Call me sister

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Image: SISTER Patty Ralph, S.S.J. with Sister Mary Rita Boyle, S.S.J., a sister in her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph.

entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, in 1985 when she was 24 and took her final vows in 1994. “I'm going on 25 years and no regrets,” she says.”Absolutely no regrets.”

Ralph said that she knew she wanted to be a sister since eighth grade. She was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph at Blessed Sacrament School in Newark, New Jersey from kindergarten to eighth grade. “I was attracted to their lifestyle, and I thought: I can do that,” she says. The majority of the students were African American, but there were no African-American sisters among her teachers. She says of her teachers: “They were so good to us. We had such fun! We just had a ball and no one ever felt different or excluded.”

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher”
“I always wanted to be a sister and my twin didn't. But the funny thing is she entered two years before me, in 1983. I had our room to myself for two years.” Her twin, Sister Lynn Marie Ralph, is a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament and works in her community’s motherhouse in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.

For high school Ralph attended Benedictine Academy, run by Benedictine sisters in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a short bus ride from her home. She lived at home during college, graduating from Jersey City State University.

“In high school I used to go to the Blessed Sacrament convent a lot for prayer with the sisters and Mass, and I had dinner over there. All through high school I used to help in the elementary school, I volunteered in the classrooms. I learned to be the best first-grade teacher through Sister Grace Christi Costello, S.S.J., the best first-grade teacher I have ever known.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. That’s why I kept going back to Blessed Sacrament school, in college, too, and volunteering there. I worked with Sister Maria Raphaela, S.S.J., an excellent music teacher. She did whole musicals with us! Oliver and Purlie and 42nd Street! With elementary kids! And she was the first one to teach us the song ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black.’ ”

Ralph is the sixth of eight children— five boys and three girls. It was a “strong Catholic family,” she said. Both her parents were raised Catholic, her father in Rahway, New Jersey and her mother in Bayonne. center of family life was her home parish, Blessed Sacrament in Newark. “I just loved it. We had church, not Mass, just praising God and celebrating the blessings.”

Ralph’s first teaching assignment was first grade at Holy Name Catholic School in Washington, D.C. It was opened by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a parish school in 1924. In 2008 it became a public city charter school, the Trinidad Campus of Center City Charter Public schools, a six-campus consortium of former parish schools. Ralph and nearly all the faculty and staff stayed with the school as it turned from parochial to public. She now teaches fifth grade in the 200-student pre-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school. The transition was seamless, she said.

Sister Patty Ralph, S.S.J.
“THEY CALL ME Sister P. or Sister Patty, or the little ones say Sister Matricia or Batricia,” says Sister Patty Ralph of her students. “Some even say Miss Sister Patricia.”

She has spent most of the past 25 years at Holy Name, except for five years when she returned to her beloved home parish of Blessed Sacrament. While serving as principal of Holy Name she also earned a master’s degree in education administration at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

“The spirit is alive and well”
Being a minority within a minority—she is the only African American in her community—would have deterred some, but not Ralph. “If anything my sense of vocation has strengthened over the years. Even though I am in a white community, I have the National Black Sisters Conference. I am on the board, and I find that is a source of support. And I get support from my own community. They help me keep on keeping on. It was when I was in formation with my community that I was encouraged to go to the Black Sisters Conference.” She found that quite surprising. “I didn’t know there were so many black nuns.”

About vocation she says: “You have to be strong in your identity— who you are and whose you are. Not allow anyone to take your dream away. I always knew this is what I wanted. It was God who gave me my vocation. It was my dream and God’s gift. And gifts have to be nurtured.” Nurturing the gift involves seeking out “people that supported me in my community or elsewhere. Sharing our stories. I love to listen to stories. Did I have to deal with racism? Sure. But I also had support. Racism is a fact. I did not let racism deter me.”

People would ask her, “ ‘Why do you want to do that? You can’t have a family.’ For me, personally, I gained family. Many times I feel like a mom here. The eighth-graders now were my first fifth-grade class. Now they are getting acceptance letters to high school. And mostly to Catholic schools, so something is still here. The spirit is alive and well.”

By all accounts Sister Patty is fun. What does she do for fun. “Last Friday we went out and sang karaoke,” she says. “I like to hang out at friends’ houses. I like to go to parties. If you got the G, I got the O. Let’s go! “I love to dance. The music starts, I’m up. The Cuban Shuffle, the Electric Slide, the New Jersey strut, the cha-cha—as soon as I hear the music I’m up on the floor. I used to teach liturgical dance, when this was a Catholic school. I dance all the time with the fifth-graders, sometimes to rap, sometimes Motown.”

Ralph lives with four other Sisters of St. Joseph in the convent of St. Francis de Sales Church, a 10-minute drive from her school. They eat together Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Now that her school is a charter public school, Ralph gets a paycheck, not a stipend, and that helps the community.

Ralph prays with her community but attends Sunday Mass at Holy Name Parish. “The children say, ‘See you in church, Sister P.’ Then they come and sit right next to me. ‘Why do you have to sit right next to me?’ I ask. ‘Don’t I get enough all week long?’ They call me Sister P. or Sister Patty, or the little ones say Sister Matricia or Batricia. Some even say Miss Sister Patricia.

“I say, just as long as you call me Sister, ’cause I earned that title.”

Maureen Daly

Maureen Daly is a freelance writer living in Baltimore where she earned a master of theology degree at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary and University. She was an editor for 10 years at Catholic News Service in Washington, D.C.




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