Deborah L. Humphreys

Going to the Edge

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“Going to the Edge/Putting out into the Deep”


Meeting of the Sisters of Charity Federation

in the Vincentian-Setonian Tradition

18 May 2006



among us

years, words that are familiar

prayers known by heart

snatches of song that take us back

to a specific year, place


that waking up

to surprise headlines

Dewey defeats Truman

Pearl Harbor, or being there

9/11, never forgetting

as if yesterday where we were

november 22, 1963

or a particular september 8 or october 1st

when we left home and how

we came to this today

our toes into the tide

of an already swirling millennium



WHO HAS KNOWN (sound/photo montage St. Louis Jesuits, Gentle Night,  OCP)


Oh the depths of the riches of God

And the breath of the wisdom and knowledge of God

For who has known the mind of God

to Him be glory forever.

The virgin will carry a child and give birth

And his name shall be called Emmanuel

For who has known the mind of God

to Him be glory forever.

The people in darkness have seen a great light

For a child has been born, his dominion is wide

For who has known the mind of God

to Him be glory forever.



what we have before us

is the sea

yet another invitation

to put out into the deep


we are drawn to this place

living water, earth that is silken

under foot, currents whipping above

our heads, and whispers


this is a place of vocation


being caught up, carried away

by adventure, the  risk

of a promise of life that defies

description, then expectation



 “Let mission measure what you have and what you do with what you have.”   (TBC)   

 photo of reflection of cathedral under water in Branch Brook Park


would you

if your sister

your brother, your father, your mother


if a stranger, a straggler, a neighbor

if the next moment, the coming season

if your life, your soul, perhaps our planet

depended upon this,


would you


            work with and for the poor

            alleviate suffering and dispel ignorance

            promote social justice  (1993 General Assembly)


(provincial missioning card)


Why wouldn’t we look deeply at our current realities through a reflection of our experiences on water in interaction with our Vision Statement.

Reflection. Action. Transformation.


One of our sisters begins a discussion with her students by telling them in developing countries women walk an average of four miles each day “to fetch water.” It is not just the fact, but the mental image of that reality that becomes the education.. Who goes to get the water? Is it the mother? How long does it take—there and back? What is the weather like on this day we have in our mind?  Does she have to bring her young children?  How much water can be carried at one time? How heavy are the containers? At what age do girls begin this task? In Morocco, school attendance for girls rose 20% over 4 years when water taps were moved closer to the villages.


“. . .ministry requires a creative response to the needs of the people of God. Faithful to the Gospel and in light of our growing awareness of global interdependence, we place ourselves on the side of the poor.”


At home we carry our own water with us, small plastic bottles, maybe flavored. Gourmet water, maybe carbonated. We may not realize it, but even store brand bottled water is $4.00 a gallon as costly as gasoline. Water is the new oil.


“We commit ourselves to reverence and care for the earth and to live simply in a world of materialism.”


Some wars are over questions of land, others, over oil, the next may be over water resources. Our use of oil, of energy may turn water against us, as well as the non-Christian peoples of the world.  We have seen what happens when water rises and washes over larger areas of continents, when hurricanes strengthen from high ocean temperatures, when arrogance and incompetence and unknowing mix as surely as currents of wind and water.


“We commit ourselves to work toward the elimination of the struggle for power by embracing gentleness and courage in a world of oppression and violence.”



In order to meet the demand for cheap beef for the developed world, rain forests are slashed and burned.  This eliminates the major natural way of removing greenhouse gases from the air and thus contributes to global warming.


“We commit ourselves to work toward political, economic, social, and ecclesial systems that foster justice for all.”




you, my friends, my sisters, remember your own story

in another place among another group of women

you’re hearing ours

together they form

our beginnings in charity

a handful of beginnings among many


origins are the stuff of myth

myths that are our footprints

one path up the mountain

from this point we see

the meeting of waters

the muddy and the clear

moving together

always moving


When we are asked to deepen our appreciation of Vincent, Elizabeth and Mother Xavier as we move to the future, we do so by revisiting their less often told stories. Those stories serve as the lens of our own struggles with fidelity—not the successes, not the new buildings, fresh initiatives or even the satisfied piling up of year after year of September openings, but the Monday morning risings that are our acts of fidelity.


we are drawn to this place

with the best of intentions

and at times

we are the dry clumps of grass

waiting for the sea to be pulled

in and over us

show we can hold firm



There is a footprint, so to speak of Mother Xavier in the census record of 1900. It provides a tender moment spanning generations, centuries.


like a mother

you were there waiting for us

your story and your secrets

just one question among us

“tell me how it was for you in your time.”



