In 1976-1977 the Assumption USA opened four new communities. During the ten previous years, eight communities had been closed. The map of the American Province was radically changed.
The late 1960’s – 1970s - a period of crisis in America, in the Church, in the World. “The times they are a-changin”, sang Bob Dylan.
In his book The American Catholic Revolution: How the ‘60s changed the Church Forever, Fr. Mark S. Massa S.J. writes, “The ’60s changed almost everything in American culture: rock music, literature, the youth culture, the rise of the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement. But there was also a distinctly Catholic take on the ’60s. From my point of view the “Catholic ’60s” are not the years from 1960 to 1970, but what I call “the long ’60s,” from the implementation of the first liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1964, to 1974, when the Jesuit Avery Dulles published “Models of the Church”. The ’60s began a whole succession of events whose ripples are not just ripples anymore; they are more like tsunamis affecting American Catholic communities today.”
A time of crisis - a painful time for some, an exciting time for others.
"We have all heard that the Chinese use the same word to describe the concepts of crisis and opportunity. What they mean to say is that in every crisis lies an opportunity, depending on how it is looked at. There is an opportunity in every crisis and the deeper the crisis, the better the opportunity can be. Sometimes the world needs a crisis, turning challenges into opportunities." (Fr. José Juan Romero S.J.)
The Provincial Chapter of 1974 defined the Apostolic thrust of the Province (Mission Statement) as "to educate for Liberation through Community witness, worship, teaching, personal encounter and humble service. We aim by this to develop a vital personal relationship with Christ in those we serve and eventually to bring about social reform in the light of Christian values.”
By then three trends had emerged which would guide the Assumption in her discernment to determine realistically the apostolic undertakings that would be feasible in the next years.
- Adult Religious Education: direct evangelization in Parishes, Dioceses and Universities
- Insertions among the poor and disadvantaged
- Spiritual Centers: Centers of Prayer and Reflection, Retreats and Houses of Prayer, etc.
A new style of religious community emerged, moving away from large, administratively heavy institutions to small insertions in the local milieu. These communities radiated life to the world around and responded in an Assumption way, to the needs of a changing Church and Society.
An insertion among the poor and disadvantaged: 49th Street
In August 1977, six Assumption sisters took up residence in a simple rowhouse on South 49th Street in an integrated neighborhood in West Philadelphia. The impetus for this foundation goes back to a resolution taken at the Provincial Chapter of 1969, “that a work for disadvantaged children be planned in the province within the next five years.” Later the idea would evolve as sisters expressed the desire for “a small community inserted in the local milieu, a low income neighborhood,” echoing what was being said in the General Chapter documents of the time: “We recognize more fully the call felt by the whole congregation towards an “incarnation” among the poor, the desire to reach out to others, to become simpler in our life style and in our ways… we want to live in solidarity with the mass of people who struggle for their existence and, as far as possible, assume their life style.” The Provincial Chapter of 1976 would confirm this apostolic orientation of the Congregation: “Our project of an insertion among the poor is seen as being conformed to the poor Christ who came to live among the poor.”
A committee was appointed to explore the question of where to make the insertion– Appalachia; among the migrants in Florida; or a working class neighborhood near Ravenhill? The choice of West Philadelphia was facilitated by the involvement of two sisters from Ravenhill who had been commuting since 1974 to the “Early Learning Center” in the inner-city neighborhood of Mantua where they taught in the Head-start Montessori program there. In 1976, a group of sixteen low-income Black families whose children had had a very successful Montessori pre-school experience at the “Early Learning Center”, approached the sisters for help to start their own elementary school. These parents wanted their children to continue enjoying a high quality education during their elementary years. Together - the sisters and Eleanor Childs, another teacher, and the group of parents - started their own school, “Montessori Genesis II”.
When the sisters asked that the proposed new “insertion among the poor” be in the nearby 49th Street neighborhood of West Philadelphia, it was readily accepted. For more than thirty years Sr. Anne Joseph and other Assumption sisters would teach and help administer the Genesis II School.
