A Pearl of great price
Sister celebrates her Native past, while
serving those who ‘hunger for the Lord’
By Charlene Scott Myers
Special to the Register
An old song says that when Irish eyes are smiling, they chase all your cares away. The eyes of Sister Virginia Pearl, CSJ, are a combustible combination: Irish and American Indian, and they brighten a room like a candle in a dark space.
A sister of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, she recently was one of two sisters in the Diocese of Dodge City nominated for the Catholic Church Extension Society’s 2012 Lumen Christi awards.
The other nominee is Sister Matilde Reyna Donis Monterroso, MCMI, of Guatemala, who has been Parish Life Coordinator at St. Alphonsus Church in Satanta for 10 years and soon will serve in Kenya.
“I didn’t want to become a sister, but the Lord kept calling me!” said a laughing Sister Virginia, a chaplain for the past 20 years at the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility and the Larned State Hospital, and a teacher for many years previously.
“I thought being a sister would be dull,” she admitted. A descendant of Potawatomie Indians, she was born at St. Mary’s, Kansas 20 miles west of Topeka, where the first bishop of Kansas, John Baptiste Miege, a Jesuit, began his work among the Potawatomie.
Consecrated a bishop in St. Louis on March 25, 1851, Bishop Miege was invited by the Jesuits to establish his See at St. Mary’s Mission. The mission served the Potawatomie Nation, which included 3,500 Indians living in small villages on 30 square miles of land. Bishop Miege built the first cathedral in Kansas there out of logs.
“Bishop Miege chose my great-grandfather, who came to this country from Ireland, to be the driver of his carriage,” beamed Sister Virginia. “My great-grandmother, his wife, was Potawatomie.”
Her great-grandfather had to drive the bishop extremely long distances.
The “diocese” then was known as The Apostolic Vicariate of Indian Territory east of the Rocky Mountains. This ecclesial territory included a vast area that later would become Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana and Wyoming. Parts of North and South Dakota, west of the Missouri River, and a large portion of Colorado, were also in the vicariate.
“Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne (proclaimed a saint by Pope John Paul II on July 3, 1988) taught my great-grandmother her prayers at Sugar Creek,” Sister Virginia added.
Sister Virginia’s ancestors were among the 859 Potawatomie who walked the “Trail of Death” from September to November of 1838 in a U.S. forced removal from St. Joseph, Michigan, to Sugar Creek, Kansas, beside the Osage settlement.
“Only 650 of the 859 Indians made it to Kansas,” she said. “Many of them (mostly the elderly and children) died along the way, and some ran away at night.”
Sister Virginia was one of 33 women featured in the book A Passion of Her Own, Life-Path Journeys with Women of Kansas. In the book, published in 2004, she tells the story of her ancestors’ “Trail of Death.”
“The Potawatomie people walked for 60 days at gunpoint,” she wrote. “It was such a deep injustice.”
The federal government had passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, forcing thousands of Indians westward on foot or by wagon from their eastern homelands. Cherokees from Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee staggered across nine states in a winter march, the Trail of Tears, to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), losing 4,000 to death along the way.
The Potawatomie who survived and their descendants were hardy folks, Sister Virginia pointed out. “I have an Indian cousin, Theresa Slaven Reed, who lives in Wheeler, Texas, and is 108 years old!”
Sister Virginia is a passionate advocate for the Native American community in the United States.
“My mother would tell us about her grandmother on ‘the long walk,’ she recalled. “Her voice would change, and her face would turn white. Her grandmother didn’t know when her parents had died, but she lived when so many children died. Her name was Equa ke sec, which means “the rising generation, the one who lives on.”
Sister Virginia’s Indian name is Na Mi Kwa, which means “Praying Woman.” (The Potawatomie had named Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne “Woman-Who-Prays-Always” because in her old age she would pray all night in their chapel.)
In 1997, the summer before Mother Teresa died, Sister Virginia met her in Calcutta and volunteered to work with the dying. A nun handed her a baby girl just a few days old found in a suitcase stolen by a thief. Sister Virginia cared for the infant, who was named “Teresa” after Mother Teresa.
The baby—like Sister Virginia’s great-grandmother--lived while so many others died.
Sister Virginia, a pastoral minister at Larned’s Mental Health Facility, has a heart for the poor, and for men, women, and youth who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“I began working at the Larned Mental Health Facility, the Larned Youth Center, and Larned State Hospital 20 years ago,” she said.
She now serves only at the Mental Health facility, where she offers Communion services twice weekly, and prayer services for the incarcerated who wish to pray.
“It is a gift to be able to minister to them,” she added. “These men desire so deeply to come to pray. I cannot tell you the depth of these mens’ faith. They hunger for the Lord.”
After more than half a century as a religious sister, does she still think it is a dull vocation?
“I’ve never had a dull moment in my 52 years as a sister!” she answered with a hearty laugh.
“I call it a delight to be able to serve the Lord. I love my life!”