visited was Blessed Trinity in Ocala in 1998, where she received a very warm welcome.

Father Patrick Sheedy invited her to stay at the convent. “He called me to his office and expressed the need to have religious women at his parish. Father Sheedy explained his parish had schools and the pupils did not know nuns. He gave me a mission to tell my superiors in Uganda about the great need for religious sisters at the parish,” recalled Sister Concepta.

She accepted Father Sheedy’s mission and the following year the superior general of the congregation came to visit. One year later, three sisters, including Sister Concepta, began serving the Blessed Trinity community. For more than 20 years, she has been serving the poor and homeless, as the manager of the parish’s daily soup kitchen as well as working with mission appeals, fundraising, ministry to the sick, sacramental preparation, prayer groups, prison ministry, altar society and Walk for Life. Despite the numerous ministries Sister Concepta is involved with and her busy schedule, she says the moments that stand out over the last 60 years are those spent before the Lord in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s true what her mother said to her as a child, above all else they do, sisters pray.

“When I entered into the religious life in 1958, I learned quickly that prayer was the way of life. Isn’t that what Jesus said to ‘pray always’. Yes, our Christian and religious lives are constantly filled with prayer and it’s one of the most powerful ways to connect to our Lord Jesus Christ,” reflected Sister Concepta. “Every situation in our lives is a call to prayer, for the Lord Jesus said, ‘I am with you to the end of the world’. It is through prayer that I continue to love and serve my brothers and sisters wherever the Good Lord sends me in His apostolate.”

60 Years

Dominican Sister of Adrian Lucy Vazquez

Among the qualities that attracted Sister Lucy Vazquez to the Dominican order 60 years ago, was their dedication to Truth. She says her own commitment to the truth has gotten her in trouble more than once. Perhaps that is how, at the age of 16 Sister Lucy found herself on an airplane leaving behind friends, family, and her home country of Cuba.

“I left Cuba two weeks after my sixteenth birthday because at that young age, and unbeknownst to my parents, I had joined an underground student movement against Castro and I was in danger of being arrested,” said Sister Lucy. “I was the first girl to come out of Cuba through Operation Pedro Pan for unaccompanied Cuban children, funded by the U.S. government and administered by the Catholic Church.”

She eventually found herself in Washington, D.C. in a home run by the Daughters of Charity and attending a high school run by Benedictine Sisters. But when she started to feel a persistent call to religious life, it was to the Dominican Sisters, who had been her teachers in Cuba. She would enter the convent a year after graduating high school.

“My parents were still in Cuba and were not able to come out until 1967. Those were difficult years for both them and me because they were both in prison under Castro before they were able to escape,” recalled Sister Lucy. “My parents initially were not thrilled with my decision. They loved the priests and the sisters, they just didn’t want their daughter to enter, which was not unusual in our culture. However, they accepted and supported my decision by the time I entered and every day until they died.”

Her first assignment was retreat ministry in Schenectady, N.Y.  On the heels of Vatican II, the retreat house hosted speakers like Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and theologian Monika Hellwig to support and advance the council’s teachings.

“It was thrilling to be exposed to such great women and have them break bread and pray with us. I was involved in retreat ministry for a number of years and loved every minute of it,” said Sister Lucy.

Sister Lucy would next attend the Catholic University of America and earn her doctorate in canon law, becoming one of the first two American women to receive the degree. Years later, she would become the first female president of the Canon Law Society of America, but at the time of graduation, female canon lawyers were not so widely accepted.

“Back in 1976 not every bishop was willing to take a chance on a female canon lawyer, but Bishop Thomas Grady was. He welcomed me with open arms and appointed me associate family life director.  Within a year he appointed me to the marriage tribunal, a ministry which I have been privileged to do in a full-time or part-time basis since January, 1978,” recalled Sister Lucy.

Under Bishop Grady, Sister Lucy also served as vicar for religious and began the Diocesan Sisters’ Retreat and yearly celebration of jubilarians. When Bishop Norbert Dorsey arrived in the Diocese of Orlando, she was appointed chancellor and victim assistance coordinator, which she performed in addition to her other duties. As victim assistance coordinator, she helped create the fingerprinting and background check program for priests, sisters and diocesan employees and volunteers and worked with victims of child sexual abuse in their journey of healing.

