by SSJ Associate Elaine Clyburn
The following article was written by Elaine Clyburn, one of the first Associates welcomed by the SSJs in Erie. Her story was published in the Winter 2014-15 issue of Journeys. We are sharing it again during this year’s Black History month.
In 1982, allowing God to lead me, I became one of the first Associates of the Sisters of
St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania. As I signed the first line in the commitment book (it was alphabetical), a voice spoke the words of the prophet Jeremiah to my spirit, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord. . . plans to give you a future full of hope.”
Thirty years earlier, as the first black student at Mt. St. Joseph Academy in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, that plan was not so clear.
It was the early 1950s and American society was deep in the throes of racial tension and prejudice. I was living in two separate worlds. In my neighborhood, I was both “cherished and challenged” among my friends who had their own notions of what went on in the privileged world of private school and/or white society. At school, I was a novelty, a visitor from another planet, an object to be studied and, as I later discovered, the subject of an all-school assembly prior to my arrival.
Sr. Agnes Clare (a Sister of St. Joseph with the Buffalo SSJs), however, treated me just like everyone else. Others assumed I had no father at home (untrue), or that he was unemployed (also not true) or that I was an expert on all things “negro” (again, not true, although I did read a lot and paid attention to black culture and the multi-racial background of my family). Sr. Agnes Clare didn’t see me through the lens of stereotypes that were the predominant societal norms; because of her influence and acceptance, I decided during my senior year to join her congregation.
To my surprise, I was told that a “colored” nun would not be accepted by those served by the congregation’s ministries in Catholic schools and hospitals, and that I should explore other congregations. If I truly had a religious vocation, I was told, I would be pleased to be with my “own kind,” referring to the orders founded for, and by, black Sisters.
I was devastated. I felt hurt, angry and puzzled. I didn’t think God would put that desire in me if I was not to choose it. I rationalized that the rejection was their loss, not mine, and moved forward with college, graduate school and professional employment. Initial feelings of hurt and rejection weren’t enough to squelch my desire; that yearning remained deep inside.
It was more a “sign of the times” than a personal rejection and I know today that it was the right decision for the wrong reasons. It didn’t make me bitter and it couldn’t keep me from the connection I was destined to have with the Sisters of St. Joseph.
My journey led me to Erie, Pennsylvania where I became the Social Work Program Director at Villa Maria College, a ministry of the Sisters of
St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania. There I was introduced to the emerging concept of lay membership with the congregation. Sister Dorinda Young beamed as she described how lay women had been a part of the congregation’s earliest history. She explained “association” as a manifestation of a reality that wasn’t about “having arrived,” but rather about having the desire to “be on the journey.”
Then and there, I knew that the long ago rejection I felt was a comma, not a period, and my head and heart told me that becoming an SSJ Associate was God’s plan for me all along.
The rest is history.