His human, Sister Catherine Connell, SSS, has already been up for an hour of prayer. She says it is “really essential, so I can be present to those I am serving and see God’s presence in them. As well as helping them see God’s presence then in me in the work I am doing to help them come to healing.”
Sister Catherine’s day begins early, at 4:40 a.m. After her hour of prayer, she and Billie have their breakfast and a morning walk in Land Park.
Each day is dedicated to the service of others, and has been ever since Sister Catherine, a licensed clinical social worker, became a member of the religious order known as the Sisters of Social Service. It is a calling she heard when she was a teenager in the late 1950s.
The Call to serve
The middle child of five children, she grew up in a Catholic family. Still, “a lot of communication went back and forth” between the sisters at the Sisters of Social Service and the teenager before she approached her parents for their blessing. It also meant having to tell someone else about the call she was hearing to dedicate her life to others.
“I had a steady boyfriend at the time,” Sister Catherine said. “He wanted to marry me, but I felt I needed to check this (calling) out first. It was a strong feeling that I needed to go and pursue this to see: is this is what God really wants for me?”
The two parted as friends. He later married another girl and had a happy marriage.
When she left her home in Muscatine, Iowa for the “Mother House” in Los Angeles, “it was quite a send-off with my grandparents, parents and three priests,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was on my way to the airport that I burst into tears because I realized I was leaving.”
When she entered the “novitiate” stage on Feb.1, 1959, Sister Catherine began a journey that would include religious studies, a college education and hands-on field work, known then as “family visits” in parishes.
“It was a wonderful preparation,” she said. “The prayer, the classes, the different assignments. You learned the focus of living a spiritual life.”
The Sisters of Social Service value education. Sister Catherine graduated from Mount St. Mary’s College with a degree in sociology, and from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. with a master’s degree in social work. She took her final religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1967.
Her field work took her around the nation, from working at Holy Name Parish near the Watts area of Los Angeles (“During the Watts Riot, I went to work anyway,”) to working at Walter Reed Army Hospital during the Vietnam War (“I worked in a ward of 80 men. Every last one of them was missing legs, arms, eyes…There were major disabilities,”) and finally, to Sacramento, where she became known for her work in opposing the state’s death penalty and for her support for making state prisons true places of rehabilitation. Last year, she was honored by Death Penalty Focus’ Friends Committee on Legislation.
In the 1987, Sister Catherine and Sister Claire Graham founded the Wellspring Women’s Center in Sacramento. Wellspring Women’s Center is a drop-in center for women and their children established to foster the innate goodness and personal self-esteem of all who enter its doors. “Hospitality with dignity and love” is the foundation on which Wellspring is built.
Guests at Wellspring are diverse in age, personal background, and ethnicity. Many guests are young mothers seeking adult companionship or a break from child rearing. Wellspring provides a sense of “family” to older single women without a support system. Administered today by the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the center will celebrate 25 years of service to the community this year.
A new phase of Sister Catherine’s life would come in 1998 that would change her life forever, when a visit to the doctor came back with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
“I began a year of chemo in 1999,” she said. “Dr. Ernie Bodai was my doctor. He is wonderful.”
She beat the cancer, but four years later she learned that she was in the early stages of breast cancer. Because of early detection, she beat this cancer, also.
Because of the ovarian cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy, Sister Catherine decided to step down from her position as director at Wellspring.
“That’s when I decided to try something where I wasn’t managing a whole agency, but could still serve,” she said.
Sister Catherine applied for and accepted a position as a therapist at Kaiser. Each week, Sister Catherine directs two groups: a codependency group that covers “every variety of codependency: relationships, etc.” and a bipolar support group.
Because she is still vowed to poverty, her paychecks go to the Sisters of Social Service, who in turn support her with housing, food and any other needs.
She works at Kaiser three days a week.
“Those are my very busy days,” she said. “On my less busy days, Billie and I go out on our visits.”
Sister Catherine and the little dog (rescued from the Sacramento City Animal Shelter) visit a wide variety of people. Together, the two stay “very much in touch” with the religious community and the community at large, meeting countless needs for a kind word, dignity and support. They have many friends. Included in their rounds is Mercy McMahon Terrace, a residence for seniors.
“The seniors there love Billie, and he loves them. Billie also loves to visit with Bishop Quinn,” she said with a smile. “He is one of Billie’s favorite people.”
Each day is full, and through it all Sister Catherine has found that the motto she adopted when she took her final vows – “That In All Things God May Be Glorified” – is appropriate to every day.
“It certainly has been true for me,” she said.