One Thing Leads to Another
By Char Madigan, CSJ
When I was little, my dad’s friend had a heart attack and couldn’t work. Although my family was very, very poor, he would bring groceries over to that man. Sometimes he’d bring us kids along to sing. One time, on our way home, I said how charitable or nice I thought it was for us to do that for him. I remember my dad saying, “You know, if somebody is hungry, it isn’t charity to feed them. It’s justice.” That stuck with me all my life.
I think about where people get that attitude. We get it from our dads and our mothers and others in our past. In my (and my sister’s) case, this also came from the Sisters of St. Joseph.
One of the things about the Sisters of St. Joseph is that we change. We find another way because sometimes what we’re doing isn’t working or isn’t needed anymore. For example, when our original Sisters thought they knew some basics about the women they saw around them and what led them into the streets of Paris — that the women needed food and bread —they soon realized that what the women really needed was a way a way to earn a living so they could buy their own bread. So the first Sisters of St. Joseph taught the women how to make lace.
That was 400 years ago. If I fast-forward to the present, I think of Sister Rita Steinhagen. Her favorite saying was, “One thing leads to another,” because we are always changing. That has been true throughout our history and is still true today.
When the CSJs came up to Minnesota from St. Louis in 1851 to educate the deaf, they were soon greeted with a cholera epidemic, so they started a hospital. Then, when they re-focused on education, they realized the need for women to get educated, and so they founded St. Kate’s. Sisters continued to focus on education and healthcare.
During my time teaching at St. Margaret’s Academy, I taught the young women to love God and neighbor without distinction. I thought that I couldn’t just teach them that; I had to get them connected with the dear neighbor, including the poor people all around us. Then, I thought, “I can’t just be here sending the students,” so I began to volunteer at St. Stephen’s. St. Stephen’s then hired me, and my CSJ community said, “Fine.” The Sisters didn’t care if I wasn’t going to be a teacher. I really was a terrible teacher, anyway.
At St. Stephen’s, I was saying goodbye to people every day at four o’clock knowing they had no place to go, and they knew I knew they had no place to go. Sister Rita Steinhagen was working at the Center for Victims of Torture, and she also saw that women had no place to go. So, we started St. Joseph’s House. We asked the Sisters and they said, “Sure.” We didn’t know what we were getting into. We just knew people were homeless, and we wanted our convent to welcome them.
We weren’t the only ones starting new ministries. Many Sisters went to the community and said, “I’d like to do this, can I try it?” They believed in us. If a Sister had a dream, she was encouraged to do it.
There is something in all people about wanting to make the world a better place and helping others in need. But sometimes I was at a point where I’d just say, “Charity is very humiliating and demeaning. We’ve got to stop doing charity. We’ve got to do justice.”
To me, justice is changing the systems. We’d meet someone and think, “What does this woman need to be able to survive and succeed?” When you’re doing this kind of work, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. If people are homeless, it’s not to try to teach them how to clean and cook and make their babies not cry; it’s about getting them a home. The CSJs don’t have a corner on that; it comes from the Gospel, and it comes from our DNA. It’s built right into the human race.
One time, back in the early days of doing the civil disobedience, I was invited with other Sisters to go to Bethany Convent to talk to the retired Sisters about what we had done and why. When we finished, they stood up and clapped. We were just so touched because we knew that many didn’t think taking to the streets is the way to make change. To do big things you have to have some help along the way, and we did. And then, one thing leads to another.