Another member of the first 49th street community was Sr. Diana who was just back from West Africa where she had been involved in the foundation of an Assumption community in an apartment over a bakery in Attiécoubé, a poor “popular neighborhood” in Abidjan. This brought in firsthand experience of an Assumption community “living among the poor.” Diana was back to pursue her professional formation in social work in order to return to West Africa to help the African population in its adjustment from village to urban life. She would study at the University of Pennsylvania and return to Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso in 1980.
At 49th street, ministries would develop and expand as needs were perceived and different sisters arrived, but all were involved together in the local community and the parish (Saint Francis de Sales) and with people who wanted to improve the quality of life in the area.
Montessori Genesis II
Montessori Genesis II (MGII) was founded in 1976 by a group of low-income Black families. The children of these families had had a very successful Montessori pre-school experience at the “Early Learning Center” in the Mantua section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These parents wanted their children to continue enjoying the same high quality education during their elementary years. But there was no nearby elementary school prepared to follow up on the Montessori education that had been so successful.
It wasn't the easiest decision to make, but in September 1976, in the midst of a teacher's strike, these African-American families decided to opt out of the Philadelphia public school system. They wanted their children to continue to flourish intellectually, but weren't wholly convinced it would happen in their West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua, at least not in time to help their children. So they approached the Assumption Sisters who had been teaching their children. “The founding of the school and the choice of the educational method were motivated by the positive changes they witnessed in their children as a result of their participation in a Montessori Head Start program,” wrote Sr. Anne Joseph, “they made the impossible possible; they started their own elementary school, Montessori Genesis II.”
"The school got its start with the help of nuns who worked for little or nothing, and was aided by fundraisers, community support and really good friends," wrote teacher development coordinator Eleanor Childs. From the beginning, according to Childs, the school got by "on dedication, sweat and hard-headedness."
Operating at a tuition level a mere fraction of that of other private schools, Montessori Genesis II defied the odds, proving wildly successful in educating a demographic which had often been labeled "hard to teach." Serving as something of a magnet, Montessori Genesis II drew students not only from the surrounding community, but from throughout the Philadelphia area such as North Philadelphia, Germantown, Greater Northwest Philly and beyond. The quality of the education and personal growth afforded the students at MGII was such that when they left, they could go out and successfully navigate the waters of all levels of higher education and post-academic life.
A Tracking Survey of Alumni in 2000 found that MG II graduates were enrolled in a variety of public and parochial middle schools and high schools. Many had been awarded scholarships to attend some of Philadelphia’s most prestigious independent schools: Shipley, Agnes Irwin, Gladwyne Montessori, Masterman, St. Joseph’s Preparatory, Friends Select and the Girard Academic Music Program are just a few. Of Genesis’ early graduating classes, there were students matriculating at and graduating from Colleges and Universities such as Morehouse College, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Temple, Drexel, Howard University, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, Old Dominion, Colgate University, University of Hartford, Trinity College, Hahnemann University, Delaware State College, Lincoln University, University of Virginia, University of Maryland, Morgan State, and Indiana University of PA, to pursue degrees in Medicine and Healthcare, Law, Early Childhood Education, Computer Science, Biology, Architecture, Engineering, Finance, Physics, Art, Education, Accounting, Physical Therapy.
See the video: “Montessori Genesis II: A Family Thing by Montessori Genesis II”
Growing Community Between Two Worlds
The community of West Philadelphia has always had a diverse apostolate. Located as it was on 49th Street, it was considered a model of an integrated neighborhood(1). 49th Street was, however, the dividing line between the mostly black neighborhood to the west, and to the east– University City, the bustling, culturally diverse academic neighborhood surrounding the universities of Penn, Drexel and Temple. The sisters found themselves between two worlds, but they were early to perceive the needs of these seemingly different milieu.
Already reaching out to the needs of the Black community by their involvement in the Genesis II Montessori School; collaboration with Pastor Hal Tausig in the Social Action Program of the Calvary Methodist Church; and through the promotion (along with five Protestant, Catholic and Jewish Worship Communities in the area) of the West Philadelphia Community Federal Credit Union on 50th Street(2), the sisters sought to implement the priorities of the Congregation expressed in the Provincial Project of 1982: “preference for the poor, promotion of justice and concern for young people as the society of the future.”
In 1982 (five years after the foundation) the community described its local project as "a community of faith directly involved in the apostolate of the economically poor." They hoped to become a contemplative community giving a testimony of peace, prayer and fraternal union in a moving and violent neighborhood in the city center. They also tried to make contact with the many university students living in that section of the city.
