Sisters actby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota wouldn't be what it is today without the help of a small, but dedicated group of nuns.
St. Paul, Minn. — Irene O'Neill is a nun. She blogs and rollerblades and takes her dog on long walks. What she doesn't do is sing, fly or smack school kids on the knuckles with a ruler.
"People, when they first hear 'Sister', are picturing someone in black garb," said O'Neill. "And that's where it ends."
O'Neill belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph. The order was established in France in 1650. Today it has a congregation of about 300 in St. Paul.
Many assume that O'Neill and her fellow sisters spend their days praying the rosary. That is, of course, when they aren't fulfilling their vows of silence.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It's a typical morning at Calvary Church in Minneapolis. Mexican mothers, Somalis fathers, refugees from Congo and immigrants from China, they have all come here to learn English.
It's the Sisters of St. Joseph who run the daily language school, although few students have a clue their instructors are nuns.
"We do not preach the Catholic faith," said O'Neill. "The people we're serving come from all religions, and that's not respectful to their religion. What they know of us is goodness and compassion."
The sisters don't wear habits, and there's not a Bible to be found. And that's the way O'Neill likes it.
"We think that it's about blending in and being just yeast in the society," said O'Neill.
Teaching immigrants is something the order has been doing for over 150 years. In fact, it's what brought the sisters to the state in the first place.
Back in 1851, settlers were flooding into what is now St. Paul. One of those newcomers was a French priest, a guy who felt like the place could use a little help.
"He saw that the population there was Germans and Italians and French, and nobody could communication with each other," said O'Neill. "And he thought, 'Oh my gosh, back in France there was this order of Sisters of St. Joseph and they teach. It would be fantastic to invite them.'"
Whatever he said to the sisters worked. In no time, four nuns from a small French village showed up in what was then known as Pig's Eye, Minnesota.
They found themselves a leaky log cabin and immediately began offering English lessons to anyone who was interested -- from the Indian chief's daughter to the wives of German merchants. Soon people had a common language in which to communicate.
The English lessons were going strong up until a cholera epidemic hit. Immediately the sisters switched gears.
O'Neill explained, "They had a sign over their little log school that said 'St. Joseph's Academy' and what they did was cross out the word 'academy' and write the word 'hospital' over it."
School desks were replaced with hospital beds. With no real treatments available, the Sisters of St. Joseph basically cared for the dying until they passed away. This led the sisters to their next mission.
"If there was a child waiting and their parent was dead, you brought them home and fed them and gave them a bed," said O'Neill. "Well, pretty soon there were hundreds of children. So the sisters started an orphanage. And that's how it started. Our point was not to start a health care system, an orphanage system and a school system. Our point was responding to the need of the time and that was the need of the time."
For over 150 years, the sisters' work has reflected the changes in society.
When demand for their English language schools faded, they established elementary and secondary schools. And in 1905 the sisters founded the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.
They went from running orphanages to assisting homeless teens, battered wives and parents addicted to drugs.
And these days, instead of creating hospitals, they're helping those left out of the mainstream medical system.
Since 1992, the Sisters of St. Joseph have operated free health clinics for Minnesotans without medical insurance.
"We thought we could just patch together a system for the people who are uninsured until universal health care comes. We thought that within a few years universal health care would happen," explained O'Neill. "What happened was it didn't happen. So our clinics kept expanding in number. Realizing the number of people out there uninsured was just phenomenal."
Irene O'Neill doesn't like to talk up the Sisters of St. Joseph. But, when really pressed, she admits she can't imagine what Minnesota would look like without the influence of the order.
"If I were to brag, I would say that it would be a whole different place," said O'Neill. "You wouldn't recognize it. There are so many people who have graduated from the schools or who have been healed in the hospitals, it's part of the fabric."
The way O'Neill likes to look at it, the history of Minnesota and the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph, they are kind of one and the same.
- Morning Edition, 06/24/2008, 7:50 a.m.