October 26, 2012

MAST Celebrates a Jubilee

Among those celebrating Jubilees this past year was MAST, the Mercy Association in Scripture in Theology. Many Sisters and Associates around the world know us principally for The MAST Journal, but that publication is just part of our story. The larger story has linked Mercy around the globe and fostered more conversation and collaboration than we ever imagined.

We were originally called together by Sisters Eloise Rosenblatt (West Midwest)) and Mary Ann Getty, a former member of the Pittsburgh regional community. As scripture scholars and professors from opposite sides of the country, they came to know each other through annual meetings of the Catholic Biblical Association and wondered if there were other Mercy Theologians who might benefit from meeting and getting to know each other.

Having asked each of the twenty-five Mercy superiors in the United States to identify the theologians in their communities, Eloise and Mary Ann invited all the sisters identified to meet at Gwynedd-Mercy College in June 1987 for a few days prior to the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America [CTSA], which was meeting in Philadelphia that year.

Twenty Mercy theologians participated in that first gathering: Sisters Prudence Croke+ (Northeast), Mary Daly (Northeast), Marie Michele Donnelly (Mid-Atlantic), Margaret Farley (West Midwest), Dolores Greeley (South Central), Mary Ellen Greeley (South Central), Marilee Howard (West Midwest), Sharon Kerrigan (West Midwest), Marilyn King (West Midwest), Joanne Lappetito (South Central), Ann McLaughlin (Mid-Atlantic), Eloise Rosenblatt, Celeste Rouleau+ (West Midwest), Janet Ruffing (West Midwest), Judith Schubert (Mid-Atlantic), Marilyn Sunderman (South Central), Patricia Talone (Mid-Atlantic), Rosemarie Tresp (South Central), Julie Upton (Mid-Atlantic), and Marilyn Wallace (West Midwest). We shared our stories and our struggles to be both scholars and sisters, and within a day decided to form an organization that would not just be a support to the members in their academic pursuits, but be of service to the broader Mercy Community. MAST was birthed!

Task Forces at Work

Because our intended mission was to support the ongoing theological education of the Mercy community, in typical, eager-beaver Mercy fashion, at that first meeting we set up a few task forces that would: prepare a resource directory of all the Sisters of Mercy in the United States who were engaged in theology and spirituality; study the feasibility of publishing a journal; assess the needs of our health care institutions; and prepare a model for theological reflection. We planned to meet again the following year in Detroit in conjunction with the 1988 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and we invited other Sisters of Mercy with similar interests to join us.

By the time we met in Detroit, the resource directory listing sisters available as speakers and spiritual directors had been published and distributed to the Superiors of all of the Mercy communities and provinces. In addition, we had also begun to test the waters for the possibility of publishing a free-standing journal by having one article appear in the Mercy Life Newsletter, the official publication of the former Federation of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. You might say we test-marketing ourselves, but we had no idea what that meant then or how our future would unfold.

From the beginning, our vision was as wide as the world. We were happy to include Associates and our Sisters from other countries. Although it took us about ten years to write our Constitutions and By-laws, we wanted include in our company those who would benefit from collaboration and help us to serve the broader Mercy world. Also welcome were Sisters of Mercy from what might be called companion disciplines—Philosophy, Sociology, History, and Communications, to name a few.

Because initially our interests seemed centered on Scripture, Health Care, and Mercy Spirituality, our meetings always included time for those task forces to meet. Over time, though, our common interests grew and the task forces melted away.

Sisters of Mercy as Mentors

The more seasoned theologians in our group mentored the rest of us. Prudence Croke gave a session on how to write a book review, and although she is now celebrating at the heavenly banquet, I still use those notes each time I am asked to write a review. Dolores Greeley had the most experience as a grant writer, and so she encouraged others to follow in her footsteps writing travel grants, seeing the world, and bringing the wider world back to our classrooms. Celeste Rouleau, Mary Ann Scofield+ (West Midwest), and Mary Sullivan (Northeast) have shared their love and knowledge of Catherine McAuley and encouraged us all with their wisdom and grace.

Over the 25 years, initially in tandem with the Catholic Theological Society of America [CTSA], we have crisscrossed the United States and even ventured into Canada. In the early years we met at motherhouses or retreat houses, carefully researched each year by Sisters Marie Michele Donnelly and Beth Flannery (Mid-Atlantic). We have a trunk full of humorous stories as well as tender memories. For example, we hold the distinguished place of being the last group to reside at Le Monastere Christian Renewal Centre in Aylmer, Quebec, Canada, the closest we could get to Ottawa in 1998. We felt like ghosts rattling around that huge building as the remaining skeleton-staff cleared out rooms of everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor. Very spooky!

