A feature on vocations in the Archdiocese...5 minutes with Sister Maureen O'Connell

September 13, 2011

Born and raised in Chicago, Sister Maureen O’Connell has been familiar – and in practice – of the motto “to protect and serve” as a police officer in her native city before joining the Dominicans 30 years ago. 

She originally entered the religious community in Adrian, Mich. in 1977 and after her first profession in 1980; she returned to the Windy City and served two years as the Chicago Police Department chaplain.

Sister O’Connell came to Houston in 1982 and completed her Master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Houston. She was manager for the child sexual abuse program at the Family Service Center in Houston, before contributing as the clinical coordinator of the Children’s Assessment Center.

Since founding Angela House in 2001, Sister O’Connell has worked with formerly incarcerated women and has served as the victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston since 2002.

Sister O’Connell, who operates Angela House as executive director, currently set aside a few minutes to discuss her vocation in religious life with the Texas Catholic Herald

Texas Catholic Herald: What drew you to the Dominicans, and when were you first introduced to the order?
Sister Maureen O’Connell: My aunt is an Adrian Dominican Sister, so I have known the community my whole life. In 1974 the Adrian Dominican Sisters made several corporate statements regarding a “preferential option for the poor.” I was working as a Chicago police officer and often encountered people who suffered because of poverty and a lack of access to resources. I realized that, although I was quite satisfied with my life, and felt that I was serving others, I could join a group of women who shared my vision for the Church and the world.

TCH: What inspired you to create Angela House? How has your experience as the Angela House director transformed you — personally and spiritually?
Sister O’Connell: Before entering the Dominicans I was a police officer for 13 years. As a social worker, I worked primarily with children and families where physical and sexual abuse was the presenting problem. As a police officer and as a therapist, I witnessed the issues confronting women who rarely had the opportunity to heal from the abuse they experienced as a child. Many of the women we serve at Angela House suffer as a result of untreated mental health issues, addictions and long histories of abuse. 
Angela House just seemed like the next thing to do after working with children and families. 
Working with women who every day have to confront the consequence of past poor choices and are willing to try “one more time” to make the changes necessary to overcome those consequences is a humbling experience. As women invite me into their lives, as women share with me the pain and shame that they feel, I cannot help but be transformed by their resilience and their deep desire to make their lives different. 

TCH: What have been your greatest challenges at Angela House? 
Sister O’Connell: A personal challenge is to remain positive in the face of systems that continue to punish and place obstacles in the way of women who are trying to turn their lives around. I’m a firm believer in there being a consequence to one’s behavior, but it often appears that taking responsibility for one’s behavior and taking whatever punishment is due, is not enough. Women returning to the community rarely seem able to move beyond the fact that they are convicted felons. Job opportunities are limited, housing options are even more limited. 
Many times people do not understand why we work so hard to maintain a safe environment for our residents. It is hard to imagine that someone who has been to jail would want to live in a safe environment and yet that is the first thing women hope for when they come to Angela House.

TCH: Do you have any time to pursue hobbies – if so, what are some of your favorites? 
Sister O’Connell: I enjoy reading, cooking and time with friends. I tent camped for many years but the ground got harder as I got older. I also enjoy travel and experiencing other cultures.

TCH: What advice do you have for those considering a vocation to religious or priestly life?
Sister O’Connell: I think one of the most important things to remember is to be joyful. If this lifestyle does not give you joy…take another look. I also think you must be willing to risk. I believe that we are living in a time when old forms and structures need to be examined.

As our understanding of the expanding universe develops we should be willing to examine how it influences our way of being with one another. I recently heard in a homily that people of hope are different. If vowed religious are people of hope (and I think we are) how can I be different in a world that is often cruel and unforgiving? †