The following is an excerpt from “The Northeastern Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Wilton, CT, 1989-2005,” by Sister Kay O’Connell, SSND.
From the five scenarios presented by the Council at its 2002 all-province day as “seeds” of possible new ministries, two resulted in new sponsored ventures of the Wilton Province: the Notre Dame Learning Center in Rochester, NY (covered previously at this link) and the SSND Educational Center in Jamaica, Queens. Much effort and dialogue went into their evolution, which proceeded “according to research, desires, needs and visibility.” (Current newsletter, September 2002)
The Council announced in the same issue that Cathy Feeney, SSND would be the convener for what was called at that time “The SSND Theresa Center,” at an unspecified location in the New York area. Each convener was asked to call together sisters and associates to probe possibilities and present proposals for their ministries to the Council at the Spring 2003 Assembly.
In her role as convener of what was then known as Theresa Center, Sister Cathy met on a regular basis for more than a year with Sisters Janice Algie, Jean McLoughlin, Dorothy Kosarko, Daniella O’Sullivan, Michaela Durkin, and Mary Lennon. They visited places of similar nature already established in other congregations, explored possible sites, and discerned together the specific purpose this venture would take: a place where underserved women would be able to have their educational and spiritual needs met. The SSND mission that integrates prayer, community, and ministry was a strong backdrop for each decision. A proposal was presented to the Council and to the March 28-30, 2003 Provincial Assembly.
The minutes of that Assembly note that the group had located an available former convent at St. Clement Pope Parish in a predominantly black area of southeastern Queens, South Ozone Park/Jamaica. People of the neighborhood were African American, Caribbean, Haitian, Ghanaian and Nigerian, lower-middle class to poverty level. Pastor Joe Deale was “more than welcoming, eager to rent the convent and to see it used for the needs of the people rather than just office space.” (The Brooklyn Tablet, November 2003)
By this time, Sisters Cathy, Jean and Janice had been appointed by the Council to be staff for the evolving venture. Each had experienced ministry with multicultural, impoverished people. Around that same time, 17 women from St. Clement Parish met with the three sisters to speak about what they saw as the needs of the community. GED programs for women came up repeatedly, as it did when the sisters later spoke to civic and church leaders. This focus for the new center was written into the proposal presented to the March 2003 Assembly. It read, “basic literary skills, preparation for the GED test, some English as a Second Language, as well as basic skills for shopping, banking, talking to their children’s teachers, and obtaining medical help.” (Assembly minutes, March 2003)
These women also expressed a desire to be nourished spiritually and an eagerness to be involved themselves in meeting the needs they saw. “We are sisters, we will help you,” they declared at one meeting, when the listed needs threatened to be overwhelming. Twelve women from the parish quickly became auxiliary staff, not volunteers. Some had made their way into the work world after achieving the GED themselves. They were able to encounter and encourage the women coming to the Center and to do many supportive tasks and services. “We are a community working together,” Sister Jean told the Tablet.
On August 16, 2003, in the midst of a New York City power outage, Cathy, Jean and Janice moved into the second floor of the convent, which had been designated as their community space, while the basement and first floor became the Center. Within a few weeks, they asked Sister Jeanette Blatz to assist them with planning. At their first meeting with her, it was decided that Cathy would serve as executive director, Janice as general education diploma coordinator, and Jean as outreach coordinator, as well as pastoral associate at St. Clement. All would teach.
The new staff then formed an advisory committee, a ground of SSNDs who met regularly over two years until a board of directors was formed. Sisters Jeannette Blatz, Claire Bonneau, Jane Halligan, Katherine Lawless, and Theresa Torsone arrived at the name for the Center, designed an outdoor sign, wrote a mission statement, planned a dedication ceremony, and advised the staff on countless matters.
On August 20, 2003, a “mop brigade” of sisters, associates, relatives and friends arrived to finish up the fine cleaning and organizing that were needed after the painting and heavy cleaning had been done by companies hired by the parish. The well-built former Dominican convent was by now furnished with donations from SSND houses, family and friends.
During Fall 2003, after a Sunday Mass, the entire parish processed to the first floor of the convent, which had been transformed into the SSND Educational Center. “It
was a powerful witness to the neighborhood that we were alive and well,” Father Diele said. Wilton SSNDs planned to gather on December 7 to dedicate the Center with prayer and ritual, but a storm prevented many from coming. They were finally welcomed the following Spring.
For its first year, the province provided $60,000 for the Center; in its second year, $30,000 was promised; and in year three they received $15,000. In the proposal to the Wilton Assembly, future funding hopes included several potential sources: the City School Board, grant writing, SSND Generalate Educational Fund, Diocesan Fund for Black Catholics, full-time volunteers such as retired teachers, and students from St. John’s University coming in as tutors. (Brooklyn Tablet, 2004)
On April 24, 2004, the delayed open house welcomed about 50 visitors. Sister Jeannette Blatz wrote, in the June 2004 issue of Current, about the highlight of the gathering. “Two panels of local women, either students of auxiliary staff, spoke from their hearts about what the Center already meant to them. Their presentation were interrupted time and again by spontaneous applause.
Today, the SSND Educational Center is still going strong, thanks to support from local businesses, politicians, members of the community, and the hard work of the sisters involved. To read more SSND EC success stories, click here. To donate to the Center, please click here.