Reflection Sisters of Saint Joseph bid farewell to Bayonne

To the Editor:

None of the changes in the City of Bayonne in my lifetime were as heartfelt as the closing of the convents of the Sisters of Saint Joseph who had lived and ministered there since 1879. In that 5.8 square mile peninsula, the sisters taught in three elementary schools in St. Vincent Parish, St. Mary Parish and St. Andrew Parish, as well as Holy Family Academy. Yes, the sisters seemed as much a part of Bayonne’s landscape as its trees, parks and neighborhoods.
I write as a graduate of St. Vincent and Holy Family Academy. I was one of the many young women who entered the Sisters of Saint Joseph desirous of following Christ by helping to relieve the suffering of others through prayer and service. When I entered in 1953, with four other women, there were seven of my classmates already in the Novitiate, so we numbered a total of 12. Often, in an effort to boost Bayonne in that Philadelphia environment, two or three of us would start singing the Holy Family alma mater at community gatherings: “In the heart of Hudson County, close to Newark Bay, stands the school we all love dearly, alma mater HFA…” The song would inevitably be picked up by a more resounding voice of graduates and others who taught in the school. That was Bayonne pride and the spirit of HFA!
The closing of the convents seemed like a chain reaction. As public schools improved and there were fewer sister teachers available, tuition costs had to increase, ultimately affecting enrollment. In 2008, while there were three sisters still ministering at Holy Family Academy, our Congregation could no longer maintain it financially. Not wanting to let it go, the lay Board asked to lease it and carried it until the end of the 2012-13 school year. Sisters Alice Boyle, Diane Driscoll, Margaret Mary (Peg) Mahon (the last HFA teachers) and Genevieve Prendergast (who was teaching in another town) continued to live in the convent even after Sister Diane started a new teaching position elsewhere. Sisters Alice and Peg were doing volunteer work. The school was put up for sale but it was not an easy sale, maybe because the land was saturated with graces and awaiting a proper transition.
Earlier this year, we received the shocking news that St. Andrew Convent was closing. July 2017 marked the end of the volunteer work done by the eight sisters living there and left a big hole in the hearts of many. But, Holy Family was different; it was ours — it belonged to the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
Now, there is good news that the City of Bayonne has bought Holy Family Convent and School. The convent will be a temporary office for the Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation (BEOF) and when the school is renovated, it will become the office and expansion of the Head Start Program, an appropriate use of this cherished site. That fits in so well with what the Sisters of Saint Joseph have given to Bayonne in their loving presence and economic development of families through education and caring. During all that time from 2013 on, the sisters lived in the convent. In 2015 Sister Gen moved to another convent and Sister Alice followed later. For all those years Sisters Diane and Peg remained with the building, not wanting to abandon it and leave it vulnerable to vandalism. They admirably oversaw the distribution of all that identified the house as a convent and a home. One of the last removals was the stain glass windows depicting SSJ history in France. That highlighted the letting go experience.
Although SSJ convents are gone, the SSJ spirit is alive in Bayonne and St. Henry School, where we have the Sisters of Saint Joseph ESL (English as a Second Language Program) offering immigrants the assistance they need to live and thrive in our country through knowing the English language and culture.
At its beginning, in 2003, in Assumption parish, we had nine Sisters of Saint Joseph who traveled from Bayonne, Newark, North Arlington, Highland Park and Jersey City to meet this need. The number of sisters able to continue decreased throughout those 13 years leaving only me still coming from Newark and strengthened by five Holy Family graduates: Barbara Jablonski, Priscilla Ege, Mary Moloney and Denise Babico. Five Associates of our Congregation also volunteered in the Program: Julie and Dan Rauch, Betty Zywicki (HFA graduate), Jim Hughes and Maudlyn Beckles. We even had two former teachers from HFA help us – Pat Wall, SCIP and Mary Ann Reis, OSF. The mission of the Sisters of Saint Joseph does not depend on how many religious sisters we have, but on how much we live and work in the spirit, so that all people may be united with God and one another. What is happening in Bayonne is an example of being alive in the spirit, which expresses itself in different forms, but always for the same purpose of uniting all. The men and women participating in our ESL program are caught up in the same spirit and expressing it in a way that shows that it is God’s spirit, not just ours.
In the end, everything must change, die and be transformed. As Julian of Norwich stated: All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well. So we sing: May all who come behind us find us faithful; May the fire of our devotion light their way. May the footsteps that we leave lead them to believe and the lives we live inspire them to obey. Thank you, Bayonne. Thank you, Sisters, especially Diane and Peg, for your dedication and caring, for keeping the place special.

SISTER KAY COLL, SSJ