By Beth Donze
When Sister Teresa Rooney was growing up in Ireland in the 1950s, she and her peers weren’t shy about showing their interest in a potential calling to the priesthood or religious life.
Boys could be spotted “playing Mass” behind makeshift altars, while girls tended to take on the roles of the Catholic sisters who educated them. In young Teresa’s version of this game, she would pull the neck of her sweater around her face to make a “veil” and call her imaginary classroom to order.
“It was part of the fabric of our society,” said Sister Teresa, reflecting on 51 years of consecrated life as a Sister of the Holy Faith and her more than 10-year ministry as the Office of Racial Harmony’s founding liaison to parishes and schools.
On Oct. 17, Sister Teresa will relinquish her archdiocesan post to assume a new assignment as the United States region leader of the 16 Sisters of the Holy Faith living in Louisiana and California.
“It’s heartbreaking to leave (the Office of Racial Harmony), but I will do God’s will cheerfully and I look forward to working with my sisters,” said Sister Teresa, 72, preparing her office for her successor, for whom a search is underway.
“If you look at the big picture of what you can do about racism, it’s very discouraging,” she said. “But if you look at your own area of influence – what one, three or 10 people you can influence in your family, your workplace or your parish – then you can cope. You’re never going to change the whole picture, but you can make a little difference. If we can get more and more people involved in the work, then we’re all nibbling away at it, bite by bite.”
Entered convent at 18
The youngest of four children, Sister Teresa was born and raised in Dublin. Her father worked as the print manager for The Irish Press, a daily newspaper, while her mother worked inside the home, using her spare time to teach her three daughters how to knit, sew and crochet.
“I remember learning to use a sewing machine when I was too short to sit at it, and so I stood on the pedals,” chuckled Sister Teresa, who also took lessons in ballroom dancing and joined a dance club at her parish church.
Always impressed by the great kindness and teaching acumen modeled by her Sisters of the Holy Faith educators, Sister Teresa said her thoughts of entering the convent solidified quite suddenly during an assembly in her senior year of high school: the principal announced that an Irish-born Sister of the Holy Faith based in California – Virgilius Hogan – had been killed in a car accident.
“That immediately struck me as a sign,” Sister Teresa recalled. “I didn’t hear a voice, but that sister’s death influenced me, and in a romantic kind of way I thought I could replace her. It was God saying, ‘OK!’”
Schooled in U.S. history
Ironically, California would be her first assignment as a 21-year-old, fully professed sister. Sister Teresa served for four years as an English and religion teacher at junior high schools in suburban Los Angeles, taking Spanish lessons to meet the needs of a diverse student body that included the children of dairy farmers and migrant workers from Mexico.
The ensuing 12 years as vice principal of St. Mary Magdalen School in Los Angeles would mark Sister Teresa’s first exposure to “the sin of racism,” she said. The school, created through the merger of two racially segregated Catholic schools, had become all-black, virtually overnight, due to white flight. It was there that Sister Teresa began hearing the stories of school parents who had left the South in search of a better life for their children.
“This is where I began to get my education about civil rights – I learned what people of color went through in the South, the struggle,” Sister Teresa said. “They described standing in a line in a grocery store and being skipped over because they were black. The people who were educating me were my friends, and I just couldn’t see why they would be treated that way at all.”
Sister Teresa’s encounters with people of color, up to that point, had been limited to the handful of African-born students who studied at Dublin’s Trinity College. Puzzled by the stories of interracial discord, she added Black Studies to her master’s degree in education at Loyola University Los Angeles.
“I wondered why people thought (the races) were so different,” Sister Teresa said. “As I learned the history of the South and the history of slavery, I did understand it more.”
Brought children together
In 1982, Sister Teresa was assigned to Louisiana, where the Sisters of the Holy Faith had been serving as educators since the late 1960s. As principal of St. Robert Bellarmine in Arabi, she was struck by the “deep-seated faith” of the people and their all-hands-on-deck approach to school and church ministry.
In her subsequent tenure – as principal of St. Peter Claver in New Orleans – Sister Teresa was embraced by the hard-working faculty and the rich African-American culture of the Treme neighborhood.
“I was accepted as part of the family, and to this day when I go back to St. Peter Claver, I get the same welcome at Mass – like I always belonged there,” Sister Teresa said.
But it was at St. David Elementary, the Ninth Ward school she led from 1994 to 2003, where Sister Teresa feels much traction was gained in the ever-present battle to undo racism.
Believing that racial isolation was behind much of the disharmony between black and white, Sister Teresa invited students from nearby Holy Cross to St. David’s annual Black History program so the high school boys could learn the stories of the youngsters’ ancestors. In return, Holy Cross would send its buses to transport St. David students to the Holy Cross gym for afterschool basketball practice together. Holy Cross students also became reading buddies to St. David’s pre-kindergartners and kindergartners.
“Without having a conversation about race, we were building good race relations, because both black children and white children went on to have good memories of those occasions,” Sister Teresa said. “We built relationships between black and white children that wouldn’t have happened outside of that.”
All created in God’s image
In April 2006, Sister Teresa was appointed the parish and school liaison for the archdiocese’s Office of Racial Harmony, the only office of its kind still in operation in a Catholic diocese. Although it offers an assortment of resources and activities on the difficult work of racial reconciliation, including monthly “Peace Prayer” walks in rotating parishes, the office’s cornerstone is “Made in the Image and Likeness of God,” Archbishop Alfred Hughes’ pastoral letter on racial harmony.
An estimated 1,000 locals have completed the four-part, Scripture-based discussion series on the pastoral letter, which rolls out through small and large-group sharing about how racism frays the relationships God intended for his children. At the end, attendees come up with an action plan for their parish, school, workplace or family circle.
“Archbishop Hughes starts the letter by telling his own story as a kid growing up in Boston, and so we start the first evening by telling our own stories of racial significance,” Sister Teresa said, noting that other sessions deal with the sin of racism, local racial harmony heroes, and the question, “What is God calling you to do?”
“People always say this (discussion series) wasn’t long enough. What will we do next?” she said, pointing to how her office helped St. Margaret Mary Parish in Slidell take the next step. The week after that parish’s discussion series ended, Sister Teresa accompanied a group of parishioners to see the movie “Selma.” The group, which includes Catholic and non-Catholic participants from throughout East St. Tammany, continues to meet for a monthly prayer service based on the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching, followed by Mass and a social hour of refreshments and continued conversation.
St. Margaret Mary’s youth leader also followed up on the discussion series by retooling it for a teenage audience.
Her advocacy will continue
In her new position, Sister Teresa will continue to reside locally and worship at her longtime parish of St. David, where she serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, maintains the sacramental records, makes church banners and assists the Isaiah 43 mentoring and parenting program.
She plans to continue advocating for racial harmony as a volunteer.
“Trying to improve relationships between all God’s children is my passion,” Sister Teresa said. “If you look at the letter on racial harmony, it’s all Scripture based. Well, how do we declare ourselves to be good Catholics if we’re somehow not connected to our neighbors and God’s other children?” she asked, recalling a passage she once taped above a full-length mirror inside a teachers’ lounge: “And God saw all that he had made and found it very good.”
“If God saw everything he made and found it ‘good,’ then so should we,” Sister Teresa said. “It very much fits in with racial harmony.”