Called, and called again

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Image: Sister Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M. (second from left) taking part in an Alzheimer’s Walk in 2011.

A few months
before my high school graduation, I was seated in a Long Island Railroad station waiting for the train that would return me to Our Lady of Mercy Academy, the boarding school my father had enrolled me in six years earlier, after my mother’s death. I was thinking about the previous night in New York City. A very attentive date had taken me to the theater and an exciting night on the town. It was all so romantic. Even more so was a classmate’s recent invitation to be her bridesmaid the summer after graduation.

But something was distracting me: the swinging doors that led to the train’s platform. One said “Enter,” the other “Do Not Enter.” Exactly my dilemma. Almost 18, I was weighing many options. I wanted to be a journalist, an airline stewardess, and a nurse. Although I was considering the joys of marriage and motherhood, I also felt an annoying attraction to becoming a nun. Undergirding this confusing mix was my admiration for the works and words of Jesus and the disturbing echo of an invitation I had heard long before: “Come, follow me.”

Little did I know how my choice to enter the convent would lead to a series of doors to worlds beyond my imaginings.

The first door opens
Although I began to clear the necessary hurdles, including family opposition and friends’ amazement, there was one I couldn’t overcome: My father suffered a stroke on the same July day that saw me tracking down the required black oxfords on the list of garments I needed to bring. I remained at home that year, helping to care for and comfort him as best I could. I became involved in a parish youth group. My social life pushed convent thoughts back behind the door that had once invited “enter.” Then, with the approach of another July, I received a letter reminding me I had applied for and then postponed the process of entering the Sisters of Mercy. The letter insisted I owed Reverend Mother the courtesy of my decision.

“What should I do?” I wailed to Father James J. Tuohy, the parish priest who engaged so many of us in good works and good fun.

“It’s got to be your decision,” he counseled. “Let’s both pray about it for three days and then talk again.”

When we met I told him I would enter the convent on September 8, 1951. “That’s good,” he said, “because if you don’t, you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering if you should have. But,” he added, “I think you’ll be home in six months”! Sixty wonderful years later, I can report he was wrong.

Media relations
The orphanages and child-care institutions my community ran were what attracted me to the Sisters of Mercy. The first door that opened for me led, instead, to elementary school classrooms. I fell in love with teaching and was crestfallen when, after 11 years, I was redirected into educational television. The Diocese of Brooklyn had acquired a television channel for direct teaching, and its school superintendents had asked the superiors of religious communities to donate one of their teachers to this new enterprise. Other educators and lay media practitioners became mentors and friends. We were pioneers of this new venture and our days were filled with challenges and opportunities.

During several years there, I was sent to the University of Michigan’s summer program for a master’s in communications. As I completed that degree, the television and radio faculty encouraged me to accept a scholarship to pursue a doctorate. I resisted. We had no colleges in Brooklyn. The chairperson and two professors sent a joint letter to Reverend Mother insisting that I pursue a doctorate. She acquiesced, and another door swung open.

For many years Sister D’Arienzo has been religion commentator for WINS Radio  in New York.
For many years Sister D’Arienzo has been religion commentator for WINS Radio
in New York.
By the time I celebrated my silver jubilee—the 25th anniversary of taking my vows—I was on the faculty in the television department. A few years earlier a friend had suggested I investigate the role of Catholic commentator for 1010 WINS Radio, an all-news radio station serving the New York metropolitan area. I auditioned, interviewed, and was hired. To this writing I continue to offer weekly faith-inspired reflections on newsworthy issues. After an invitation from the editor of The Tablet, the Catholic newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, a door to journalism had opened—and a coveted career I thought was out of bounds for me.

Stepmother and high-flyer
In 1967 I became an unofficial mother to a homeless 16-year-old who approached me as I waited for a bus bringing a visiting friend from the Detroit Metro Airport to Ann Arbor where I was studying and teaching. Michael had dropped out of school after a chaotic upbringing. When we met he was sleeping on the floor of a donut shop in exchange for cleaning it after hours. He wanted me to help him get work. When he called the next day I invited him to come to my furnished room. I had only been able to get him a job at a McDonald’s, but I gave him a key to his own room across the street from mine for which I had paid the first month’s rent. So began a lifelong friendship. That unexpected door made me a mother of a virtual orphan—another dream fulfilled.

Pilgrimages to El Salvador and Nicaragua after the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the North American churchwomen opened more doors into people’s lives and human needs. And while I never became an airline stewardess, I spent a lot of time above the clouds. “Come follow me” sounded in many voices.

From death row to cherishing life
I was happy in the worlds of academia, social justice, broadcasting, and journalism when I was pushed toward a door I never wanted to open: leadership in my religious community. After being elected regional president in 1993, I retired as professor emerita from my ministry at Brooklyn College. Two years later I was elected president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The boundaries of my world continued to expand.

Sister D’Arienzo in Colón, Panama in 1995.
Sister D’Arienzo in Colón, Panama in 1995.
Within a few months gubernatorial candidate George Pataki was campaigning on the promise of restoring capital punishment to New York State. I gathered a group of friends, religious and lay, to oppose that move. We formed the Cherish Life Circle. Our efforts gained wide attention, and in December of 1998 the Associated Press detailed our efforts on its international wire.

A reader in Oklahoma sent a copy to her cousin, a man on death row in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. He, in turn, sent me a letter that opened the most unexpected doors of my lifetime. David Paul Hammer, anticipating a January execution, was looking for someone to serve as his spiritual adviser for the remaining weeks of his life. I tried to find a chaplain in Pennsylvania to visit him but to no avail. It was too close to Christmas. On December 30, 1998 I, in the company of a priest friend, made the 200-mile trip to meet the man I’d been warned was the “most dangerous prisoner in Allenwood.”

That visit, more than almost any other, changed my life and his. After a stay of execution, David was transferred to Terre Haute, Indiana. Now his spiritual adviser, I visited him there, asking the Sisters of Providence in nearby St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana if anyone would be willing to see him more frequently than time and finances would permit me to do. An extraordinary sister, Sister Rita Clare Gerardot, became his biweekly visitor and spiritual minister of record. We became close friends. When David asked to be admitted to the Catholic faith in 2000, he asked me to be his godmother. More than a decade later, we have taught one another about our separate realities and the place and presence of a forgiving God in our lives.

From our friendship and the impetus to bring goodness into the world came his designing Christmas cards, which in the decade since we began collaborating on this effort has raised more than $70,000 to help children in need. David has become correspondent and mentor to the boys of the Alpha School in Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies. This institution, founded by the Sisters of Mercy more than 130 years ago, provides an academic education and trade skills for boys rescued from the streets. Proceeds from our Christmas cards have provided them equipment and an unlikely hero, a man on death row who counsels them to make something wonderful of themselves.

Reentry permitted
At age 80 I have walked through doors that have fulfilled almost every dream I ever had. “If you had one wish left, what would that be?” a friend asked. My answer: Another chance to do it all over again in the company of young, enthusiastic women willing to look behind closed doors.

Sister Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M.Sister Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M. is a Sister of Mercy in Glendale, New York. She is a writer and speaker as well as the senior religion commentator for 1010 WINS Radio. She contributes “Conversations with Sr. Camille,” a biweekly column for the National Catholic Reporter’s online edition, which chronicles the lives and concerns of contemporary Catholics. The Cherish Life Circle she founded continues to work for an end to capital punishment and to comfort families of murder victims.




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