Looking back over the last 60 years, Sister Lucy says she remembers both the rewarding and the difficult times.

“My ministry with the sisters was always a joy because it reinforced the bonds of sisterhood across congregational lines. My marriage tribunal ministry, though demanding at times, always reminds me of the reconciliation that the annulment process brings about, and while I hardly ever meet the individuals involved in the case, I rejoice with each and every one of them. My ministry with the victims of child sexual abuse was both demanding and heart wrenching. The pain experienced by these individuals and their families cannot be described with words, and often words failed in trying to console them. My hope was not just to make reparation for the past, but to help build a safe future for all our children, a future in which abuse would not scar their lives,” reflected Sister Lucy. “One thing I can say for certain, in all my ministries I always received more than I gave.”

Ursuline Sister of the Eastern Province Bernadette Mackay

All eight children of the Mackay family, with their parents John and Olive, filed into the second pew of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Trinidad and Tobago each week, dressed in their Sunday best. Among them was Bernadette, or Bernie, who remembers how much the Catholic faith was a part of every day life on the island.

“Devotion to the Blessed Mother was a strong Catholic tradition in Trinidad, so we all went with hundreds of other Trinidadians to Fatima devotions at the grotto in Laventille on the 13th of each month from May to October,” remembers Bernie, now Sister Bernie, OSU. “First communions were also a cause for celebration at church followed by the family first communion party. During the months of May and October we would gather at home frequently to say the rosary together and with neighbors.”

Part of her religious upbringing included being sent to a boarding school in Barbados at age 12. Although it meant being away from home during the school months, the Ursuline Sisters who ran the school were well-known for the high-quality Catholic education students received. Sister Bernie however, would receive more than an education, she would discover her vocation.

“It was during one of those years, while attending a school retreat, that the Spirit of God found entry into my soul and from some place deep within I heard the call to consider religious life as an option for me,” said Sister Bernie. “Initially there was much opposition on my part, because from an early age I imagined myself as a nurse. I also did not want to leave my home or my family. However, there came a moment in yet another school retreat that I realized that my road to happiness was to follow the still small voice and surrender to God.”

The hardest part was still to come. Once the decision was made to pursue religious life, Sister Bernie felt drawn to join the Ursuline convent. However, as there were no Ursuline schools on the island, that would mean saying farewell to her family indefinitely. But with the support of her parents, she entered the convent at 19 years old.

“As I always say, God writes straight on crooked lines. Here I am 60 years later, still passionate about education, and still finding joy and purpose in my Ursuline vocation,” reflected Sister Bernie.

Her life as an Ursuline sister took Sister Bernie to Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, Venezuela and then further afield to classrooms in the Bronx, New York; the Ursuline Academy in New Rochelle, and finally, in 1991, to the Mission Office for the Diocese of Orlando where she would oversee the outreach efforts to the diocese’s sister diocese of San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic for more than three decades.

In those years, Sister Bernie led countless construction, medical, dental, and education mission trips. She and her team coordinated the building of schools, homes and churches. They trained teachers and sponsored Dominican students to study in the U.S. She could hardly have imagined the legacy she would leave behind when she first accepted the position.

“I had no idea what I was signing up for!  I was not excited, because I could not see myself, sitting in an office cubicle at 50 East Robinson Street for what seemed an undetermined amount of time,” said Sister Bernie. “But then I had no other work opportunity and the thought of returning to New York was more terrifying.  After all I am a Caribbean girl, and the cold of New York is punishment. The alternative was scary, so I returned to the Bishop’s office and accepted the position of director of the Mission Office. The rest is history.”

Sister Bernie praises God for her religious vocation and looking back at the last 60 years she says she feels incredibly blessed.

“These 60 years of religious life have been extremely formative for me. I was barely 19 years of age when I began this journey. It is hard to believe that six decades have passed since that first YES to God. But then as I reflect on the transformation and growth that I have experienced in these years, all that I can hear from within is a tumultuous sound that cries out Alleluia, Alleluia. God is good, God is good all the time! All the time God is good! Who can ask for more!”

By Elizabeth Wilson, Special to the Florida Catholic, October 19, 2023