She is listed there. She is listed as “head” the others as inmates. We know she found administration difficult: but her life had been hard for a long time. Leaving Ireland just ahead of the Great Hunger, it may have been adventure or more likely necessity to her to lead an older sister on the voyage to America. But how was it that she found her way, a lace-maker, a sister considered frail who worked at the orphanage, and came in 1859 to stay in Newark and do what she did. God alone!


a wide net thrown back             

to dark days, to plain

street, cobbled roads and

promise, visions tossed up

like a dozen sizzling suns


clever fisher, you pull us in

safe toward a difficult shore



We want to compare these with our own experiences. We want to feel their pull with the same intensity as the more famous quotes attributed to our founders. How could she keep going from strength to strength.  And for decades. We might like to share our own

experiences with her:





we move to yet another place

not knowing exactly where

to find the serving spoons, the fuse box

or if there is sufficient

light for the fragile

plants some will insist on carrying

like the statue on michaelmas


where we are going

is where we are already


standing curious as moses



Do we think about the missions closed in those early days, how curriculums and plans were proposed and abandoned for seen or unforeseen circumstances, how misunderstandings with bishops, priests, sister servants, and former members were handled, easily or not?  What was the discomfort, insecurity and heartache that lay just beneath the handwritten words that are still there in the correspondence?

Where do we place our burdens:


soft sunlight. we are

grateful for the small mercies

the cool speckled leaf



Did Mother Xavier and the early members of the Company of Charity find creativity in their contemplation, their wits, their drive, the desire to be of service? What did “God Alone” mean to them? Was it like Vincent’s “holy indifference”? What were their experiences of wisdom, love, friendship and sacrament? Who were these flesh and bone and soul women and aren’t we like them?


some have the eyes for stars, words

for a particular shade of moon, predictions

for tomorrow’s air, the weight of white

chips, shavings from the blue-night sky


others have the gift for threads

knotwork of details for company or truth

like a tangled silver chain among friends

glimmers of polished links turned arm into arm

shortening the road



And we have gone from St. Patrick’s on Bleeker Street to TBC (Toward Boundless Charity, the Constitution of the Sisters of Charity) a huge leap into the  future and it still inspires us with language that points to our current challenges.


Ours is a “mission spirituality” that calls us “to reach out into the world, to feel its want—and through this common experience to uncover anew the God of our times.” “In the concrete we are avowed to answer with our entire lives today’s abrasive questions: Is such a Gospel still viable? Can we who hear it create a peace, live in love, and die alive for another’s sake?” “. . .all possible forms of spirituality meet, and through faith, each member becomes “sister” to the whole world of “others.”


We are directed to work “in the world and pray(s) in the idiom of its work.


What makes our tomorrows or collection of tomorrows different than that of the founders.


Instrumental montage: new chapel at Maris Stella, the jetty at the lighthouse, a small bird on a rock in Donegal.


tree of life


some trees give

shade, the briefest showers of pink-edged

china petals in the face of wind

the frosted whiteness of birch or the witness of oak

some trees are like that


            we are not some trees


we are the brave ones, native to this city block

with the stinky, gooey blood of battle

around the gnashes, the gnarly bumps


            we are these

proud trees, kin to the tree of life

in a distant eden. here on thomas street

magaly, edwin, and latoya together

stretch to look up to see

tiny swatches of green wave teasingly

safe at the top, then turn insides out

to announce the coming of yet another storm


            we are not just some trees

look at the way we have grown up fast

along the concrete borders of a street

with red-clay rowhouses, the repetitious sounds of letters

escaping through kinderclass windows and the left-behind-for-us

memories of other families who have known

what we now see





we are going

again to the edge

there is nothing ahead

but mission

we are pulling out

again toward that boundless

charity, putting ourselves out there

into the deep




  • Poetry, script, design: Deborah L. Humphreys SC
  • Theme development: Eileen Bradshaw SC, Ellen Dauwer SC, June Favata SC, Carol Johnston SC, Noreen Neary SC, Mary Anne Rattigan SC and Marilyn Thie SC
  • Voices: Mary Dwyer SC, Noreen Neary SC, Deborah Humphreys SC
  • Photography: Deborah L. Humphreys SC, Soisear McKinney, Denis P. Humphreys, Pat Gordon (St. Vincent Academy), Donna Sartor (Communications Office, Sisters of Charity), Mary Dwyer SC, Judy Mertz SC (Josephine's Place) Lee, Min-Joo (photo of "Reflections of My Mind), and Irving Amen (photo of woodcut "the Dialogue")
  • Music: Duncan Beattie "nice E" and open source C", Bullon, "domingo por la tarde" and Colin Mutchler "My Life" all of these artists are on  with a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.5 License. Zygote Productions with Africeltic Andean Alambic on hold a CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license.  Creative Commons home page is
  • Additional music: St. Louis Jesuits "Who Has Known" from Gentle Night, Solas, "Patrick's Journey" from Solas an Chroi (OCP)
  • Some of the poetry used in this presentation is excerpted from Conventional Wisdom by Deborah L. Humphreys SC (Wasteland Press, 2003)