Wednesday, April 25, 2012

“Pioneers! O [Dearest] Pioneers!”

I’ve had reason this week to glance over my shoulder at the Daughters’ 80-year history in the U.S. A maestra of the unexpected, Sister Concetta Belleggia left us somewhat suddenly at the age of 95. Since her arrival from Italy in 1949, only seventeen years after our U.S. founding, she had been a teacher, sister, mentor, mother, and friend to generations of us. Mother Paula Cordero and our first sisters had set down roots in New York in 1932, but regardless of the progress that the community had made, Sr. Concetta found a lot of building and building up to do. She didn’t quit until last Friday.

On second thought, she didn’t really quit and probably never will:
Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
In his ringing poem about U.S. westward expansion, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”, Walt Whitman extols the courage and perseverance of those who forged ahead to the farthest reaches of the continent. Controversial to be sure, what with the agony and ecstasy of our nation’s imagined Manifest Destiny and the toll it took on everyone in the pioneers’ path. Even so he sees in them the model for all Americans’ march into the future.

I’m not using it in that way. If you’ll allow me a romantic moment, I’m thinking of Sr. Concetta and the other Paulines of the “elder races” from Italy who came here. There was plenty of agony and ecstasy among them, too. In her eulogy, Sr. Leonora Wilson recalled that Sr. Concetta was one of the original group of seven sisters prepared in theology for the writing apostolate by the founder, Blessed James Alberione. She filled many roles in her long religious life, each with its particular joys and challenges: dean of studies, director of the editorial department, translator, teacher, novice director, local superior, provincial superior, and more. But the need to write and make the faith known, in spite of genuine obstacles especially in the field of catechetics, seemed to be what she felt most passionately.

She also encouraged us to contribute to the mission by writing. How often she repeated that if we studied, we had to give back by writing. Today, “writing” has morphed into composing, singing, speaking, clicking, drawing, producing, and connecting in a myriad of media ways. The principle remains the same: “What you have received as a gift, give as a gift” (Mt. 10:38). So in Sr. Concetta, I also hear God’s call to us to “take up the task eternal” of the Church’s mission at the service of the Good News in this part of the world.

Sr. M. Joseph Peterson adjusts a sketch for a children's book.
Not an easy task. It certainly wasn’t for her. In starting new projects and establishing new structures, the risk of failure was always there. But she lived by Alberione’s words: “Those who do things make mistakes. But those who do nothing make the biggest mistake of all!” You had to be tough to do what she did; all of them were. In these days as we recalled her early years among us, we agreed that she had what it took, sometimes at our expense. She was strong and often exacting. “Good enough” just wasn’t in her lexicon.

Sr. Bernardine Sattler writes: “Anyone who worked with Sr. Concetta knows that every word [she wrote] was important [to her], and it pained her to have to condense an article. But a magazine was only so many pages. I remember going once up to Mother Paula's office to show Sr. Concetta a blueprint [of an issue]. Mother Paula was busy writing to the local communities and turned us out. Sr. Concetta reached for a pen to make corrections. My response was, ‘Oh, no you don’t! It's too late to make corrections now. We don't print on elastic paper, so you can’t add anything else.’ We started bantering back and forth. At one point Mother Paula looked over at me and scolded me for answering Sr. Concetta that way. Sr. Concetta piped up and said, ‘That's OK. It used to be that if I said anything to her, she would just start crying. Now, at least, we can have some good arguments!’”

She brooked no nonsense, but we also knew she loved us all to death! We were her “dearest,” as she always addressed us, and we believed her, especially as she mellowed in later years. Unlike Fagin’s “my dear,” it was sincere, even when she was none too pleased. She learned how to temper her perception of justice with mercy. To one of our sisters, distressed over a family situation, Sr. Concetta said, half-lightly, half-seriously: “There are not seven sacraments, but eight. The eighth is ignorance and it will save more than the other seven! Remember, God is mercy, and his heart is greater than ours. Let us make him known!”

Out with Sr. Catherine Bernadette Bennett
Sr. Concetta was very much a person “of the moment.” This gave her an unhurried, though far from laid back, approach to life. It often made her late for meals, meetings, or errands—much to Mother Paula’s consternation (and not just hers). Yet, it made her a willing listener especially in formation and community. So did her probing intellect and her openness to learn from those she trusted inside or outside the congregation—lay, clerical, or religious.

While she did not have a broad cultural background in the arts or physical sciences, she enjoyed beautiful things, especially nature, and she often chose nature scenes for the covers of our editions. When it came to what hung on our walls, though, she had little interest in anything that had no direct bearing on the spiritual life or the Pauline mission. I remember her tearing apart pictures of nature that my father had artistically framed, to insert a photo of the founders or one of our devotions, whether colors and sizes matched or not. Her lack of appreciation for music and her unfamiliarity with literature outside of Italian classics was proverbial, a source of amazement and sometimes amusement to those who were passionate about art. She simply could not sing. Whenever she tried, those around her predicted that it would rain. This past Sunday and Monday we faced not just April showers, but a real Nor’easter. Somebody quipped that she had sung up the storm.

A sister asked me if she had mastered English well enough to work successfully in editorial. Yes, definitely, and she worked with a team of capable authors and editors. Conversation was a different story. She usually understood expressions, but in using them herself, didn’t always put the words in the right order. One sister tells how Sr. Concetta one day turned around “What on earth are you doing?” to “What are you doing on this earth?” Once she saw the reaction, she continued to say it that way—on purpose!

At lunch after the funeral, some of us were talking about the spirituality she shared with most of us in one way or another. Her natural bent toward detail made her connect moral “perfection” with doing even small things well. What saved her, literally, was her faith in Jesus, her model, the Truth she lived for, the Life she longed for. Instead of insisting on these small matters out of sheer natural motives, she focused on him. In this way, while she didn’t equate holiness with doing all the right things, she was convinced that attentiveness to them, mindful living, could lead her there, if with her mind, will, and heart she remained patterned on Jesus and motivated by love for him. Like many of us, she had to learn how not to sweat the small stuff.
O to die advancing on!...
Pioneers! O pioneers!
Reverence for the magisterium, or teaching office, of the Church played a major role in that spirituality of hers, as it did in what Bl. Alberione handed on to us through her. That magisterium, by the way, was not just that of the pope, but of the bishops, as well. One Christ, one Church, one unbroken line of pastors that stretches back to the Apostles, our connection in faith with Christ. If today the Daughters in the U.S. are passionate about our place and role within the whole Church, it’s due in no small part to Sr. Concetta. At this polarizing moment in the history of religious life in the U.S., it’s worth recalling her witness to the unity of the Church with its pastors, that bore itself out time and again in who she was and what she did. Through her legacy and her prayers, Sr. Concetta is still building up the body of Christ and the community she loves.
For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


  1. What a lovingly reflective tribute, one that teaches in the manner she modeled.

  2. With faith in Jesus Christ, Our Lord, the Resurrection and Lord of Divine Mercy, let us join in prayer to Our Eternal Father in heaven:

    Eternal rest grant unto Sr. Concetta Bellegia, FSP, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace. Amen.


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