AUZENNE: Catholic women make history

March 28, 2023

It is National Women’s History Month; a time when we reflect on the contributions of women to culture, science, art and society. I would like to offer my own small reflection on three notable Catholic women who used their unique gifts and experiences to make an impact on the American Church.

Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence (1789-1882).

Elizabeth Clarisse Lange was born in San Domingo, Haiti, in 1789 to mulatto parents (people of African and French heritage). In the political unrest that followed the Haitian revolution, Elizabeth’s family moved first to Cuba and then to Baltimore, Maryland. Seeing the unmet need for education and evangelization among the city’s Black Catholics, Elizabeth began a Catholic school for these children in her home in 1813 — the first such school in the nation.

From humble beginnings, Elizabeth and her friend Father James Joubert founded the Oblate Sisters of the Providence, the first congregation of African American women religious in the U.S. Her legacy of education and service continues with the Oblate Sisters and the thousands of African American women who have answered the call to religious life with compassion and determination.

Servant of God Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement (1897-1980).

As an educated young woman in 1920’s New York, Dorothy Day lived a Bohemian lifestyle — active in progressive politics, writing for socialist journals, and practicing “free love.” Initially, Dorothy threw herself into her work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised — she was even arrested once during a suffragist protest outside the White House.

Her life took a dramatic turn in 1920 when she became pregnant by her lover. He threatened to leave unless she got an abortion; she did as he asked, and he left anyway. By 1925, she was disillusioned with politics, heartbroken and pregnant again. A chance friendship with a Catholic nun led her to a profound conversion experience; she and her infant daughter joined the Church in 1926. Now enlightened by the Gospel, her work on behalf of the poor continued.

With Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker movement during the Great Depression. Their “Hospitality Houses” welcomed all in the name of Jesus and provided free meals, clothing and housing. At the end of her life, she was an active voice in the nuclear disarmament movement; Dorothy argued that the money should be spent on the poor instead. Today, the Catholic Worker movement continues Dorothy’s ministry of welcome and advocacy, operating over 170 Hospitality Houses in 17 countries, including Casa Juan Diego here in Houston.

Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (1953-).

Sister Norma Pimentel grew up in Brownsville, Texas, with her parents and four siblings. As a child, she struggled in school but eventually was able to attend college, where she majored in art.

She began her religious studies in 1978, earning master’s degrees in theology and counseling before being assigned to Casa Oscar Romero, a Catholic Worker house in San Benito, Texas, serving refugees fleeing Central American guerilla wars.

Working with the staff at Casa Oscar Romero to provide for the material and spiritual needs of their guests, Sister Norma discovered a passion for this work. Today, she is on the front lines of the ongoing refugee crisis on our southern border. Her work to interject some humanity amid a heated political debate has been both praised and criticized. After all, there is nothing so divisive in our cynical world as a person who is determined to love as Jesus did.

To quote Sister Norma: “We are a people of God, people driven by the presence of God in ourselves and in others. When we see human suffering, we cannot turn our backs; we must respond.” 

Amy Auzenne is the director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.

OSV News photo by Chaz Muth.