Many Alaskans remember Sister Arlene Boyd as one of the Sisters of Mercy invited to Anchorage from New York by the first Archbishop of Anchorage, Joseph Ryan.
Archbishop Ryan asked the Mercy Sisters to do a Catholic survey in the new archdiocese. So, willing to get their habits dirty in the nitty-gritty work of the church, the sisters went door to door, trudging through the snow and slush, doing a Catholic census.
A leader in Catholic religious education in Anchorage, Sister Arlene was a highly intelligent woman who had once commanded the strict attention of 50 first graders in her early ministry in New York.
As a catechist at McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage, she’d been touched by how many young women were in need of a true home. So, in her Spirit-filled way, she opened one: the now defunct McAuley Manor, a residence for girls. Sadly, Sister Arlene died too young.
But her suggestion that we pray with the daily readings of the church has lived on with me, a habit which guides me through the liturgical seasons.
And so, I think of Pentecost, (June 4) and another Spirit-filled New Yorker, Dorothy Day.
Pentecost is an exciting feast, what with that mighty wind and those flames of fire. It’s the Church’s birthday, when a roomful of disciples who had locked themselves in out of fear were suddenly emboldened to go out and preach to a city full of strangers.
Maybe in our own life, and in the lives of people like Sister Arlene and Dorothy Day, the Spirit is a little less showy than it was the day it descended upon the original disciples, but it is just as powerful.
Dorothy once wrote about how the Catholic worker came about. Her mentor was a man named Peter Maurin; he was the intellectual counterpart to Dorothy’s activism.
She writes, “We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in … We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying ‘We need bread.’”
She repeats this line several times, until it takes on a poetic cadence: “We were just sitting there talking…” and amazing things began to happen.
So I think about those disciples, locked in their fear. But they had what Day, and Sister Arlene, had — community. They had an experience of the Lord, whom they had met in the breaking of the bread. They were frightened, but ready to do what needed to be done.
In that room, the disciples were probably just sitting there talking when the Spirit of God came upon them.
Day writes: “We cannot love God unless we love each other. We know him in the breaking of the bread, and we are not alone anymore … We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
Women like Day and Sister Arlene knew the long loneliness, just as the disciples huddled together in fear experienced it. But they also knew the power of community and of listening to the Spirit.
Next time a strong wind blows through your neighborhood, think about that.
The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.