Bea Hall, SNJM
A social scientist describing our family could rightly check the boxes for “nomadic” and “multicultural.” I grew up the oldest of three siblings in the Cold War ‘50s and ‘60s. In our family, my mother was New York-Irish-Catholic, the loving, witty, unshakeable center; and my father, Mississippi-red neck-lapsed Methodist, military man. The Navy stationed us in 10 base towns up and down the East Coast as well as in Alameda and San Diego, CA, and “Gitmo” Cuba. My sister Mary, brother Edward and I formed a tight, interdependent circle, which helped us navigate our many new neighborhoods and public schools. Everywhere we met enough capable and generous teachers to help us gain solid academic foundations. My grand total was 14 different schools by graduation.
One happy consequence of this nomadic Navy culture was our deployment, in the middle of my fifth grade, to Key West, FL, where we met five Sisters of the Holy Names teaching 200 of us CCD kids every Saturday morning in a stripped-down barracks on the submarine base. These Sisters were as diverse in age, personality and appearance as any “sample” of five could be, but uniformly radiated joy and loving presence. They seemed to really enjoy being with us and with each other. In this third-world school, we got world-class modeling. I couldn’t wait to grow up to be good and do good just like Sr. Helen Marcia, Sr. Mary Samuel, Sr. Kathleen Ann, Sr. Joan Maureen and Sr. Cecilia Rose.
So, for the last 50+ years, I have tried to let that inspiration animate my ministries and relationships. I have loved teaching, knowing firsthand that classrooms can be safe harbors for students, incubators for their core values. In several instances of deja-vu, I was missioned to some of my childhood Navy homes. I taught grades 4-12 in parish schools in Maryland, New York, Virginia and Florida, often doing school administration at the same time. It was a huge cultural adjustment when the provincial asked me to head the junior high at our Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, where I went from a very poor Florida parish to teaching in a private, all-girls school. Our principal and staff created an atmosphere in which integrity and caring were the norm for everyone. For the first time, I experienced the effect of implementing school policies based overtly on SNJM guiding principles, rather than those of the pastor or other boards, however good they may have been. In those eight years, I came to realize the positive potential of community school sponsorship.
A co-ed diocesan high school five times the size of our academy, with a much different demographic, was my next ministry. I taught approximately 190 students a day, one-third of whom were sleeping at friends’ houses, at work, or even in their cars because of violence and/ or poverty at home. Despite dramas “ripped from the headlines,” under-funding and numerous other challenges, this was a school of excellence and a sanctuary, and I cried when I was leaving just as I had for every other school I’d been a part of. Along the way during these years, I also took a position teaching evenings at a two-year college specializing in job skills for adults. Sensing next steps in my own professional evolution, I began taking some introductory Ph.D courses to prepare to become a teacher educator.
These were the wild and wooly ‘80s and ‘90s, everything was in flux: the community was grappling with membership, service to the poor, right use of our property and resources, social justice, Church relations, etc.… like every able-bodied Sister, I was on overload. Still I felt privileged to be chosen for province regional leadership, and called to finance, government and chapter committee work. The camaraderie and sense that it was my “family responsibility” were also strong energizers. Working with women from the general level and across the province taught me so much spirituality, community history, organization and governance, and interdependence. The example of SNJM multi-dimensionality came with the decision to hold the 1991 General Chapter here in the Albany area. I was asked to be responsible for facilities and services; the setting and buildings were marginal – a “Motel 4,” but the volunteer work crew were just spectacular! Mostly older women from every corner of the congregation, these cleaners, secretaries, drivers, translators, and AV techs were unfailingly hard-working and sisterly. There was not a single complaint from that beautiful band throughout the three months of set up, chapter proceedings, and de-damping labor.
The frenzied work of the chapter gave way to sedentary study; I began full-time doctoral study with side jobs in HUD senior housing and teaching-assistant and researcher work at the State University of New York. About a year later, I was hired as an instructor in the School of Education to replace my thesis advisor, who went off to another university. Then I was invited to apply for a position teaching in the Masters in the Art of Teaching program at Union College in nearby Schenectady. Moving from the giant research university to the small, 100 grad-student Education Department at the 200-year-old Union College was another moment for cultural adjustment. But the Union MAT values and program aligned ideally with our community’s mission, and I got to work with noble colleagues as professor and associate dean, serving superb teacher candidates. By 2010, I could look back at 20 years as part of a program that won every possible accolade and accreditation and prepared thousands of wonderful teachers for children across the country.
Albany has long been the former New York Province’s main retirement and care destination. Nowadays, I see the proportion of senior Sisters and variety of needs as a call to use my time and energy to serve in more hands-on ways. Being the Albany Mission Centre Coordinator has given me the privilege and many opportunities to team up with Sisters and Associates who are selflessly devoting themselves to serving the social, spiritual and practical needs of our dear elders. These groups also demonstrate loving regard and generous outreach to others in need… much like those first five SNJMs I met six decades ago. So, reflection on this jubilee year fills me with gratitude for the gifts that family, teachers and community have lavished on me. The nomad life can be challenging, but it has blessed me with multiple proofs that many live the culture of love and the certitude that they have inspired me to venture loving, too.