“What are we doing in this world, and why are we here, if not to help our neighbors?” asked Saint Mary Euphrasia Pelletier (Born 1796. Died 1868. Canonized in 1940.*) St. Mary Euphrasia’s great-great niece Catherine certainly embodies that understanding of service. It runs in the family.
When asked what it meant to be a Sister of Notre Dame for 70 years, Sr. Catherine Pelletier spoke of many things – the strength of her family, her first day of teaching, her years at Holy Family School in Hawaii – but it was her family that may be the biggest part of what defines her.
Catherine grew up in Oakland, near Mills College, and remembers how her family would gather around the piano and sing at night. Growing up in the Depression clearly had an impact. Sr. Catherine describes how hard her father worked, holding down three part-time jobs, and how her parents paid $1 a month to send their children to St. Joseph’s/ Notre Dame in Alameda. She said they almost lost their home, yet described that time as “terrible but wonderful.” Despite that adversity –or perhaps because of it-she refers to her mother telling her: “If someone asks you to do something, do it, if you can.”
Even now, if you ask Sr. Catherine to do something, she always can, and whatever it is, she does it well. It’s the happiness she achieves in service that is so remarkable. Maybe that’s what her first day of teaching taught her. In 1945, she was assigned to replace Sr. Editha mid-year, at Junipero Serra School in Carmel. Well that was St. Valentine’s Day and Sr. Catherine commented that “Sr. Editha held down the fort until I arrived, but I got all the Valentines.” What a sweet start to a life of service!
After 30 years of classroom teaching (including 10 wonderful years at Holy Family School in Honolulu), and a master’s of library science from the University of Hawaii, Sr. Catherine transitioned from classroom teacher and school administrator to librarian and archivist. For almost 20 years, she served as librarian to Notre Dame High School, San Jose and then College of Notre Dame, Belmont. Upon retiring, she assisted with Archives for the California Province and, in 2009, when she really retired, she happily said yes to helping out as a receptionist and office assistant for staff projects. Sr. Catherine’s life continues to be about answering her great-great aunt’s question: Why are we here, if not to help?
Sr. Catherine reflects that “knowing that this is my vocation has kept me going. The rough years made me stronger. It’s been a beautiful life.”
To be sure, her life of service reflects the charism of St. Julie, but Sr. Catherine also heeds the call to service from St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, “If you always love one another, if you always uphold one another, you will be capable of working wonders!”
Working wonders is what Sr. Catherine has always done, as teacher, as librarian, as a Sister and friend.
* St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier founded the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd in France. She was known for her work with prostitutes and women in danger, and of caring for those who were neglected.