We probably each have our favorite meeting, but mine was the 1997 meeting at the Christian Brothers Retreat and Conference Center in Marine Ste-Croix an hour or so away from Minneapolis where CTSA was being held that year. We were the only residents in that small lakeside house where we looked and acted more like campers on holiday than theologians engaged in heady research as both the row boat and the pool table got lots of use. Not far from “camp” was the renowned Loome Theological Bookstore, then housed in a restored Old Swedish Covenant Church in Stillwater, MN. Imagine a church packed with ramps and galleries and bookshelves—the largest second-hand theological bookseller in the world. Fold in 20 or so Mercy theologians and they know they have died and gone to heaven. Nirvana!

Setting Sail Alone

Over time, the search for reasonable locations for MAST to meet in the wake of the CTSA became too much of a challenge. Inevitably the timing conflicted with the annual meeting of the Catholic Health Association with which several MAST members are involved. Fewer of us remained actively involved with the CTSA, and eventually we decided to sail on our own power.

That enabled to us seize opportunities to link with the evolving Institute. In 1994, for example, we met at Carlow College (now University) in Pittsburgh, linking with their marvelous conference celebrating 150 years of Mercy in the United States. When the second Institute for Chapter was planned for St. Louis in 1999, we decided to hold our meeting near there at the Thompson Retreat Center in Creve Coeur and invited the novices to join us in a Theological Reflection process on our recently published office book, Morning and Evening Prayer of the Sisters of Mercy.

To ease the burden of travel expenses we eventually decided to alternate between east and west coasts. In the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown, Michele and Beth found the perfect east-coast setting for MAST meetings at the St. Raphaela Center, sponsored by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and we have met there several times. Our west coast setting was often Burlingame, but more recently we have settled on The College of St. Mary in Omaha, where Sister Maryanne Stevens (West Midwest) is now President. Maryanne was the founding editor of The MAST Journal, and later served as executive director of MAST, so being with her at her college is a kind of homecoming for us.

Rituals of Community

What has never changed in all those years, though, are the simple rituals of gathering and blessing that were begun at our very first meeting. Yes, they are more embellished in some years than others, depending on our setting, but they have drawn us together and strengthened our community.

Our first evening session begins in prayer and in that context all present are invited to share something of their year with the group. The question posed is different each year and is often linked to some element of Mercy life or contemporary culture. One year the question was, “If this year in your life was filmed, what would be the title?” The sharing is usually at a deep level, which might surprise a casual visitor.

Continuing our desire to serve the broader Mercy Community, for several years now one of our members has given a public lecture in conjunction with our meeting, and we invite the neighborhood to attend. The rest of our days together are spent listening and responding to papers presented by members.

The MAST Journal

Although it took us a bit longer to get The MAST Journal into full production, it remains the major way in which MAST serves the Sisters of Mercy and calls others forth. Over its 20 years in print the journal has grown in size and sharpened its focus, specifically addressing the Institute’s critical concerns, while remaining a homegrown cottage industry. As academics we know the importance of peer review, so from the beginning there has been an editorial board of MAST members who help to plan the themes and insure the quality of the Journal. Eloise has been the prime mover and chief editor throughout the years seeking out writers from around the globe ad inviting guest editors to organize issues. Because we have wanted to keep the Journal affordable for the sisters, we have kept almost all of the work in house, involving people in Mercy ministries too.

Maintaining an adequate subscription base has always been our greatest challenge. The Institute, as well as some of our hospitals and other Mercy organizations have supported us by sponsoring an issue of the Journal that specifically addressed their needs or interests. Until now without the resources to hound people to renew their subscriptions, we lose a portion of our base each cycle, but with the Internet that might change.

Sailing into the Future

We never leave a meeting without looking toward the future. Immediately that means working together on plans for coming issues of The MAST Journal. While the Editorial Board meets earlier to consider themes for future issues, everyone participates in brainstorming about topics of papers and prospective authors. To expand our reach to the global Mercy Community, however, we are investigating ways to make our presence and ministry available through the Internet. Although The MAST Journal will still continue in print, we hope to make some current articles and those from our archives available on our website. We’ve only just begun.

Messages to: Julia Upton rsm

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