- Sister Anne Joseph while continuing to work with the black parents of Montessori Genesis II, was also in charge of religious education at a nearby University City Parish (Saint Agatha-St. James).
- Sister Marie Benedicte (newly arrived from France) taught in a large diocesan high school (West Catholic) on nearby 45th and Chestnut Streets, to be followed later by Sisters Charlotte and Silvia.
- Sister Sheila was coordinator of the training of young European missionaries (like AMAs) who were part of the Calvary Methodist staff. These young men and women came with the desire to observe and participate in the ministry of a Christian church in a poor neighborhood.
- Sister Marie Dorothy tutored children at a nearby Catholic school for the blind.
1. See: https://www.davidguinn.com/The-Heart-of-Baltimore-Avenue
2. See: What is a credit union? https://www.pfcu.com/membership/what-is-a-credit-union
The Heart of Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia is well-known for its historic past, and the place where our American democracy began. It’s also home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the country’s largest art museums dating back to 1876, which houses some of the world’s most renowned art collections.
While it may be a wonderful place to browse through on any given day, there are plenty of other places around the city to see terrific works of art. Philadelphia has over 3,000 outdoor murals, more than any other city in the world. Most are commissioned through the city’s Mural Arts Program, which began in 1984 as an effort to address the city’s graffiti problem. One of the most remarkable murals to look for in Philadelphia is located right near our West Philadelphia community. “The Heart of Baltimore Avenue”, a mural that perfectly captures the diversity of West Philadelphia, is what artist David Guinn calls this interesting piece of art. He also refers to it as his “epic poem”. The mural features a voice component that is available on low-frequency radio, and it sits at 4716 Baltimore Avenue.
“In 1977”, writes Sr. Therese Margaret, “it was the foundation of Lansdale, PA in St. Stanislaus Parish where Msgr. Paul Cahill welcomed us to form a permanent community. Sr. Therese Celine had already been commuting there from Ravenhill as the parish CCD head since 1972.” For Sr. Therese, Lansdale marked her fourth foundation after Baie Comeau, Canada in 1960, Waunakee, Wisconsin in 1967, and Worcester, MA in 1976.
Msgr. Cahill, had fixed up a 3 story house that had been the former rectory. It was directly across the street from the Church and on the grounds of the parish elementary school. Later the sisters would move to their present address at 506 Crestview Road.
The proposition to form the Lansdale community dated from 1973. Several apostolic possibilities for sisters in addition to the post as DRE in the parish were offered and the Assumption was ready to assume most of them in 1977. Over the next 3-4 decades different Assumption sisters would succeed to provide these services.
- Director of Religious Education (DRE): The main task is to be an “animatrice” of the CCD and adult education programs for some 1000 enrolled in CCD from pre through grade 12. The DRE prepares and gives lectures and courses, runs work-shops for CCD teachers, parents and adults. A Young Adult Program at St. Stans (a singles group for 18-35 year olds) was begun in 1980.
- Parish Ministry : 3 priests were working full time (for 2850 families) but felt the need of help. The task of a sister involved daily hospital visitation, communion calls to sick and elderly who couldn’t attend Mass; baptismal catechesis on a small group level for young couples preparing for a baby’s baptism, visiting elderly in the parish.
- Teaching : Sisters were needed to teach in the High School (Lansdale Catholic) in English, Religion, etc.
- North Penn Hospital, the area hospital serviced by the Parish, located 2-3 minutes by car from the church, would be an apostolic opportunity for a nurse who might want to do nursing or hospital visiting part time.
- Various administrative tasks at the Rectory.
Sr. Therese, writing in a Report in 1985: “Our sisters in Lansdale are all directly involved in some aspect of parish ministry. The size of the parish – approximately 25 square miles and comprising about 3500 families or 10,000 people – provides more than enough scope for the small community of four. High School teaching, adult education and education of children in public schools (CCD), hospital ministry, sacramental preparation of adults and parish record-keeping are all fields in which our sisters are involved. The adult catechumenate at St. Stanislaus is considered a model for the archdiocese. Sister Ann Teresa works in close collaboration with the priests in this adult catechumenate program. (RCIA = The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)”
In 1986 Sr. Marie Benedicte joined the community and is well remembered for the Bereavement Ministry in the Parish and the “Landings” program of welcoming returning Catholics back to the Church.
