Friends for Life show support for Sisters of St. Joseph

| Julie Pfitzinger for The Catholic Spirit | January 3, 2012 | 1 Comment

Alumni who are thankful for education they received from sisters are now raising funds to benefit their current ministries

CSJ Friends for Life

Friends for Life committee members Mike Flood, left, St. Joseph Sister Irene O’Neill, Kevin Berg and Bill Miley gather in Sister Irene’s office for a photo after a recent meeting. Not pictured are two other committee members: Tony Coffey and Mitch Berg (Kevin’s brother). Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Back in the days when Bill Miley was a high school student at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, he was still known as a “Luker” — someone who had attended St. Luke’s grade school (now St. Thomas More) in St. Paul.

“I had  classmates who were always known as Markers — they were the kids who went to St. Mark’s,” said Miley, who lives in St. Paul.

Miley is one of many local Catholic school alumni who still identify strongly with their elementary school roots and have great fondness for the education they received from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who once operated not only St. Luke’s  and St. Mark’s schools, but Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, St. Joseph in West St. Paul and others.

Giving support

“We were really fortunate to receive an education from the sisters and fortunate that our parents made the sacrifices to make sure we had that opportunity,” said Miley, one of nine children. “The sisters have done so much for our whole community.”

As a result, a group of former Catholic school students — now grown with children of their own — have launched an initiative called Friends for Life. Their immediate goal is to raise $500,000 to help support the ministry network founded by the sisters, who are currently working with the Twin Cities immigrant population in several different areas, including the Learning in Style English language program in Minneapolis and several St. Mary’s Health Clinics, which provide health care to more than 12,000 uninsured patients each year.

Members of the Friends group have been meeting on a regular basis for the past nine months. In addition to some individual donor fundraising efforts, there has also been a “friendly challenge” established by Lukers including Miley, Michael Flood and Mary Pat McManus Weir, encouraging other Catholic school alumni to raise $50,000 per school or family to  help fund and name a classroom or other ministry space.

“We thought the St. Luke’s group would be perfect to take the lead because so many of us get together on regular basis,” Miley said. “Our goal is to bring more people into this effort and enlarge the circle of support for the sisters.”

“This is a phenomenal effort by people in their 40s and 50s who believe so strongly in the education they received from the sisters. They really consider their elementary schools to be like family,” said St. Joseph Sister Irene O’Neill, a Friends for Life committee member. “Their gratitude is multiplying in ways that will greatly benefit today’s immigrant population.”

Life-changing ministries

Learning in Style, a free program based in Minneapolis, offers adult immigrants 18 and older the opportunity to learn English, math, computer skills and citizenship.

Alice Poon, a Chinese immigrant now living  in Minneapolis, attended Learning in Style six years ago, not long after arriving in the Twin Cities. She had no English skills and no job prospects. Now in her early 40s, Poon credits the sisters with changing her life.

“I knew I needed to learn English. There are so many teachers at Learning in Style that helped me,” she said. “I had zero computer skills and they taught me about those, too.”

Poon was a full-time student at the school for two years. Today, she works as a supervisor in the food and beverage department for a local hotel. She also volunteers at Learning in Style every Friday in the reception area and often encourages other immigrants she knows to enroll in the program.

“A lot of people don’t know about Learning in Style. It is such a good school and everybody gets the benefits,” Poon said. “My life would be so different if they didn’t give me my education. I feel like I am part of this place.”

Weir, who volunteers at St. Mary’s Health Clinic in Maplewood, said she believes in helping the sisters carry on their mission of service to today’s immigrant population and credits the CSJs with working to fill many unmet needs.

“They have such a history of being good stewards of their resources,” she said. “The Friends for Life group is a ‘stake in the ground’ to help the sisters meet the commitment they have made to help immigrants become more independent.”

Weir, who came from a family of six children, attended St. Luke’s at a time when there were 1,000 students enrolled in the school. (Her husband, Mike, an alumni from St. Joseph’s, is also involved in Friends for Life).

“St. Paul would not be St. Paul without its Catholic schools,” she said. “Our group is just hoping to tap into the community of those who benefited from that tradition. It’s also a way for all of us to honor our parents and the way they supported the sisters and Catholic education.”

Future plans

Plans are currently under way for an old-fashioned school mixer — an event that will be familiar to graduates of the St. Paul Catholic schools who may have attended the traditional gatherings when they were younger — at a time and location to be determined. According to Miley, this will also provide another fund­raising and “friend-raising” opportunity.

“Our message is all about giving something back to the sisters who gave us so much,” he said. “We want to support them however they need us to do it.”

More information is available at the Friends for Life website, including contact information for Sr. Irene O’Neill, who can provide tours of the sisters’ ministry center in Minneapolis.

Miley said the Friends for Life committee is also looking for additional Catholic school alumni for the identified schools listed on the website  to serve as fundraising captains for each school or grade.

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