The men who run the Vatican thought they could simply clamp down on what they saw as the wayward activities of American nuns. They didn't realize who they were dealing with.
At Caroline House in Bridgeport, clockwise from top, Irene Hughes, Peg Regan, Lorraine Quinn and Connie Corrigan.
Bob Grier Photography
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On the East Side of Bridgeport, in a neighborhood largely made up of empty, boarded-up houses and vacant lots, the tidy yellow Victorian with broad front steps and white-columned porch appears like an oasis for weary souls. This is Caroline House, an education center for low-income women and children, the majority of them immigrant and Hispanic.
Peg Regan welcomes a young woman and her 9-year old son who have come here on this hot summer morning for English classes. Regan, Caroline House’s executive director, has short gray hair and is dressed casually. She is motherly with the children, sisterly with the women. In addition to language classes, she and a staff of five others, along with some 60 volunteers, offer skills their students want to learn: sewing and knitting, computer literacy and American-style cooking, for example. A preschool situated in the rear of Caroline House cares for clients’ children.
In a side room, Regan, who is fluent in Spanish, conducts a blackboard session in American expletives—knowledge she believes useful for women, especially mothers, who are new to this country.
The only outward differences between Regan and her volunteers—the only signs, perhaps, of a higher calling—are the silver cross hanging from her neck and a slight limp on her right side, picked up in part, she explains, from kneeling on concrete prison floors to talk and pray with inmates.
Peg Regan and the five other teachers here are School Sisters of Notre Dame, an international religious order founded in Germany in 1833 to educate children, care for the poor, support women and work for justice and peace. (Caroline House is named for Mother Caroline Friess, who founded the order in the U.S.) The six nuns are part of a community of 74 sisters based at Villa Notre Dame in Wilton.
Like many of the more than 55,000 Catholic religious women in the U.S. today, they and other nuns in Connecticut are following the mission statements of their orders but also the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s, which called for spiritual renewal and for reading the signs of the times in order to become more integrated in the communities they serve. Some two dozen women’s religious congregations currently live and work in the state.
“Basically, what many of us are doing is stepping up to the renewal of faith asked of us by Vatican II, which was to look to where we were called to service,” says Sister Rose Marie Greco, administrator of Daughters of Wisdom, a Catholic order of 1,700 sisters worldwide that runs Wisdom House, a retreat and conference center in Litchfield. As a result, she says, “We started to look at people as people. We started to live simpler lives among the people we were serving. We’ve been able to relate to other women within and outside the Church.”
And therein—living and working among those they feel called to serve; relating to other women as women; responding to fellow humans’ earthly needs with compassion and respect—lie the roots of the present showdown between contemporary sisters in the U.S. and the primarily male Catholic hierarchy 4,000 miles away in Rome.