“There are times when we all need a “quiet place” – to read, to think, to rest, to pray, to talk. In the summer of 1977 five sisters – Religious of the Assumption – settled in a new home on the outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina. They hoped to be of service to the local community and the five parishes around the area, through their professional work (psychiatrist, psychologist and nurse) – giving witness in this way to their commitment as Religious and as Christian women. They also hoped to provide a service to the Catholics of the community by making their “quiet place” available to all who would like to respond to the invitation.” (Excerpt from an Article in the local Newsletter)
Two trends influencing the province’s reflection concerning the opening of a new work in the early 1970’s were at the origin of this foundation (venture) : the desire of sisters to live in small communities more inserted in the local milieu and the idea of a House of Prayer-Retreat Center where the contemplative dimension of the Assumption vocation would be lived and shared with others. The first community fulfilling these criteria was that of Greensboro in the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina.
In the original project submitted by the sisters who visited the Bishop, they wrote. “We see ourselves responding to the needs of a young and poor Diocese (erected in 1972 in western North Carolina, less than 02% of the population are Catholic), essentially, through the Center of Reflection and Prayer as called for in the pastoral letter of the Appalachian Catholic Bishops in 1975, “This Land is Home to Me” p. 18 1 and as suggested to us in our October visit with Bishop Begley. At this time, he felt that our life as a Religious Community naturally lends itself to being such a center which “could integrate the analytical social science skills and the profound spirituality necessary for preserving creativity in the struggle for justice”. At the time of the October visit, the following description was submitted verbally to the Bishop and accepted:
Assumption Community : Center of Reflection and Prayer
Open to all in the region and to the local Church.
Those who come would share in our life as it is :
community, prayer, liturgy, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for
an evening, a day, a weekend, or longer.”
From the beginning the Greensboro foundation was to be an experiment. In a letter to the province announcing the foundation, it was specified that “during the first year the sisters should be concerned with apostolic engagements outside the community, either in secular or church institutions in order to delineate clearly the community’s initial approach to becoming a “sharing community” primarily through personal contacts and listening to the expressed needs of the people. The community should expect to evaluate itself after two years especially in terms of the above and not in reference to establishing an “institution” – Center of reflection and prayer.”
At the end of the period of experiment, the province was obliged to withdraw from Greensboro in August of 1980 because of its inability to provide personnel to meet its apostolic commitments and to form viable communities.
Bowman Avenue - Merion, PA
With the closing of Ravenhill, in April 1978 the Provincial House moved into a house on Bowman Avenue in Merion, Pennsylvania. The initial project was – in addition to being the Provincial administration center – a community for retired or semi-retired Sisters who couldn’t live in smaller communities; it provided an atmosphere and rhythm of life helpful to them and a place where sisters who needed rest and space could find it. It soon became apparent that this house was a perfect setting for spiritual activities.
Without planning, a weekly prayer group and a monthly student retreat group gathered in Bowman and gradually the doors opened to others: pastoral teams, faculty retreats, young adults, campus ministry groups, ecumenical, social issues and pre-Cana groups. It was becoming a Spiritual/Pastoral Center – a House of Prayer.
Sister Mary Joan took charge and with the community, helped Bowman to become a center of prayer, reflection and welcome. In 1983 the “Bowman Spiritual Center” began to publicize its offerings of private and directed retreats, workshops, days and evenings of reflection, and ongoing spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.
The community also touched different parts of the neighborhood and the city through various ministries in accordance with the priorities set up by the Congregation. These outside ministries included:
• The Peace and Justice Institute at St. Joseph’s University
• The Cardinal’s Commission for Human Relations and the Office of Urban Ministry
• Director of Religious Education (DRE) at the nearby St. Margaret’s Parish
• Teaching Theology at St. Joseph’s University
Sister Francis Joseph brought an added dimension to the community’s apostolate by making it a center of AMA recruitment. Many young women came from all parts of the U.S. to offer themselves for global service and, after a summer formation session, went as AMAs to Mexico, Guatemala, Benin, Japan and the Philippines.