Rejoicing in the lantern light of the Presentation Sisters

A few weeks ago I sat on a clear and beautiful Aberdeen afternoon to witness the groundbreaking for Presentation Place, the new residence for the Presentation Sisters. The speakers were standing at a podium placed in front of the architectural drawings of the beautiful building which will soon be built, and as I listened to them, my mind started to wander.

Not that the speeches were not interesting, they were; what got me reflecting was their focus on how the Presentation Sisters transformed the world around them, and the city blessed by their presence. All of this is true, but it got me thinking about how they have impacted my life.

If you were of a certain age growing up in Aberdeen and you happened to be Roman Catholic, you were going to have one of the sisters teaching you, either in the Catholic school or in religious education classes. Their patience when passing on the faith to us was nothing short of heroic.

When I was in the 9th grade, one of the sisters was my Confirmation teacher. She did a great job and, as was usual back then, administered the 100 point test we had to pass in order to be confirmed. The next Wednesday, when I got my test back, I was stunned to see I had scored a 99 out of 100.

I was outraged, incensed, horrified. I remember that one of my true or false statements was marked wrong. I waited until the end of class and approached the desk, “Sister, I think you made a mistake. You marked one wrong that isn’t wrong.”

“Let’s see,” she said, taking the test from my hands. “It says ‘Jesus Christ is a man like us in all things but sin,’ and you put false. That’s incorrect, it’s true.”

“But Sister,” I said, “it’s not true. He did sin.”

“When did He sin?” she asked.

“In the garden, when He said He didn’t want to die.”

“But He did die. He accepted the Father’s will.”

“But He said He didn’t want to. That’s a sin.”

“That wasn’t a sin, Mike. He accepted the Father’s will; and besides, He was divine so He couldn’t sin.”

“But Sister….”

And so it went until, at the end of a long day, she sent me on my way, the red mark still scandalously glowing on my paper. I bore the outrage patiently, and was confirmed. When I later ran into her at my ordination, I thanked her for allowing me to be confirmed even though I was a heretic. She did not remember the encounter, but told me she was glad to be a part of my religious formation.

As am I. What a gift these strong and holy women have been to my life; from my first encounter with the sisters as my teachers, to Sister Joan Marie, whom I worked with for seven years at the Newman Center at SDSU, as a partner in ministry.

As I called my mind back to the speakers in front of me, I listened in a bit of awe as the accomplishments and the prophetic witnesses of these women were recounted. Mike Levsen, the mayor of Aberdeen, spoke with tears in his eyes and told us that every good thing that happened in our city either had the sister’s fingerprints all over it, or had them as the driving force.

None of this surprised me. One of the great symbols of the Presentation Sisters is the lantern their founder, Nano Nagle, carried with her into the darkness.

When the poor and the immigrant are marginalized and demonized, they do what they have done since the beginning, they reach out with the love of Christ and embrace their sisters and brothers in peace. That is a shining lantern.

Long before it became a global crisis, the sisters in Aberdeen were working to defend God’s creation and speaking out on our need to cherish and protect this gift. That is a shining lantern.

Through their efforts and faith, we have a strong health care system, housing for the poor and low income families, and a voice for the voiceless. That is a shining lantern.

There was also compassion shown to a stubborn young confirmation student years ago, and he still basks in the light of that shining lantern.